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.

 

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?

Talking to the politicians

This article by Jane Powell appeared in the Daily Post on 1 October 2015

Next year, Wales gets the chance to have a new government. What would you like the politicians to campaign for in the run-up to May’s elections?

A group of food researchers are working on a manifesto that will tell them what sort of food system the people of Wales want to see in future, and we would like to hear what you care about.

Food touches every area of our lives. Take food waste, for instance. UK supermarkets run on a system where in order to keep the shelves fully stocked with fresh food, a high proportion of perfectly good food is routinely thrown away.

Action is being taken by the likes of FareShare Cymru to distribute the surplus food, but maybe it’s time for more drastic action.

In France, supermarkets are obliged to give their unsold food to charities or for animal feed, and are banned from throwing it away. Should we try that here?

Most of us waste at least some food at home, too. Maybe we bought too much. The government cannot do much about that, but how about more cookery lessons in schools and in the community to encourage people to prepare healthy meals, and to rediscover the pleasures of eating together?

There is increasing interest in growing our own food, too. But in Wales there are very few skilled horticulturists, and we end up importing most of our fruit and vegetables, even those which could easily be grown here.

This is a complex problem, one worth tackling by government.

Welsh agriculture is central to the food system of course, and it’s important to sort out our policy on land use. Do we farm for export markets, or for home consumption, or a bit of both?

What do we want our farmland to do? Grow food, encourage wildlife, prevent flooding, look beautiful and attract tourists? Government policy has a major role to play here, through subsidies and other forms of support.

Government can also affect markets, for instance by requiring local authorities and other public sector organisations to make it easier for Welsh food businesses to supply schools, hospitals, prisons and so on.

Do we want to serve more local food in school meals?

Do we want to serve more local food in school meals?

It might cost a bit more than imported food, but then it also gives farming a boost. Which do we want to see?

And then there’s the question of food banks. Last year’s All Party Parliamentary Inquiry report, Feeding Britain, found that more and more people are turning to emergency food aid: wages are low, social networks are weak and the food system is no longer resilient enough. What are we going to do about that?

Partly it’s a problem of poverty, and partly it’s about the food system itself, which delivers high quality fresh food to some, while others live in “food deserts” where it is hard to find fresh produce, and shops stock highly processed, fat- and sugar-laden products.

Fundamentally, it is a question of how we value our food, and that comes down to how we see our society and the environment.

In a recent research study led by Aberystwyth University, we shared meals with refugees in Cardiff and pensioners in Gwynedd, as well as schoolchildren, students, organic farmers and many others.

They all discussed how food connects them with family and friends, and how they wanted to see the best quality food available to everyone.

They wanted to see food skills being passed down the generations. They thought it mattered where food comes from – that it shouldn’t be an anonymous commodity, and that the person who grew it got a fair price.

Our food system doesn’t quite work like that at the moment, but it could.

It’s time to ask for change from our government, and it’s time to make changes ourselves. Start growing in your back garden. Join a community garden. Seek out food in the shops that fits with your values – animal welfare, local, organic, as it may be – and be prepared to pay a little more for it.

Find another way altogether of buying it, perhaps through a veg co-op or farmers market. Try out a new recipe and visit a food festival this autumn. Organize a community meal at your church, mosque, school or workplace. Donate some high quality food to your nearest food bank.

And write in to the Food Manifesto. It’s at http://foodmanifesto.wales and http://maniffestobwyd.cymru.

The sharing economy’s role in re-shaping food distribution

By David Frost

Organic farmers and growers naturally welcome the return to growth in the market for organic food that the Soil Association and market analysts have been reporting for the past three years. Organic producers are more than just profit maximisers however; they also want to expand their market because they believe organically produced food has health benefits and because organic food production systems are sustainable and environmentally benign. As the recently published, ‘Communicating Organic Food Values’ puts it, “Organic farming is well suited to developing a vision of long-term systematic change to the food system.”

