Food Network Wales – working for a better food system

school kitchen counter

By Pamela Mason

Working for a better food system in Wales is something that few would argue with. We know the issues linked with food, from obesity to climate change, from poor remuneration for farmers to the demand for food banks. Many people and organisations across Wales including civil society groups, the private and public sectors and Welsh government are working on these things. Yet, despite Wales being a small country where people make good connections with one another, many people whose work is linked to food work don’t always know what others are doing. When that happens, we miss the opportunity to gain from each other’s knowledge and experience, and progress towards the better food system we all want to see is very slow.

With this in mind, during the past 12 months or so, a small group of us who live in Wales and are strongly engaged with food in academia, business, civil society, the public sector or as health professionals, have come together to discuss how we can help to make the food connections across Wales work better. To that end, we have developed the concept for a new network, Food Network Wales, in which we hope to work together with as many people and organisations as possible. We have produced a consultation document which summarises our thinking to date and how we, by joining together with what we hope will be a wide variety of civil society groups, farming and food businesses, academics, health professionals and public sector bodies, hope we can create a space for networking, thinking, knowledge exchange and research towards this better food system we want.

The problems linked with food are well known. In Wales almost a quarter of adults are obese and less than a third are eating their five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Climate change, associated with a greater risk of flooding, is already having an impact on food production. Poverty has increased in Wales during recent years making it difficult for people on low incomes to access a good healthy diet. Food bank use has increased. Small family farms, which make such a vital contribution to Welsh culture and Welsh language, as well as being producers of some of Wales’ best food, continue to decrease in number. Brexit could have a devastating effect on family farms and severely affect food resilience and food poverty.

The Well-Being of Future Generations Act creates a huge opportunity to focus on the improvement of the food system from increasing the availability of healthy, affordable food for all the people of Wales, reducing carbon emissions and biodiversity loss to supporting farmers in the strengthening of shorter supply chains and improving social cohesion around community food initiatives. The Act offers a particular opportunity to help children and young people learn more about food, how to grow it and how to cook it.

Food Network Wales wants to get people together who are concerned about the food system and want to work to improve things. We see Food Network Wales as being a dynamic, progressive organisation acting a hub for engagement and debate across a broad range of stakeholders in food and farming. We think that strengthening short supply chains and getting more local food on to the public plate will be key interests for many who join this network. We also think this new organisation will play an active role in raising awareness around food, sharing information with a wide range of people and collaborating on research. We are also developing a Food Manifesto for Wales, which we hope will be recognised by the general public and adopted by Welsh governmental and non-governmental organisations, businesses and health professionals.

We aim to provide an ‘umbrella’ under which everyone with an interest in the food system in Wales – farmers, growers, processors, retailers and consumers, as well as academics and healthcare professionals – can gather for the benefit of all. We hope you will share our vision, not to mention excitement, for the potential that Food Network Wales offers to make for a better food system in Wales today, tomorrow and for future generations of Wales. Let’s do this together.

You can download a short introduction here in Welsh and English. We’d love to hear your views and you can do this by responding to our on-line survey:

Cwblhewch yr arolwn yn y Gymraeg

Complete the survey in English

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire. 

A living room at the heart of a Valleys community

By Pamela Mason

All our living rooms say something about us and what’s important to us. And a new living room, Yr Ystafell Fyw in the Rhymney Valley in South Wales, very much reflects the values of the community that established it. When you walk through the front door into this very comfortable cafe, you cannot help but notice the ease of access (no steps), the bowl of water for dogs, the open kitchen and serving area, how light it is, the soft chairs and sofas, and the pictures on the wall, many locally commissioned.

An initiative of the Church in Wales Parish of Bedwellty and New Tredegar, Yr Ystafell Fyw is a living room created to improve health and well-being in its communities. As a café, food is at the heart of its work. All of this in a place where community is still very much alive but, with its industry now largely gone, one that thrives less than it once did. It’s a community that runs a food bank but knows that’s an inadequate response to the problems of poverty that cause the fridge to become bare. In running the food bank, the community became more aware of what it already knew, that people needed more than a food parcel. Having worked in this food bank on one busy morning, I still remember how as the range of breakfast cereals began to reduce, I was the one who decided what people would take home to eat. It was uncomfortable. No one should have control of what another household gets to eat.

