A Brief But Very British Food Journey

I chose the lusty month of May to visit Great Britain and my first granddaughter, the 10-week old Zoe. While there’s nothing more exciting than holding your grandchild in your arms for the first time, I was worried that being a doting grandpa for two weeks would have its limits. So taking a little breather from diaper changing, I caught up on the state of the British food system with visits to food projects in Oxford, London, and Cardiff.

Wow – Oxford!

Amidst Oxford’s venerable scholastic buildings and grounds, I spoke to 60 local foodies in the equally sainted Vault and Garden Café (local, organic, and the site of Oxfam International’s founding). Loosely led by the wife-husband team of Ruth West and Colin Trudge,  the crowd of local food activists had gathered to see what they could do to catapult their local food movement to a higher level.

Their food system challenges and opportunities were familiar to me: interest in local food is zooming, farmers’ markets (Britain’s first wasn’t opened until 1998) and “box schemes” (similar to CSAs) are exploding, and institutional demand for healthy food (a la Jamie Oliver) is strong. The supply and distribution networks, however, aren’t up to snuff. A food hub that aggregates supply and facilitates distribution was the most likely way to scale up their efforts, but they weren’t sure how to do it.

Social justice concerns were also on the table. In contrast to Oxford’s vigorous pub life and bourgeoning technology center, the city has food deserts that limit the access to healthy and affordable food. At the same time, participation at farmers’ markets by low-income households is weak. For wannabe gardeners, the waiting list for allotments (community garden plots) was so long that staying on the list was more likely to benefit one’s children than one’s self.

With 60 pairs of eyes scanning me for answers, I offered up several policy options that had shown promise in the US: special coupons and food stamp incentive programs to bring low-income shoppers to the farmers’ markets; local food policy councils to organize foodies and build a constituency for food policy change; and aggregation schemes that were making it easier for farmers to sell to local schools, restaurants, and smaller retail outlets.

The farmers’ market coupon idea was a big hit. But government-supported food programs like food stamps were non-existent in Britain, which had opted (correctly in my opinion) for a more comprehensive form of social welfare, e.g. National Health Service. When asked if they should start more food banks (Britain has very few), I gave them the thumbs down. I advised them that local food projects, better organizing among food activists, and developing supportive public policies were the way to go. My recommendations were greeted with affirmative head nodding.

The concept of food policy councils also resonated with the Oxford-istas. While several large cities like London and Brighton have developed local food strategies – detailed public statements about promoting a healthy food system – citizen groups don’t have a venue to advocate for those strategies.

In less than 5 minutes the assembled crowd created a 12-point action plan which included more allotments, coupon incentives, and aggregation schemes.  Four whip-smart Oxford students volunteered their services as researchers, and a date for the next meeting was set. I was stunned by how swiftly they had girded their loins for battle. The local cheese and beer that followed further cemented their commitment.

London Swings

Arriving in London in the aftermath of Britain’s national election, I carefully picked my way through the TV equipment and comely news anchors that ringed the Houses of Parliament. My talk that day was with the London-based new economics foundation, a self-styled alternative think-tank that draws on the teachings of E.F. Schumacher (its preference for the lower-case, I surmised, was out of deference to the notion that small is beautiful).

The audience reinforced my Oxford observations: great local projects, highly engaged activists, but inter-group cohesion and policy work were lacking. Two women in the group, Susan Steed and Clare Patey, stood out for their project work. Susan’s territory is Brixton, a hardscrabble working class section of London where she oversees the Brixton “pound” local currency project. Like similar projects in Ithaca (NY) and the Berkshires (Mass.) that value local goods and services for barter and exchange purposes, the Brixton pound supports local businesses, community connections, and a smaller carbon footprint. Unlike these rarefied U.S. communities, however, Brixton is a rough and tumble place with a reputation for sticking it to the man on occasion (think “The Guns of Brixton” by the Clash). The image on the Brixton “pound note” was of a bull-horn toting black man rousting the community to action. Contrast this with the image of a well-dressed 19th century white guy on the “Berkshare.” Call it Brit grit versus Mass mellow.

Clare Patey is the creator of “Feast on the Bridge,” which for the past three Septembers has turned the Thames Southwark Bridge into the site of Britain’s premiere food celebration. She showed me photos of the bridge’s entire span covered from end to end with white linen clothed tables and thousands of chairs. Locally and sustainably produced food served by the country’s best chefs is the feature event, but it’s nearly upstaged by thousands of children who parade across the bridge in crazy food costumes. You can also bob for apples, stomp grapes, and partake in the Sacred Mayonnaise Ritual (you gotta be British to get it).

Feast on the Bridge demonstrates how far British food has come since the unfortunate days of “bubble and squeak.”  The Brixton “pound” transforms an idea with much cache in white, bright university towns into a symbol of economic revival in low-income communities. But are these groups working together to secure the promise of a food revolution for all? Are they using the broad shoulders of government to push for authentic food system change? I would need to push on to Wales for answers.

Wales Awash in Innovation

As stimulating as London and Oxford were, Cardiff, the capitol of Wales, embodied both progress and opportunity in the British food system. Through its formerly gritty port, Cardiff once shipped the Welsh coal that stoked England’s “satanic mills.” But thanks to Margaret Thatcher, the coalfields are dead, and the valleys that depended on them are mired in poverty. Cardiff, on the other hand, reinvented itself as both the heart of Welsh culture – including its tongue-twisting language – and its own blend of new Euro-urbanism.