Despite these values there has been insufficient concern in the organic food and farming discourse about how organic food and its benefits can be made available to those on the lowest incomes. Even the multiple retailers who trade the most in organic food and pride themselves on their ethical, environmental and animal welfare credentials are targeting customers with most spending power. No surprise then that as market research suggests, sixty-six percent of all organic purchases are made by ABC1s and when non-buyers are asked why they don’t buy organic food, over half say that price is the main barrier. For those on low incomes it has to be the case of, “grub first, then ethics”. http://organicfoodandfarming.org.uk/organic-food-can-we-reduce-the-price-barrier/

It’s also the case that because food inequality is so closely related to income inequality it doesn’t seem to merit being a separate category in most political debates. As many people argue, we can’t solve the problem of food inequality without reducing the general level of inequality in society. While this may be true, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do something about food inequality in the short-term.

In the work Naomi Salmon and I have been doing on Affordable Food and Human Rights my focus has been to look at how consumer access to good, and particularly organic food, can be improved during a period of increasing income inequality and declining social justice. How can we tackle food poverty? How can the best, nutritious food be made more widely available to those on low incomes?

Reformers need to remember that the long term is ultimately a series of short terms and in the economy, markets are continually changing. In the current situation, analysts have pointed to the incipient rise of a collaborative economy as new technology enables greater sharing of goods and services. In the UK food market we see examples such as Food Cooperatives like the Food Cooperative programme in Wales which has provided healthy Welsh food to the community through 340 healthy buying groups and 130 foods coops in schools; Food Banks – that on some estimates are used by up to 1 million people; Social Supermarkets that sell discounted food exclusively to those in poverty; FareShare – an organization that distributes surplus supermarket food; and Food Assemblies, platforms that have spread to the UK after starting in France in 2011.

There is also a group aiming to build their own new food system. In Greater Manchester, Kindling is trying to create a model that helps people to become organic food producers and increases access to good fresh food for everyone – “…as a right and not a privilege” in their words. So they are including people from all along the food chain –producers, distributors, caterers, customers and ‘land army volunteers’.

In Berlin – the sharing capital of Europe – I came across the Feuerbohne organic-shop-collective who want to make it possible for a larger number of people to buy organic food by having two price options: the solidarity price and the reduced price. And there is Biosphäre a not-for-profit retail shop where they say, “Organic for everyone. Our two price system with a reduced price for those on a low income means that good quality organic food doesn’t have to be a luxury”.

Also in Berlin, the first supermarket without prepackaged goods opened 2015.

Meanwhile in Zurich, Tor14 – a food cooperative – has aims similar to the Welsh Community Food Cooperatives. Their objective is to provide members with high quality, organic and GM free produce, where possible directly from the producer, at fair and affordable prices. Their shop offers organic products on average 30% cheaper than other food shops in Switzerland. Producers are paid a fair price and Tor14 also operates a weekly veg box which can be delivered by bicycle to customers’ home; and there are special offers such as bulk orders of citrus fruits from Spain and whole beef carcass from a Demeter farm, etc.

This year in the UK another discovery for me has been, ‘How it Should Be’ – hiSbe, a pilot store for an independent supermarket chain that started in Brighton in December 2013. They say, “It’s a social enterprise that exists to do the right thing, as well as make money.” With sentiments that recall how the Himalayan state of Bhutan sought to replace the goal of increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with Gross National Happiness (GNH), hiSbe say “ putting happiness first is a route to a more responsible, fair and sustainable food industry… we consider the happiness of people, animals and the planet when it comes to sourcing our products.” Their aim is operationalised by a sourcing policy summarised in eight imperatives – go local, pick seasonal, protect nature, support ethical, think welfare, save fish, consider waste, choose real.

Not bad ideas to include in a Food Manifesto for Wales.

There are many examples of what is being achieved in the short term. Maybe they don’t fully achieve the objectives of tackling food poverty and making the best, nutritious food available to all those on low incomes, but we need to avoid the pitfall of making the best the enemy of the good. These new models of food distribution may indeed be evidence of an emerging collaborative economy that challenges dominant food supply chains in ways that benefit those at either end of the chain: both producers and consumers.

You can contact David by emailing davidfrost@tyn-yr-helyg.com or by visiting his website at www.tyn-yr-helyg.com