Leah at Ystafell Fyw

Revd Leah Philbrick serves tea at Yr Ystafell Fyw

Food has a very different place in the Living Room, although many of the people who visit have the same problems as those visiting the food bank. Revd Leah Philbrick, who with Revd Dr Rosie Dymond is a Director of The Living Room, emphasises that food here is about giving hospitality and raising the ‘feel good’ factor of the visitors. “We aspire to serve the best coffee in the Rhymney Valley,” she adds. Not for its own sake but to help people feel good about themselves. This is no small aim in area where unemployment remains high. Some of the crockery, like a 1930s dinner plate from New Tredegar, speaks of the valley’s history and the coffee is served in china cups and saucers. The cake is home-made, as much of the food as possible is locally sourced, and it’s all presented in the form of a lovely treat, yet in responsibly small portions so that no one need overeat the delicious cake.

Food and drink is not the only or even main  aim of the Living Room. It’s about providing a space where people can share those problems that the food bank cannot alleviate and it’s a space for prayer and meditation. There is a kitchen table around which people gather to enjoy food and listen to each another. A large wooden clock in one corner strikes every quarter of an hour as a reminder of the importance of a time to be silent, while a small red desk in another corner reminds of the importance of meeting face to face rather than just on social media.

Like the community pharmacy which was once located in the space occupied by the Living Room, Yr Ystafell Fyw is about health and well-being in the community. But unlike the pharmacy, now sited a few hundred yards away adjacent to a doctor’s surgery, The Living Room is not a about providing a public service, but rather a space for the community run by the community. And as a Community Interest Company (CIC), the Living Room is a social enterprise that will use its profits and assets for the public good. What is interesting, though, is that both the pharmacy and the surgery are beginning to refer people to the Living Room for that essential prescription of “Time to Listen and Space to Share”.

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire.

 

Sustainable diets: the big question

By Pamela Mason

How can huge populations be fed sustainably – healthily, equitably and affordably – while maintaining the ecosystems on which humanity depends? In a new book I have co-authored with Professor Tim Lang from City University, we explore this very big question. The evidence of diet’s impact on public health and the environment has grown in recent decades, yet changing food supply and consumer habits proves hard with policy makers hesitant to reshape public eating habits.Pam book cover (2)

Although it has traditionally been assumed that food production and consumption can look after themselves or be left to the open market, human activity across the food system is driving a mismatch between humans and the planet. While this mismatch is recognised, there is wide debate as to what to do about it. Much focus to date has been on food production and how that can be made more sustainable. Such effort needs to continue, but in this book, we focus on the demand side and what sustainable diets would look like.

Sustainable diets are often considered to be those that are good for the environment and hence low in carbon. However, we propose a multi-criteria approach to sustainable diets, giving equal weight to the environment, nutrition and public health, socio-cultural issues, food quality, economics and governance. This six-pronged approach to sustainable diets brings order and rationality to what either is seen as too complex to handle or is addressed simplistically and ineffectually.

In practical terms a sustainable diet means food that is culturally accessible, affordable and nutritionally adequate, and also respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems. Quite simply it’s a good diet. Globally, this will mean a diet with a high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruit and grains. For people in wealthy countries who enjoy meat, it will mean eating less but better, and for people in poorer countries whose diets may be based on staple carbohydrates with little or no meat, it may mean eating more.

Our rationale in the book for reducing meat consumption globally is that meat is increasingly produced on an industrial scale which relies heavily on feeding grain, often imported grain, to livestock. Globally, 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet as meat and other animal products. With growing numbers of people to feed, this is not a good use of land.

That said, and of relevance in Wales with its significant concentration on livestock farming, it is true that well-managed animal grazing, especially on the uplands, can be compatible with carbon sequestration in soils. But whether or not livestock production is environmentally viable depends on the extent to which it is integrated into ecosystems, landscapes, farming systems and livelihood activities. This is a challenge for farming, but appropriate support and the will to change where necessary could help to shift livestock production in a more sustainable direction.

However, more regenerative livestock farming should not deflect us from the dietary changes that are needed, in particular for more vegetables and legumes, which will require more horticulture and support for production and indeed consumption. In this context, the Food Foundation’s Peas Please initiative aims to bring together farmers, retailers, fast food and restaurant chains, caterers, processors and government departments with a common goal of making it easier for everyone to eat vegetables.

What we argue for in this book is the need for sustainable dietary guidelines at a national and local level to provide a framework for a transition in food systems. While the UK Eatwell Guide, revised in 2016, is a good step forward in providing guidance on healthy, sustainable diets, only Sweden, Germany, Brazil and Qatar have so far been clear about helping their citizens to change their diets in significant ways. In Wales, policy could help to shift the food system to deliver better quality food, accessible to everyone, delivering health for people and the environment, fairness for producers and all who work in the food system, with rounded economics and trusted governance. Sustainable dietary guidelines would help everyone in the food system to do what needs to be done for the benefit of future generations of people across Wales.