I had the privilege of spending a day with two leaders in the Welsh food system, Stephen Garrett and Professor Kevin Morgan. Garrett – long-haired, black-bereted, and a self-described “child of the sixties” – is one of those special cats whose charm and integrity allow him to get away with starting trouble.  He runs the Riverside Community Market Association which is responsible for operating farmers’ markets, urban gardens, and a new 10-acre city youth farm. His organization also agitates for a sustainable Cardiff food system and played a part in a Welsh government initiative that developed 200 food coops in rural places where coal’s demise had left the people without economic opportunity or healthy food options. I said to myself that here’s a guy who’s really connecting the dots.

To be sure we saw the dark side of the British system Steven took us to the old Cardiff Market for lunch. The market hall dates back to the 19th century and has seen better days. Stopping at one of its artery clogging eateries, Stephen guided me through a lunchtime order that included faggots (meatballs) and peas, Clark’s pie (a fatty meat concoction wrapped in barely cooked dough), and chips (fries) smothered in gravy.

Laughing at my lack of gustatory enthusiasm, Stephen told me that the city had given him permission to locate a farmers’ market on the public market’s main street. This will raise the profile of local food even more and give shoppers access to top-notch produce. When I asked Stephen what he thought was behind the dramatic uptick in local food interest, he cited Britain’s mad cow disease outbreak, memories of World War Two’s food shortages, and the Jamie Oliver craze. “Food is the new sex,” is the way he summed it up.

Walking off our lunch on the quays of Cardiff harbor, I asked Stephen about his challenges. As I’d heard in Oxford, he said it’s hard to attract low-income people to the farmers’ markets (he loved the Farmers Market Nutrition Program idea), and while the City of Cardiff has a food strategy on its books, there’s no one advocating for it (he liked the food policy council idea as well). Progressive food projects and ideas already abound in Wales. The challenge is to connect them.

After speaking to a Cardiff University audience that evening, I had dinner with Kevin Morgan whose deep, resonant voice sounds like its about to break into a Dylan Thomas poem. He is a Professor at the School of Planning, and with his co-author, Roberta Sonnino, wrote The School Food Revolution. Over the best lamb shank dish I’ve ever eaten (related no doubt to those fleeced darlings I saw leaping gaily across verdant Welsh hillsides), we discussed his book’s central theme: using the purchasing power of government – the “power of the public plate” as Kevin calls it – to leverage a wide range of economic, social, and environmental benefits.

Kevin’s opinions do little to conceal his heritage. As the son of a coal miner, he has no patience for the laissez-faire market policies of conservative politicians. He feels passionately that government must intervene to equitably distribute benefits when the market place fails. “Why not use the power of the public purse to stimulate economic growth, healthy eating, and lower carbon emissions?  After all, aren’t these outcomes desired by everyone?” he asked between enthusiastic gulps of wine. Kevin argues eloquently for the re-localization of the food chain saying that, “the power of purchase is one of the most influential means through which the state can effect behavioral change in economy and society.”

He cites the East Ayrshire, Scotland school district where purchasing officials decided to wring as much benefit as they could out of every school food expenditure. What distinguishes this approach from America’s farm-to-school movement is that it doesn’t just focus on buying more local food. It asks, and in many cases demands, that the food be produced sustainably if not organically, that fair wages be paid to everyone in the food chain, that packaging be reduced and recycling promoted, that job training programs are available to unskilled and disadvantaged people, and that the distance between the source and the user be shortened as much as possible.

The results are impressive. In this district of 120,000 people, food miles were reduced from 330 miles to 99 miles, and the economic multiplier effect contributed an additional $260,000 to the local economy in just one year.  And oh yes, student satisfaction with the meals was significantly higher when compared to the previous scheme.

By trip’s end I had concluded that British food fighters are nearly as prevalent as their nations’ sheep, but considerably more aggressive. People like Ruth, Clare, and Stephen are hard at work building a just and sustainable British food system. As their movement coalesces and engages policymakers at all levels, their chances of success will only increase.

4 thoughts on “A Brief But Very British Food Journey

  1. We just got back last weekend from the UK. We traveled from London to Inverness and back stopping along the way. There were a lot of interesting things I observed while there in regards to their food and on my upcoming Saturday post I will be touching on one small part of it in relation to livestock.

    I noticed that their food isn’t saturated in HFCS. They have food industry ads promoting organic milk. Restaurants and eateries all over are letting it be known what meats/veggies they are serving. Overall I felt that the movement over there was much stronger than it is here in the States.

    However, on the other hand I also got a lot of questions when I mentioned that I had an urban farm. That doesn’t seem to have taken off quite as well there as it has here.

  2. Now, Mark, let’s not be hasty. “… how far British food has come since the unfortunate days of ‘bubble and squeak.’” I’m a great fan of modern British cuisine, but let’s not deny the deliciousness of a well-made from quality ingredients, properly seasoned, traditional dish of humble bubble and squeak!

    This was a terrific post–most informative and very encouraging.

  3. What a great article. Care to do another about southern tier New York? :) I’d love an article on the Hudson Valley, where I live (but am not originally from). Of all places, we seem to have a dichotomy of eating habits arranged by economic status and income, despite relatively wide availability of local (but rarely organic) foods.

  4. A lovely coincidence occurred just after this piece was posted. Stephen Garret who I describe in my British Food Journey piece was selected as the recipient of the 2010 Inpsire Wales Award for the environmentalist category. Congratualations Stephen! Mark Winne