Last updated: May 2013
A Food Revolution
The Kindling Trust reports on building a sustainable food movement in Manchester.
An appetite for good food
Like many cities across the UK, here in Manchester individuals and groups are getting serious about the environmental and social impacts of our food and organising in new and enterprising ways to challenge the economic might of supermarkets and agri-business.
Historically, good food, an understanding of farming and empathy with farmers, has largely been a rural affair. If you think ‘local food’ you are probably conjuring up images of farmers’ markets in market towns or perhaps box schemes in affluent suburbs.
In post-industrial towns and cities, policy and projects have focused on getting ‘the poor’ to eat more healthily: to eat their five portions of fruit and veg a day. This has meant making food cheaper and more accessible. Soup kitchens, food banks and cooking classes at the local youth centre are the order of the day.
Today, as cities like Bristol and London start to grapple with the twin needs of reducing their carbon emissions and becoming more resilient, and as new food groups focus on the inequality of food, a new generation of farmers, activists and entrepreneurs are starting to do things differently. And crucially policy makers are starting to understand the huge, complex and inter-related impacts our food choices make.
The list of challenges and problems seems endless: countering the power of supermarkets; concern about genetically engineered food; growing obesity problems; dwindling fish stocks; an ageing farming sector; animal welfare issues and rising food prices. And in cities and communities across the UK there is growing recognition that no one food issue is more important than another and co-operative solutions are key.
Here in Greater Manchester, groups have been discussing these problems for a number of years, now via FeedingManchester – a loose network of social enterprises, charities and activists who are working to build a ‘sustainable food’ movement.
What do we mean by sustainable food? We define ‘sustainable food’ as food that is good for everyone in the supply chain, from farmers to family businesses and shop workers to the consumer. Our movement encourages people to buy, grow, sell and promote food that:
- Is local and seasonal.
- Comes from organic and sustainable farms.
- Minimises foods of animal origin & maximises welfare standards.
- Excludes fish species identified as at risk.
- Is Fairtrade certified.
- Has reduced waste and packaging.
- Promotes health and well being.
- Increases ‘food democracy’.
And crucially, food democracy is key. You can go to almost any supermarket and buy products which meet some of the criteria above, whilst the supermarket itself decimates local high streets, destroys local jobs, forces small farmers out of business and generates vast amount of food waste.
Helen Woodcock, a founding member of FeedingManchester, explains where it all started: “FeedingManchester is a network of sustainable food practitioners: commercial growers and retailers, community gardens, educators and so on. It meets three times a year and discusses what the barriers are to sustainable food production, and what solutions we can come up with. Ultimately FeedingManchester is about nurturing food democracy, reconnecting people to food and taking responsibility for it, ensuring control by and fairness among local producers, suppliers and consumers, and working to reduce inequality in the food supply chain.”
FeedingManchester’s mission has led to three main co-operative solutions:
- Manchester Veg People works to meet a growing need for sustainable food
- Greater Manchester Land Army is working to help existing farmers supply more local produce, and a new project
- FarmStart is helping to nurture a new generation of organic farmers.
Greater Manchester Land Army
The Greater Manchester Land Army, made up of volunteers and trainees helping out on local farms. Inspired by the women’s land armies of the World Wars, the Land Army offers a solution to a number of challenges faced by local organic growers, including labour issues and costs at busy periods. So for example, because harvesting of soft fruit is really labour intensive, picking it either leads to very expensive fruit, or fruit being left on the bush to rot. The Land Army is on hand to send a minibus of volunteers out to help, when it is called upon.
Manchester Veg People
Manchester Veg People is another very practical and collaborative initiative. It is a co-operative bringing together the five organic farms closest to Manchester and a range of buyers, including both small caterers and cafés and bigger buyers such as the University of Manchester. We think it is the UK’s first ever ‘Supply-Chain Co-op’ of both local farmers and local buyers, working together to provide fresh, seasonal food of the highest possible quality. This unique partnership means those who have traditionally competed with each other (the grower to get the best price for his produce) and the buyer (who wants to maximise his profits by paying as little as possible to the farmer) are working together.
It was established to tackle both the lack of variety of organic food coming into Manchester and the fact that organic growers struggle to sell their produce and cover the real costs of production, which results in rural poverty and an exodus from farming.
Organic farmers plan crops each year based on their conversations with buyers and get a more secure market. Particularly central to the project is involving the public sector (schools, universities, prisons, hospitals) in procuring sustainable food. “It is about making a wider range of people access fresh, local produce, even if many don’t feel they can afford it in their personal shopping,” says Helen Woodcock.
Manchester FarmStart is a planned incubator farm (being established in early 2013) for people new to the industry. The Kindling Trust wants to help people become farmers, whether part-time or full-time, and encourage more supply of local organic food into Greater Manchester.
New farmers will be able to rent out small plots to trial their farming plans. As their business ideas prove successful they will be able to expand their acreage.
They will be supported by a farm manager who will provide cultivation services using farm-scale machinery, and by Kindling which will facilitate access to markets (if required), through Manchester Veg People or appropriate alternatives. Kindling will also provide mentoring and training support.
With a growing acceptance that we can’t compete directly with supermarkets (at least not until local and national governments create a level playing field) we need to build co-operative solutions that build alternative food systems that provides sustainable food at prices that are fair to farmers, workers, independent businesses and crucially consumers.
The food revolution across the UK:
Growing Communities: Transforming food & farming through community-led trade in Hackney, London.
Organic Lea: A workers’ cooperative growing food in London
Cultivate Oxford: Grow fruit & veg on a five acre market garden site near Oxford to sell on their Veg Van
The Community Farm: Between Bristol and Bath this community-owned farm grows organic vegetables on 22 acres of land selling through a vegetable box delivery service and a wholesale business
Caerhys Organic Community Agriculture (COCA): An agricultural scheme run for and supported by, the local community in St Davids, Wales
The Fife Diet: A regional food campaign build around a New Food Manifesto
If you know of equally inspiring and practical sustainable food solutions across the UK, Ethical Consumer would love to hear about them – get in touch.