You can order Sustainable Diets: How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System, by Pamela Mason and Tim Lang, from this link.

What is the future for upland farming in Wales beyond CAP?

By Pamela Mason

The uplands are a key feature of the cultural landscape of Wales. They produce food, and public goods and services, including water and peat which sequesters carbon, as well as habitats for wildlife. People live and work there. These were among the main messages presented at a conference in Llanrwst, organized by Bangor University, RSPB Cymru, and Cynidr Consulting, with support from the Welsh Government. The conference, which created space for farmers to discuss the future of the uplands after Brexit, attracted an audience of 150 participants including farmers, academics, conservation bodies, and Government officials. There was agreement amongst speakers and participants around the need to create new policy fit for the future.

According to Kevin Austin (Head of Agricultural Strategy and Policy Unit at Welsh Government), the uplands are usually viewed through the prism of the farming economy, which is a problem. Farms in Less Favoured Areas (LFAs) do not make money and are increasingly attuned to diversifying and looking beyond farming for income. Uncertainty surrounds farm income after Brexit as different scenarios are put forward.  The uplands have become dependent on public money but support is decreasing everywhere so farmers cannot expect more money. However, the opportunity for upland farmers to deliver and be paid to deliver public goods is significant, including trees, hunting, walking, provision of energy and clean water, management of water flow, preservation of the Welsh language and management of peat bogs for carbon sequestration. Interventions should be targeted with payment by results.

Professor Peter Midmore (expert in agricultural economics, Aberystwyth University and author of Cherished Heartlands) highlighted the importance of the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 for uplands farming. Any outputs delivered through public funding, such as flood management or carbon storage systems, will have to contribute to the well-being goals stated in the WBFGA and there will be statutory targets for reducing carbon emissions and a new duty to reverse decline in biodiversity.

Gwyn Jones (European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism) talked about High Nature Value Farming (HNVF) again pointing to the public good they produce. However, how can we break the link between delivery of public goods and poor farm income, he asked. We should not ask farmers to deliver public goods for less than the minimum wage and there should a clear coherent vision shared by government and farmers.

Representing the uplands farming organization, Fairness for the Uplands, Tony Davies and Hefin Jones highlighted the risks of abandonment if farmers do not get public help. Discussing the opportunities, Tony Davies said woodland is a crop and an opportunity post-CAP if the government is prepared to pay, while Hefin Jones highlighted the need for a minimum wage post-Brexit with appropriate numbers of cattle and sheep grazing to keep the mountains in good condition and an emphasis on less but better meat with promotion of the taste qualities of grass fed meat.

RSPB Cymru Land Use Manager, Arfon Williams, said that farming is essential to the well-being of current and future generations in Wales. Until now, farming policies have largely encouraged more intensive farming practices that have squeezed spaces for nature and limited the environmental benefits that sustainable farming can provide. In Wales one in nine species is threatened with extinction. The challenge for upland farming is to deliver environmental benefits while also producing sustainable amounts of quality food and other commodities. The WBFGA and the Environment Act provide a real opportunity to create a Wales specific policy.

In conclusion, the conference highlighted the challenges of farming in the Welsh uplands and the need for farmers to be paid for providing public goods and services with consideration given to niche marketing of the tastier quality meat from the hills. Tourism brings in £3 billion a year to Wales and appropriate remuneration for uplands farmers will help to ensure that the uplands are enjoyed by all, provide habitat for wildlife, while maintaining the carbon sink, providing clean water to homes and businesses and controlling water flow to reduce flooding. A Wales specific policy with targeted interventions paying for results could offer a way forward.

Cutout hen and wellies

Teaching children where their food comes from

By Jane Powell

“What’s good about being a farmer?” Potato grower Walter Simon is taking questions from a class of seven-year-olds at Narberth Primary School in Pembrokeshire, and this question comes up five or six times. Each child gets a fresh answer: Because I love being outside. Because growing potatoes is an exciting challenge. Because every day is different. Because I am my own boss. Because I’m producing food which people need, so I’m doing something useful and that feels good.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. For him, a good job doesn’t mean high pay, long holidays or prestige, nor is it about comfort and security. He shares his sense of enjoyment, adventure and the satisfaction of serving others and belonging to your local community, and the children are enthralled. They are meeting someone whose job it is to grow their food, and they are waking up to an important fact of life – our dependence on a complex food supply chain which starts with farmers and other primary producers, and eventually reaches their plates. They begin to see their own place in the world, and it inspires a certain wonder and respect, from which curiosity flows, and a desire to learn more.

