Food can mean chaos. A cake starts life as a big, sticky bowl of random textures and colours, dusty floury stuff, slimy eggy stuff. Powders. Essences. Things that don’t belong together strategically combined into more than the sum of its parts. Food can mean magic.
Food is core to all our lives, but often without us really paying attention. A city’s – or indeed a country’s – policies rarely look at food as a ‘thing.’ It is split into separate categories with ‘agriculture’ sitting in one corner of a room, ‘environment’ in another, ‘health’ completely separate and ‘poverty’ even more so. Bringing these people and approaches together can be tricky. Food is so absolutely fundamentally important to our social fabric, to our health and our environment – and it is so important to people, especially the many food heroes of our city, that inevitably there are different passions and perspectives, conflict even.
But bringing those different ingredients together is exactly what creates the magic.
A whole city approach
A ‘whole city’ approach to food has to combine the different contributions of food waste activists, policymakers, restaurants, health professionals, farmers, urban food growers, council directors, alternative retailers, supermarkets, and food bank volunteers. It means finding the common ground. It means trusting in the alchemy that can happen when the person who thinks in terms of ‘patient outcomes’ meets the person whose outcome is carrots.
At the Food Partnership we see it as our job to bring it all together – to make it ‘a thing’ and we are right in the midst now of pulling together the latest version of the city’s food strategy action plan. I am now sitting at a desk at home looking out of my window (because on top of all the other chaos, the Food Partnership is in between offices). In front of me are an alarming number and variety of large piles of paper. And that’s just the stuff that’s printed. Don’t start me on the spreadsheets, the reports from the roundtable on food waste, the food poverty event, the one on impact and measurement, the wisdom of our expert panel who are advising us and then all those conversations we have had with individuals, in our large caterer’s group, in the council’s food poverty group, and across various other networks. Now a big random pile of spaghetti, my job is to knit it all together.
I have to say that believing in food and especially a collective approach to food, can sometimes involve a little bit of faith. Whilst there is lots of evidence (the relationship between a good diet and health for example) that’s not always the case. As food is so entwined with everything we do, it can be hard to separate out and ‘prove’ the impact of that wider whole city approach. So sometimes we have to go on our gut.
The power of food
We developed some Food Partnership organisational values recently. We didn’t want to end up with something so bland that it was meaningless, like those big organisations that end up with a few words like ‘respect’ and ‘honesty’. So it chimed with me that one of our new values is ‘We believe in the power of food’. Because we do.
However, food should be about pleasure, fun and sociability too, so I am equally pleased that another value is ‘We believe in lunch breaks’.
Faced with knitting up my big pile of spaghetti, I know the results will be worth it. Like the messy ingredients of the cake that end up as a treat worthy of Bake Off, I know we can harness the collective power and innovation of our amazing city for another five-year action plan. We will go through another Sustainable Food Cities bid – this time for the coveted new ‘Gold’ status – and we will be another step closer to the the vision of becoming a ‘healthy sustainable and fair’ food city. Well worth the effort, I’d say.