How local authorities and community groups can re-set the food system

By Jane Powell

There has rarely been a more potent time to talk about change in the food system. The pandemic has brought unprecedented interest in local food suppliers and homegrown food and sparked a surge in community activity. But while for some, cooking and gardening have been new-found pleasures, there are others who are unable to go out to the shops or cannot afford to buy food. According to a YouGov poll of Welsh adults in early April conducted by the Food Foundation and shared by Food Sense Wales here, an estimated 13% were not getting enough to eat in lockdown, many of them skipping meals. All this shows the need, and also the potential, for change. Could it be time for food democracy, joining citizen action with government policy?

For many years now, community food projects of all types – gardens, surplus food distribution projects, food banks, healthy eating programmes, food cooperatives and hubs – have been quietly trying out new ways of engaging the public with good food. They may lack influence with national government, but they do have a chance with local authorities, who have statutory roles involving food, such as environmental health, trading standards and the provision of allotments. Councils are close enough to their local communities to develop the personal relationships and practical collaborations that build trust. Crucially, they also work with food businesses, buying ingredients for school meals and other council facilities. Some even own farmland.

The response to Covid-19 has put the spotlight on local food relationships and gives some pointers towards what might come next. In Ceredigion for instance, Council staff are keeping in touch with 2,500 of the county’s most vulnerable people, phoning those considered most at risk weekly and supplying 900 of them with boxes of food. Initially these came from Welsh Government, but Ceredigion led the way in negotiating a cash payment instead, and is using it to buy more locally produced foods from Castell Howell as well as fresh produce from Jones and Davies in Llandysul. They plan to re-double their efforts to support local suppliers when the crisis is over. ‘Much of the pressure for this is coming from local dairy and meat farmers,’ explains Cllr Alun Williams, ‘but it is heartening to see across-the-board consensus about this. We have an opportunity to re-set the food system.’

In Cardiff meanwhile, a Covid-19 Food Response Group was set up early on. It began with emergency food distribution but recently supported Edible Cardiff to distribute nearly 14,000 plants, seeds and growing kits to households in the city (pictured above). Food Cardiff coordinator Pearl Costello describes how important it was to nurture good relationships between the Council and local volunteers. ‘It’s not just going to the Council and saying “can you do this?”, it’s saying “we’re here as a resource”…one of the things I didn’t want it to be is quite top-down, and thankfully it’s not that. It’s about collaborating and channelling resources to where they are needed.’ Food Cardiff have issued a briefing paper for other local authorities based on their experience.

Free school meals are another way that local authorities help families most in need. Some authorities have been issuing supermarket vouchers during lockdown, but in Cardiff cash payments are given so that parents can buy the food they want. In Caerphilly meanwhile, the catering service is working with Castell Howell and other suppliers, as well as a team of volunteers, to supply five frozen meals a week, not just in term time but through the Easter holidays as well. They are also supplying bread and milk.

A great advantage of local government is the flexibility. Responses can be adapted to local conditions and draw on the knowledge that is held in communities, and people can work together in ways that suit them. In Cardiff for instance, the council is part of a formal food network. Food Cardiff is a partnership of over 30 members including public bodies, businesses and charities which since 2013 has been part of the Sustainable Food Places project (formerly Sustainable Food Cities), with a full-time coordinator.

In rural Ceredigion meanwhile, where no such partnership exists yet, a creative network of mutual aid has emerged by other means, with home deliveries of food and medicines by volunteers. New supply chains are springing up: a vegetarian baker in Cardigan has teamed up with a local butcher to get their bread out, pubs are doing meals on wheels, and community growing projects are producing supplies for home vegetable growing.

At the same time, a patchwork of local responses has much to gain from being part of a bigger story, finding common cause and identifying guiding principles that can be pushed upwards into national government. The Well-being of Future Generations Act provides an important opportunity, with its call for a social and economic transformation towards low-carbon prosperity and local resilience. Covid-19 is a foretaste of the deep change that will involve, and food is an obvious rallying point.

Meanwhile, there are some tough challenges to solve. One is the big retailers, who are the main suppliers of our food but conspicuously absent from, say, the Food Cardiff partnership. They do of course contribute to their local communities, especially in supplying surplus food and with cash sponsorship, but it is an unequal relationship which is governed as much by expediency and the edicts of Head Office as by a real care for the needs of a community. Their supply chain logistics do not favour local food production, either.

Another area that is perhaps not properly included in local authority food activity is farming. Some do source catering ingredients from local suppliers, and politicians have called repeatedly for more use of public procurement to regenerate the local economy, while a new project to stimulate the ‘foundational economy’ of which food is a part is due to start in Carmarthenshire soon. But it is not a consistent approach. Pembrokeshire County Council for instance cited ‘severe financial pressures’ as a reason for rejecting an offer from a local group who wanted to set up a community farm. Meanwhile, as Ceredigion County Council considers an application for a controversial intensive poultry unit, it must decide on the basis of planning considerations only. There will be no discussion of the type of farming that would best serve the area.

