Food: A conversation we can all take part in

By Rosa Robinson (published in the Western Mail & Wales Online 27 August 2015)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a food expert or an environmentalist. But I am worried that our food system is making us ill, that it’s harming nature, and that the most vulnerable people in society are the worst affected.

I’m troubled by the increase in diet-related illnesses (NHS data analysed by Diabetes UK reveals that diabetes had increased by almost 60% in the decade since 2005) and the increase in malnourishment, often going hand-in-hand with obesity.

I think it’s scandalous that people living in the UK—the 4th richest country in the world—are going hungry while food goes to waste. (The UK is the biggest producer of waste in the EU, throwing away over 14 million tonnes per year).

And I’m concerned that the way we’re producing food is compromising the earth’s capacity to provide us with food in the future.

The truth is that a lot of the food we eat is unhealthy, damaging to the environment, cruel to animals, and unfair to workers it depends on. It’s wasteful and unsustainable.

We need to change the way our food system works. We’re beginning by gathering opinions and experiences from people across Welsh society—academics, businesses and community groups—and we are identifying a list of practicable actions that government can take to support social, economic and environmental equity, through food. We’re writing a food manifesto for Wales.

By ‘we’ I mean a small but growing network of people who think sustainable food is important, and are contributing the time and skills needed to get the food manifesto idea off the ground.

The manifesto isn’t funded and isn’t owned by any particular person or organisation. That’s intentional – we want the manifesto to be developed collaboratively, with people working across society.

What should the Food Manifesto contain? The proposals in Professor Kevin Morgan’s recently published paper, Good Food For All provide an excellent place to start. The paper emphasises the importance of expertise in sustainable public procurement. It identifies the importance of the public purse in delivering value in its broadest sense—i.e. community benefit, training, jobs and other sustainability goals. And it recognises the importance of making ‘good food’ highly visible in the public sector by demonstrating commitment through a credible and recognised catering mark like Food For Life.

What should be included in a food manifesto doesn’t sound much like a dinner table discussion. It’s unlikely that deliberations about food systems, sustainability and ethics often seem relevant to everyday life—not when you’re trying to get dinner on the table for a hungry family—but it’s still vital that the significance of food at a family, neighbourhood and community level is addressed in any food manifesto that is written.

It’s vital because what matters to people – what people value – drives change.

There is substantial research from social psychology and other disciplines, which explains how values work. Values shape our identity and our society. Values influence what we do and how we feel. They connect people and issues. (If you’re interested in finding out more it’s worth looking up Common Cause).

Earlier this year I did a social research project, talking to people living in some of Wales’ least affluent communities about what food means to them. It means family. It means comfort. It’s a celebration. It’s an important part of culture. It’s about sharing with friends and neighbours. It’s about trust, fairness and friendship; it means home. It means nurturing and nourishing the people you love. It means the same things to them as it does to me, but we don’t often have these conversations about food or connect to that deeper meaning—the things we really value.

Food isn’t just a commodity. It brings families, friends and communities together. It connects us with the nature. It provides comfort and security. It builds skills, confidence and feelings of self worth. It increases resilience. These things make people thrive.

Food unites us. It’s a conversation everyone can take part in, and talking about food is how we can make sustainable development meaningful and relevant across society. By finding common ground and shared values we can build a collective commitment to creating a fair food system. This is what the Food Manifesto is all about.

Rosa Robinson is Director of the Work With Meaning Community Interest Company www.workwithmeaning.org.uk

Developing Sustainable Dietary Guidelines

by Pamela Mason

Wales should consider developing sustainable dietary guidelines. Like most existing dietary guidelines, dietary guidelines in the UK have a narrow view of how diet relates to health. In essence, they restrict the concept of diet to the amounts of nutrients contained in foods and the concept of health to the presence or absence of diseases caused by the lack or excess of of one or more nutrients in the diet. While the amounts of nutrients in foods and diets is of course relevant for health, this is only one of the characteristics of diets that are relevant to disease, health and well-being.

Foods and diets are more than carriers of nutrients. Foods are produced, transformed and supplied within food systems whose characteristics influence health through their impact on society and the environment. Food systems can be socially and environmentally sustainable promoting justice and protection of the living world. Alternatively they can create many types of inequity and threats to natural resources and biodiversity. At a social level, the context of eating, like when, why, where and with whom meals are consumed as well as the symbolic and emotional values of foods, dishes and meals contribute to the enjoyment of eating, the building of memories and customs and the strengthening of relationships and connections, all of which are important to health and well-being.

Conventional dietary guidelines treat foods as mere carriers of nutrients, so understating the relationship between diet and well-being. They treat foods as mere carriers of nutrient, overlook the cultural dimensions of diet and typically fail to consider the link between diet and the social and environmental sustainability of food systems. Healthy, sustainable dietary guidelines derive from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems.

In Wales, we need sustainable dietary guidelines that take into account not only the nutrient content of food and diet, but also the impact of the means of production and distribution of food on social justice and environmental integrity. The Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is about improving the social, environmental, economic and cultural well-being of Wales and sustainability must be embedded into everything public sector bodies in Wales do. Given that food is essential to, and at the centre of, life sustainability should also be built into the food system across Wales. Sustainable Dietary Guidelines would help to improve the availability of healthy, sustainable food choices and hence, over time, a more sustainable food system fit for the 21st century.