This is why the charity Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) and community development organization PLANED, in partnership with a range of farming and education partners including the NFU, the Healthy Schools Scheme and the National Park, are running a pilot project to reconnect Pembrokeshire children with the food chain. Children are engaging in an enquiry into the local food system, starting with food mapping workshops in the classroom and then taking them out into their local community to  survey food shops, interview shopkeepers and visit farms. They are also looking backwards and learning about a time when people didn’t get their food from large supermarkets, farms were mixed and people ate seasonally. That leads to a discussion about what the food chain of the future might look like – small-scale local production, large-scale intensive farms, or a mixture? What would they choose?

The potential of food education is huge. Farm visits, gardening, cookery, community meals, egg-hatching projects and so on give children an instant and powerful connection with the world outside the classroom and help them move outside the confines of a modern lifestyle which cuts them off from the natural world. Alongside all the science and geography that they learn in the context of exploring the food chain, they gain practical skills which bring confidence and self-respect, and which will serve them well in later life. They also meet people they otherwise wouldn’t, whether it’s a local retired person who comes in to help out with the garden or a business owner who has come to trade at a schoolyard farmers’ market.

The fundamental importance of food to our lives is hard to overstate, and yet all too often education about food and farming falls to the bottom of the list. When there is literacy and numeracy to fit into the school day besides all the usual demands of the academic curriculum, plus the Eisteddfod and a dozen other excitements on offer, it can be hard to persuade a school to cram yet another activity to into a crowded schedule. One way to do this is to show how so many curriculum requirements can be taught through food and farming, from art and global citizenship to geography and business. Another is to show the benefits of the outdoor classroom in engaging learners who might struggle in conventional settings, whether because they find it hard to sit still in a classroom, or because the natural environment opens up more sensory channels for learning.

It’s time for a more strategic approach. In England, the well regarded Food for Life scheme draws together home cooking in the kitchen, gardening, farm visits and community links into a single programme which runs across the whole school under the guidance of the school cook and the head teacher. It has been shown to  deliver many benefits, including increasing vegetable consumption for parents as well as children,  boosting the local economy through purchasing policies and starting to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. Originally Lottery-funded, the programme is now being commissioned by local authorities and even individual schools.

Could Wales do something like this? The Food and Fun programme developed by Food Cardiff and now extended to the rest of the country, where free school meals are provided over the summer holidays and linked to food education and physical activities, shows that there is a will to invest in children’s food. But it needs to go further, permeating the curriculum and the term-time ethos, and really engaging the younger generation in creating a better food system for the future, in partnership with their communities and business. It’s a particularly good time to do this now, as Wales is embarking on a major reform to the school curriculum, and has the new collaborative ethos of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

Our Food Values project showed how deeply felt is the public concern for ‘teaching children where their food comes from’ and passing on the values and skills that will ensure a fair and healthy society. Food is ultimately not a commodity but an essential of life, connecting us to each other and the natural world. Let’s give children a thorough grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

The Food Manifesto: a Food Rights Charter for Wales

By Dr Naomi Salmon, Law School, Aberystwyth University

The way we produce, process, distribute, consume and waste our food has obvious and significant implications for the enjoyment of a wide range of interdependent civil and political, and economic, social and cultural human rights. Reliable access to adequate, nutritious and culturally acceptable food is, after all, a pre-requisite for a healthy, productive and contented life. Whether one focuses on the most basic of human entitlements – the right to life – or upon other rights such as health, education, work, private and family life, or freedom of religion, it is easy to see the interconnections between food governance and effective human rights protections.photo montage

Thus, it is perhaps rather unsurprising that from its inception, international human rights law has recognised and explicitly accommodated a fundamental human right to food.  In Article 25 of the highly influential but non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 it was expressed as one of the key elements of a broader umbrella right to an ‘adequate standard of living.’  Almost three decades later,  with the entry into force of the  legally binding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in January 1976, the legal credibility and status of the this most crucial of human rights was confirmed.

From my perspective, as an academic lawyer with an interest in human rights, it is clear that what the text of the draft Food Manifesto for Wales provides is, to all intents and purposes, a description of a human rights compliant food system. The Manifesto’s vision of an equitable and sustainable ‘food future’ for Wales is informed by a concern for the very same shared human values that led to the emergence of international human rights law. As I see it, the text of this ‘food charter’ effectively translates the broad fundamental values of ‘universalism’ and ‘benevolence’ – the  values that are the foundation of the International Bill of Rights  –  into ten key benchmarks of a legitimate and socially just food system.