How can we develop local food democracy, allowing the public to channel their ideas into local and national government and ensuring a food system that reflects what people really care about? There are some exciting initiatives on offer at the moment: People’s Assemblies, the expansion of the Sustainable Food Places project in Wales, the Our Food initiative in Crickhowell, and countless small-scale interactions. This is what the Well-being of Future Generations Act was made for, with its new ways of working between community groups, councils and businesses. As Jane Davidson, one of its architects, says:

‘A food system that looks after future generations will support local communities, create innovative low carbon jobs, tackle climate change, enhance biodiversity, address inequality and proudly celebrate the Wales brand to the world. It can do this through thinking long term, preventatively and by encouraging innovative, collaborative opportunities between public services and food businesses, small and large. COVID has highlighted the risk of not having a food system, so now let’s take the opportunity to build one fit for our age – for Wales, by Wales.’

Now is our moment, and we must seize it.

Image: Food Cardiff. Almost 14,000 plants, seeds and growing kits have been distributed to families in the city, by 70 volunteers across 60 projects.

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant and volunteer coordinator of the Manifesto. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

Building democratic food systems following COVID-19

By Ludivine Petetin

Amidst the grimness of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be difficult to see the opportunities arising from it. However, all over the UK and Wales there are pockets of hope and good practice that indicate how food systems could become more resilient. This blog post is based on an open access journal article that I wrote in April 2020 entitled ‘The COVID-19 Crisis: An Opportunity to Integrate Food Democracy into Post-Pandemic Food Systems’.

1. Interconnected food supply chains

The disruption within food systems and the lack of certain foods on the shelves is highlighting the interconnectedness of our food supply chains. Looking outside the UK, some countries have put in place measures to restrict the export of staple foods. They have done this for two main reasons: to guarantee their stability and avoid civil unrest, and to ensure their own food security. However, such export restrictions will have consequences for the world market in terms of food availability and price volatility, and ultimately could lead to international food shortages and a possible worldwide food crisis – affecting the most vulnerable.

Within the UK, disruptions to the ‘just-in-time’ methods of the food supply chain have indicated how closely linked all actors are: the farmer grows cereals, the miller grinds the grain, another company packages the flour, different people again take care of logistics and transport, including delivery drivers, and (often) the supermarket sells the flour – and this is not an exhaustive list. Indeed, flour is a good example of a staple food that is elusive on the food shelves – indicating how intricated but fragile the food supply chain really is.

Under the circumstances, there is a risk of a return to less environmentally friendly practices. Calls to intensify food production in response to shortages could threaten the move towards further sustainable agriculture. However, and more positively, this crisis should be seen as an opportunity to use more sustainable techniques, such as agroecology and agroforestry, and to redesign food systems post-pandemic by building a new model of multilevel food governance based on food democracy.

2. More democratic food systems

In Wales, we have seen how some local farmers, suppliers and shops have been particularly resilient in supplying the local population. In and around Cardiff, butchers like Oriel Jones and Martin Player have modified their businesses to increase their online presence and add home deliveries – indicating the ability to quickly diversify. Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable box schemes, such as the Welsh Food Box Company and Paul’s Organic Vegetables, have responded to the increased local demand. It is to be applauded that the local population can count on its local shops and growers and it is to be hoped that this momentum for local, sustainable and healthy food will remain post lockdown.

My article suggests four characteristics for a ‘food democracy’ model to build upon to increase the reliability, locality and resilience of food systems post-pandemic (combined with longer, sustainable food supply chains). Some of these new approaches are already emerging  during COVID-19, whilst others still require improvement:

  1. True information, genuine choice and alternative products being offered to consumers: this is demonstrated by the increased interest from citizens in where their food comes from (i.e. food provenance) as well as how it was produced, with a shift in consumption pattern towards local fruit and vegetable box schemes, local butchers and bakeries.
  2. Upstream engagement and a bottom-up approach in the decision-making process: this starts with local authorities being more involved in supporting local food production, and feeding into the future agri-food policy still under formulation by Welsh Government. They should act upwards, and Welsh Government should be ready to listen to them.
  3. Good health, food safety, sustainable agriculture and environmental protection, improvement of the rights of farmers and agricultural workers and their opportunities: strengthening and shortening food supply chains, leading to fewer food miles, less packaging and processing; also active participation by the public, for instance in harvesting fruits and vegetables.
  4. Restoration of faith and trust in the food system, its institutions and in farmers: this includes a stronger and fairer role for the farmer; transparent food supply chains with fair dealing; a local population interested in supporting local producers either by buying their products or becoming an agricultural worker; and stronger links between supermarkets and local producers.

3. Multilevel food systems

The COVID-19 crisis shows how food supply chains and agri-food policies functions on many levels, from the local to the international. Political decisions on agri-food made at one level impact on all the others. What is needed is increased coordination between the different levels of governments and governance within Wales and beyond. This should lead to agri-food policies that are joined up and support primary producers and local shops.

The ‘Sustainable Farming and our Land’ document published in 2019 is no longer sufficient to solve the issues faced by the sector post COVID-19. The pandemic makes it clear that agriculture and food policies can no longer be kept apart. They need bringing together, as the new President of the EU Commission is aiming to do with its new Farm to Fork Strategy, part of the European Green Deal. A holistic, forward-looking approach towards agri-food systems built on a multilevel agri-food governance is the way forward for all level of governments – from local authorities, to Welsh Government and beyond.

Dr Ludivine Petetin is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the School of Law and Politics and the Wales Governance Centre of Cardiff University. Her expertise lies in agri-food issues and international trade as well as the challenges that Brexit and COVID-19 pose to these areas.