Using surplus food to power community growth

Jane Powell paid a visit to a café in Pembrokeshire which serves food with a difference

Next to the offer of plum crumble on the blackboard at the Fishguard Transition Café  in north Pembrokeshire is a helpful note: ‘may contain stones’. That remark sets the tone for our visit to this pioneering enterprise, where meticulous attention to detail and a warm human touch combine to form a community project with an imaginative contribution to a town’s food system.

three women in a cafe

Serving customers at the Fishguard Transition Café

Most of the food served at the Cafe, which offers a choice of home-cooked dishes in bright and tasteful surroundings, is supplied by local food businesses. It is surplus produce, mainly fruit, vegetables, bread and dairy, but also some meat and other items, from the no-man’s land between the much misunderstood ‘best before’ date, which marks the point at which the manufacturer estimates that it might start to lose its premium quality, and the ‘use by’ date, after which there are real dangers to health and it cannot legally be served.

 

Perishable food in this zone is perfectly fit to eat – certainly the plums were at the peak of perfection, aromatic and sharp – but it needs to be used fairly quickly, and what is a liability for a supermarket becomes an opportunity for the enterprising bargain-hunter or in this case the community project with the facilities to handle it. Tinned and packaged foods, meanwhile, can be kept for months and even years. The Fishguard Transition Cafe turns surplus food – around 850 kg a month of it – into nutritious meals while also providing a space for volunteers and community groups to come together, forming a lively hub for discussions.

It’s a simple concept but a complex operation. Food arrives daily and menus are planned around what’s available – the main dish when we visited was mushroom stroganoff, with roast beetroot – while some of it is frozen, preserved or pickled. Like the supermarkets which supply it, the cafe has its own waste stream, with excess food given away in the cafe, sent for composting or biodigestion, or diverted to animal feed. Record-keeping for the Cafe, as for any food business, is demanding. Besides weighing the daily food deliveries, a note is made of allergens, food that has been cooked but cannot be used immediately is labelled and frozen, and cleaning routines are checked off. It’s clear that managing the surplus food for a small town and its hinterland is no small task, but the very intricacy of it also allows for a scale of human involvement that brings opportunities.

The cafe obviously makes an important contribution to improving the diets of local people who cannot afford to cook such meals themselves, although as volunteer director Chris Samra says, the stigma of ‘food poverty’ sometimes deters people who might benefit most. However, it was actually set up to reduce carbon emissions by diverting food from landfill, to the tune of an estimated 21 tonnes of carbon savings per year. It gets its name from the Fishguard Transition Group who formed in 2008 from a group of citizens who identified with a wider movement to make the ‘transition’ to a low-carbon society.

They began by setting up allotments and running gardening courses, with the aim of helping more people to grow their own, together with other activities to engage the local community. In 2012 they hit upon the idea of a cafe running on surplus food, acquiring premises rent-free from the next door Coop supermarket. A plaque on the wall acknowledges donations of furnishings, equipment, labour and cash to the project, from a wide range of donors including several national chain stores, a youth club, a farm, a solicitor, a hotel and a range of voluntary and government agencies.

Behind the scenes: weighing produce

Behind the scenes: weighing the produce as it comes in

Around about the same time, they embarked on the lengthy process of owning a wind turbine, raising loans from local residents. Generating an income from the wind is important, because the grants that helped the cafe get started are not such a renewable resource. Support by Environment Wales for a part-time project manager post, now in its fourth year, was key to getting the project started, and the Jobs Growth Wales scheme helped to get some young people onto the staff, which together with support from the group’s voluntary directors meant that they could run on volunteers to begin with.

The cafe has also been supported by the Wales Cooperative Centre, who funded a business plan, and  itwon the 2014 Sustainable Communities competition at the Hay Festival which provided a grant. Takings have grown and it is becoming more financially viable, but it still needs grants to cover some of its running and labour costs, including some part-time kitchen staff who provide continuity for the volunteers who assist with food preparation, record keeping and service at the counter.

The cafe is not just a means of turning surplus food into affordable meals. It is also a training facility, where volunteers, catering students and others with learning disabilities can acquire skills in a safe environment. It is a social hub where anyone can come for a healthy meal during the day from Tuesday to Friday, and at many out-of-hours events. It runs play sessions for families with young chidren, craft sessions for older children and adults, and drop-in sessions for Welsh learners. It also distributes food parcels on behalf of the Pembrokeshire food bank scheme PATCH, which means that some see it as a place ‘for poor people’, but it has always drawn in people from a wide cross-section of society, using food as a point of connection to drive social change.

The Fishguard Transition Cafe shows what can be done when food businesses, big and small, identify with their local area (in this case, within a 15-mile radius) and make common cause with community groups, so that surplus food builds social capital. There are other examples, like the Pay as You Feel cafe in Bethesda, Gwynedd,and the Real Junk Food cafe in Cardiff , each with a different take on the theme.

Wouldn’t it be great if every neighbourhood in Wales had one?