Moreover, the detail of the Manifesto’s goals resonates very closely with the detail of legal substance of the human right to ‘adequate food’ as it has been interpreted over time.   Thus, both international human rights law and the Manifesto are concerned with achieving something rather more holistic than basic population-wide nutritional adequacy.  The vision set out in the Manifesto, and the legal right entrenched in international law, both envision a ‘food future’ underpinned by justice and respect. This is a food future where all people, at all times, are able to enjoy equal access to nutritionally adequate, culturally acceptable, affordable food that has been produced, processed and distributed in a manner that respects and protects the environment, the  dignity and rights of all people,  and the welfare of livestock and wildlife.

I believe that the Manifesto, with its emphasis on sustainability and social justice, will speak to the full range of stakeholders across the whole of the supply chain – consumers, farmers, industry and government. After all, whatever else we might be, we are all human beings whose lives and beliefs are shaped and informed by shared core human values and whose wellbeing and survival is dependent upon the preservation of a genuinely sustainable and socially just food system.

On a practical level, by highlighting and reinforcing these shared values, and by inviting stakeholders to publicly sign up to its ten key goals, the Manifesto may help to soften tensions and bridge differences between the various stakeholder groups who inhabit the food landscape. Moreover, if a high enough public profile can be achieved, and if the language of ‘values’ and ‘human rights’ is effectively and tactfully exploited, the Manifesto may also provide leverage to encourage the compliance of key actors (governments and industry) with their existing obligations under international human rights law – and in particular, in relation to the human right to adequate food.

Find out more:

An overview of the International Bill of Rights can be found at https://www.escr-net.org/resources/international-bill-human-rights.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has published an accessible and informative booklet on the human right to adequate food – Fact Sheet No.34: The Human Right to Food. This booklet can be accessed at http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FactSheet34en.pdf See also, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN FAO) website at http://www.fao.org/righttofood/right-to-food-home/en/ , and the webpages of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to Food at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Food/Pages/FoodIndex.aspx.

Dr Naomi Salmon is an academic lawyer, micro-baker and food activist with a passion for social justice, community, sustainability and human rights.

What farmers really care about

By the Food Values team

Farmers occupy a very special place in the food system. As the people who grow crops and raise animals, generating most of the raw materials for our food supply chains, they are at the point where different interests come together and so often find themselves the focus of controversy. Should we eat less meat to save the climate, or are sheep and cows the best way to use the grass that grows in Wales? Should we do more to preserve biodiversity or have we gone too far in that direction? How far should we support food production with public money? These important debates can all too often become polarized and focus on what divides us, rather than what brings us together. So we made a video…

We wanted to see how an exploration of shared values could create connection across some of the apparent divides in the food system, and so the Food Values project headed to the Royal Welsh Show this summer to talk to farmers and land managers and start a conversation. It’s easy for discussions about farming to get side-tracked into complaints about the system – the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy, the powerlessness of the producer in the face of market forces, public indifference to where their food comes from – but we wanted to get beyond those concerns.

We wanted to explore instead the core values that farmers bring to their work, so we engaged them in conversation about their lives and let them speak for themselves. The half-dozen people that we spoke to on a sweltering afternoon amid the crowds of the Royal Welsh were hardly a big enough sample to draw firm conclusions but they did represent a cross-section of farming – young and old, Welsh and incomer, full time and part time, male and female – and a few themes emerged which resonated with wider research we have conducted.

Perhaps the main message was how they saw themselves as producers of food. They spoke of the contribution that they are able to make to rural communities, with whom they are in a “symbiotic relationship”, not just by supplying food but also supporting small businesses and craftspeople, and generally maintaining the fabric of the countryside. They took a pride in their skills and mentioned the satisfaction that came from managing resources well, reducing external inputs and employing local people. There are fewer people working the countryside than there were, and there has been a cultural impoverishment as a result, but farmers know that food production will always be important and so they are ready to look to the future and adapt.

Another theme was the sense they had of obligation towards the land that had come into their care.  “We try not to mess it up for the next generation,” as one of them put it, a way of thinking that naturally encompasses an ethos of conservation and care for wildlife, and comes with a sense of history and a familiarity with the pendulum swings of agricultural policy. There was pride too in educating urban people about food production and the countryside, through schemes such as Open Farm Sunday.

What happens next? We made this video not to be the final word on what farmers care about, but to start a discussion which might lead to deeper understanding of what it is to work the land. We hope it will encourage other farmers to reflect on what really matters to them, and that this might start a wider conversation which will lead to constructive change. Brexit brings with it an opportunity to re-think our food system from the bottom up, and it’s important that everyone’s voice is heard.

You can find out more  about Food Values on foodvaluesblog.wordpress.com.