Call for Food Policy Council for nation’s capital

Jonathan Brooks-Jones reports from the IWA’s Food in the City conference, held in Cardiff this week

Calls for a civil society-led Food Policy Council for Cardiff were made at the IWA’s Food in the City conference, held at the Chapter Arts Centre earlier this week.  Such a Council would emulate innovative initiatives in cities across the United States and Canada and would take on the task of co-ordinating the creation and implementation of a sustainable food policy for the capital.

A Food Policy Council would bring together representatives from NHS Trusts, the schools and University sectors, Cardiff City Council, retailers, hotels and restaurant owners and crucially the many voluntary civil society organisations that are springing up, such as Riverside Community Market. Its role would be to promote more local solutions in the production, retailing and consumption of food.

Professor Kevin Morgan, of Cardiff University’s Regeneration Institute, said integrating food policy was rapidly becoming a central organising principle of planning. “The basic necessities of life are air, water, shelter, and food, and urban planners have addressed them all, with the conspicuous exception, until recently, of food,” he said.

Yet food was central to a wide array of policy areas, including the economy, social justice, public health and the environment. Professor Morgan pointed out that food consumption, which presents such challenges as child poverty and obesity, is central to the World Health Organisation’s Healthy Cities programme, of which Cardiff has just become a member.

At the level of City governance, Professor Morgan said there needs to be conversations between isolated departmental ‘silos’ and volunteer networks such as the Riverside Community Market. Opening these lines of communication would aid the flow of ideas and experiences between grassroots organisations and policy-making governmental departments. It would allow different bodies to share experiences of how to engage with the public about sustainability, and offer ideas for policy-makers. This would be one essential role of a Food Policy Council. Finally, city regions must be reconnected with rural areas, so that food services and supermarkets in the city can source locally produced food.

Our present approach to the procurement and consumption of food leads to:

  • Problems for our health caused by poor balance of fresh and processed food.
  • An increased carbon footprint as a result of too much food flown in from overseas
  • People paying too much for poor quality, often ‘convenience’ food, which is often thought to represent ‘value for money’, but in practice does not.
  • Unhealthy diet, and alienation from the natural world.

Elin Jones, Minister for Rural Affairs, who is due to publish the Welsh Government’s National Food Strategy in early July, agreed that there was a need:  Speaking at the conference she said the way to bring government agencies and ‘bottom-up’ grassroots organisations and wellbeing networks together.

“One of my main aspirations is to get more people eating fresh, local produce. But that isn’t as simple as it seems. Firstly, we can’t eat it if we don’t grow it. At my first NFU conference when I became Minister, I challenged the audience by saying that our schoolchildren cannot live on lamb alone.

“I lived to tell the tale, and the NFU and others realize the need to diversify the food produced from the land of Wales. I made that comment in particular because of the demands on the public sector to procure more Welsh food. However, the public sector – our schools and hospitals – need a variety of food, not just red meat and dairy. Due to headage payments for sheep and cattle, our agriculture has become dominated by lamb and beef production.

“Those subsidies have stopped and the incentive to just keep sheep is no longer in the public subsidy system. That’s not to say that there are many parts of Wales that will always only suit red meat production, but there is other more low-lying land that is better used for other food production (and did so in the past) and also then will not compete with lamb and beef farmers.

“At the moment, therefore, we simply don’t produce the diversity of food needed for a healthy diet. If we want to eat local, we need to grow more vegetables. That’s why I’ve launched an action plan to strengthen the horticultural sector in Wales. It’s also why I’ve changed the rules for accessing agricultural subsidies so, for the first time, they do not disincentivise the horticultural sector.”

Riverside Community Market organises farmer and community markets in locations across Cardiff, giving city-dwellers the opportunity to buy local, organic produce, and to speak to growers and learn about food procurement and sustainability. They have also set up the Riverside Community Garden (allotment) project, which is establishing a ten-acre market garden near St Hilary in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Architect Andre Viljoen, of the University of Brighton, proposed that urban agriculture could form a partial solution to the issue of sustainable food procurement. He drew attention to the success of urban agriculture in Cuba, as a possible model for Wales to move in the direction of. A central idea is that of creating ‘continuous landscapes’, which means linking up the isolated green spaces within a city, with cycle-lanes and footpaths. More radical than this, is the idea to open up pockets of land for cultivation in inner-urban areas, thus increasing the amount of green space and land that can be cultivated.

A part of Viljoen’s aspiration is for restaurant and cafes to grow their own vegetables inside the shop, by use of hydroponics if necessary. This would be beneficial in at least two ways. Firstly, the food will not have to travel, causing less CO2 emissions. Secondly, it can be aesthetically pleasing to see vegetation in inner-city areas. This was an important point for Viljoen, who wants people to think about the aesthetic qualities of urban agriculture, and the benefits of having ‘organic ornaments’. In environmental terms, it can increase biodiversity, which is crucial to ecological balance. In social terms it can foster an interest and a greater understanding of where food comes from and how it is produced.

This goes hand in hand with the work of the Riverside Community group, who also run projects and events in schools, which are designed to educate and raise an active interest in sustainable food procurement and consumption.

The bottom-up approach of wellbeing networks performs the crucial task of raising awareness and encouraging people to take an active interest in food. However, for these to be most effective, and to prevent them from remaining as isolated examples, a Food Policy Council is urgently required to pool experiences and resources and also to form legislation to reinforce the needs of the sustainable food community.

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is sub-editor for ClickonWales

Also within Politics and Policy