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Fit and not fat: what the Welsh government can do

By Steve Garrett, Chair, Riverside Market Garden, Cardiff

In considering how to best influence consumption patterns of unhealthy food products in Wales, motivated by the need to reduce the health costs and impacts which are now understood to result from an overconsumption of those products (sugar is now viewed by many health professionals as the biggest avoidable public health risk, and the ‘new nicotine’), useful lessons can be learned from the way in which cigarette purchases have been reduced by state sponsored initiatives.

High levels of taxation combined with public education campaigns and banning of advertising, labelling and packaging has succeeded in seriously reducing levels of tobacco consumption. More recently, the invention and rapid rise in the popularity of artificial cigarettes has also helped many people to kick what is essentially an addiction.

(It’s interesting to imagine whether a substitute junk food could be artificially created, which would satisfy our cravings for salt, sugar and fat, without actually delivering those health damaging substances to us. Someone in a food lab somewhere is probably working on it.)

Growing vegetables for urban markets

Growing vegetables for Cardiff

There are a range of “enabling health” approaches to changing food consumption behaviour which may be considered, such as: subsidising the cost of healthy food to make it more affordable to people on low incomes; launching a healthy eating promotional campaign; providing and promoting “healthy options” in state run locations such as schools and health centres; making healthy food easily available to all sectors of the community, particularly to those on lower incomes, with measures such as “healthy corner shops” (encouraging corner shops to stock a range of fresh produce) to ensure that even in relative “food deserts” some healthy food is available; providing cooking classes and nutritional information at a community level. But without making healthy food more affordable, any attempt to promote its consumption amongst poorer sections of the community is likely to fail.

More directly ‘Interventionist’ measures can include: adding a “sugar tax, or “fat tax” to products with unhealthily high levels of those ingredients, such as fizzy soft drinks (which are the main source of processed sugar for young people) or high-fat food items; nutrient fortification in low-cost food; banning processed food in government-controlled environments such as schools, and health centres; putting discouraging labelling on processed food and controlling the kind of packaging that can be used; banning or limiting advertising of unhealthy food, especially to children. One or more of these measures are currently being considered, or are being trialled in several countries in spite of concerted opposition from the financially powerful manufacturers of the products most affected. However there is deep disagreement about the effectiveness of such measures. (1); (2).

A major difficulty, in addition to any costs involved, in implementing any steps in relation to reducing consumption of ‘empty calorie’ food, is that it is not as easily connected in the public’s mind as tobacco with negative heath implications, in site of the declarations of health experts. The huge lobbying power of the manufacturers, many of which, such as Coca-Cola, number amongst the largest businesses in the world, also means that these companies can exert huge financial pressure in attempting (and in many cases succeeding) to influence the shaping of food policy, by offering direct funding to government, and also by supporting a range of e.g. sports activities which are welcomed by local communities, and by funding organisations and individuals that are willing to oppose such a move, as well as sponsoring expensive campaigns to discredit any attempts to limit their immensely profitable sales. (It is only the amoral attitude of such corporations that can explain the absurdity of Coca Cola and MacDonald’s being the primary sponsors of the 2012 London Olympic. Echoing the well established behaviour of oil companies in trying to discredit research on the effects on global warming of burning fossil fuels).

Another factor is the limited public appetite for having their food buying behaviour “controlled” or “censored” by government, which in spite of ostensibly good intentions, is felt to be an unwelcome form of meddling in people’s freedom to choose what to buy and consume.

I believe that a combination of health promoting and interventionist measures will be most effective in steering people away from ‘junk’ and unhealthy food. Alongside attempts to reduce empty calorie consumption, measures are needed which will promote and increase the availability of, and access to, healthy food options for all parts of the community. This will require a multilevel approach, including actions like exposing young people to healthy food in schools and public places, and supporting the creation of a local food ‘chain’ which will make fresh local food easily and affordably available, Such measures will require investment of public money and a willingness to resist the opposition of multinationals, but as has been seen with tobacco, such moves are possible and can be effective where the political will is there. And unlike smoking reduction, which is restricted to limiting consumption of something harmful, promoting healthy eating and local food production will deliver twin long-term benefits of improving the health of the population, thus reducing the cost of providing the health service, at the same time as delivering a range of environmental benefits, and supporting the development of a local food economy creating investment and employment.

All these approaches can and must be taken in Wales by our national government, and, with their support, local governments, and should be included in the development of a ‘Food Manifesto’ for Wales (3) The wide range of positive outcomes they imply should make the investment of public money in creating a localised food system more popular with the general public and thus more politically palatable. The only thing standing in the way of such moves would be a lack of vision and courage on the part of Welsh Government. If our political representatives are not able to fulfil their duty of care by promoting and facilitating healthy eating and taking a stand against the corporations who benefit from the current health-damaging and unsustainable food system, it is up to campaigners and the rest of us to respond appropriately at the ballot box at the forthcoming Welsh Government elections.

(1) http://www.iea.org.uk/blog/denmark%E2%80%99s-fat-tax-disaster-the-proof-of-the-pudding

(2) http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/nov/03/obese-soda-sugar-tax-mexico

(3) https://foodmanifesto.wales/