Time to get defiant: Improving our collective food awareness

In the final blog in our series about a post COVID-19 sustainable food future, Bristol public health medic Dr Angela Raffle explores how we find ways to help everyone in the city understand where our food comes from. How do we radically shift our collective awareness about food?

This is part of a series of blog posts looking at how we can emerge from the coronavirus pandemic with a more resilient food system, each blog introduced by Bristol Going for Gold Coordinator, Joy Carey.

Joy Carey, Bristol Going for Gold Coordinator and Consultant in Sustainable Food Systems Planning:

A typical conversation about how to right the wrongs in the food system often ends up in a chicken and egg situation. In fact, it’s well-worn and pretty dull: no point in making changes to supply if the demand isn’t there. What is the point in promoting FairTrade, or climate-friendly farming practices or animal welfare schemes, or ecologically safe ingredients if the buyers don’t know or care about – or even value – such changes? The argument is simple: no-one wants to pay more than they have to. The 2020 pandemic has highlighted the fact that already huge and now rapidly increasing numbers of people struggle to feed themselves. So, if making positive changes in the fields or along the supply chain result in higher prices for customers, then such products won’t sell or are only bought by people with money to spare. The supermarkets will still engage in prices wars and offer ‘buy one get one free’ (BOGOFs). People like bargains – and there we have it. Stuck in the supply and demand argument. Stuck in the ‘cheaper always wins’ scenario. Stuck with the challenge of how to ensure that the most vulnerable people have access to good nutritious food that supports health and wellbeing. There has to be a better way and our question is how can we address this collectively as a city?

Angela Raffle, Consultant in Public Health and Chair of The Community Farm:

Good food for everyone is a matter of social justice and if you’re not angry about the current inequalities then maybe you should be. Tens of thousands of years ago all human beings gathered, hunted, cooked and shared what they needed. Once agriculture and settlements became the norm not everyone participated in every step of food gathering and preparation, yet the means by which food got onto your plate remained visible and understood by all. In many communities, food was communal. Why would you not want your family and friends to have enough to eat? Items like rare spices would have been traded and exchanged over long distances, but food was never seen as ‘just a commodity’ or something to make lots of money from.

Now things are different. The food industry doesn’t settle just for transporting, storing and processing produce in order to supply the world. Instead it finds ever more inventive (and harmful) ways to ‘add value’, while paying primary producers a tiny fraction of what the public eventually spend for their food. Remote investors get rich through trading ‘food futures’ – a form of gambling on prices for as yet un-grown crops, causing shortages and lost livelihoods. As explained in Joy’s 2011 ‘Who Feeds Bristol?’ report, the system that puts most of the food on our plates has shifted to being virtually invisible, and the underlying driver is not health for people and planet, but commerce. Governments around the world deny any responsibility for food supply even in an emergency, saying instead that it is all up to industry.

This is why we should be angry. We can be powerful if we radically shift our collective awareness. Relying on each and every resident of Bristol to find out about and change the food system one by one won’t work. Instead we do it by changing the culture. Decades of tobacco campaigning led, on 1 July 2007, to an overnight game-change when it became illegal to smoke tobacco in enclosed public spaces. Two critical elements in achieving this were a) raising public awareness about illness and deaths from second-hand smoke amongst hospitality workers, and b) demonstrating that almost everyone (smokers included) disliked indoor smoke, and was too polite ever to challenge it. Until 2007 the tobacco industry had successfully persuaded everyone to stay silent, by portraying smokefree supporters as do-good, bossy, killjoy, unpleasant zealots. Who wants to be lumped into a group like this?

Similar forces are at work suppressing the changes we need in our food system. Businesses are wonderful things and provision of goods and services is an essential part of human society. But ‘big food’ has copied ‘big oil’ and ‘big tobacco’ in protecting their business model when evidence of adverse impacts for health, for human rights, and for the natural world began to challenge it. In 1977 a US Senate Committee assembled mounting evidence that sugar, fat, processed food, and heavy advertising of calorie dense foods, were causing the growing epidemic of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The food industry backlash was swift and effective. They forced a rewriting of the Committee report, and unleashed a wave of marketing for ‘healthy’ ‘low-fat’ processed products. When in 2003 the World Health Organisation was set to recommend (in Technical Report Series 916) that sugar should make up no more than 10% of calorie intake, push back from the industry and the US health secretary led to all mention of sugar disappearing from the report. Much of the food industry’s public relations activity is hidden, enacted through ‘news’, magazine articles, celebrity pronouncements, and online propaganda. It is no accident that the public see organic food as overpriced and elitist, that food campaigners are portrayed as middle class and out of touch, that poor quality food is justified because it is ‘all that people can afford’, that health workers are persuaded to steer clear of the ‘green elite agenda’, and that the mass media keeps us all confused with ridiculous fads, superfoods, scares, diets, and unregulated ‘supplements’.

The last ten years has seen a welcome shift in food culture in Bristol. Allied campaigns, including the move to ban advertising billboards from our public spaces and the new Bristol Bites Back Better campaign, are important too. The grassroots collaborative food response during the COVID-19 pandemic – whilst I wish it was not so badly needed – has been inspiring and incredible, as this short film illustrates:

The distribution network of Feeding Bristol saw 120 tonnes of food distributed through a network of community food hubs in just 10 weeks when the first national lockdown occurred. In three months FOOD (Food on Our Doorsteps) Clubs increased from five to thirteen clubs, each providing food for up to 40 families. Grassroots organisations and individuals stepped up providing culturally appropriate food service and delivery, new services such as the Stokes Croft Food Project pay-what-you-can café and the adaptation of services such as those provided by Southmead Development Trust. The people and organsations involved are far too many to mention, but include volunteers from the National Food Service, Bristol Food Union, Talo, Heart of BS13 and Wat Phra Sri Sanphet to name just a few.

This response has shown the commitment to food equality that exists right across the city. It’s now time to accelerate our efforts in shifting our collective food awareness. It’s time to get defiant, get angry, get informed. And if anyone sneers at you, just smile back sweetly, and maybe lend them a copy of Tim Lang’s book.

Want to join the movement? Visit www.bristolbitesbackbetter.co.uk to explore resources, discover stories, and participate in the conversation on social media using the hashtag #BiteBackBetter. Sign up for the Bristol Bites Back Better newsletter for regular updates about our city’s food and how we can build a more resilient food future.

Read the first blog in this series about a post COVID-19 sustainable food future: Bristol Going for Gold Coordinator Joy Carey proposes five core principles on which to start building a better and more resilient food system.

The second blog post in the series is by Sara Venn of Incredible Edible Bristol and is about how the city can keep the momentum going to upscale and increase urban food production.

The third blog in the series is by Jo Ingleby, Director of The Children’s Kitchen. Jo’s blog considers the importance of being able to cook a meal from scratch with simple, fresh, affordable ingredients. The significance of this essential skill has been highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis, as dealing with shortages of certain ingredients is – of course – far less stressful when we know how to easily adapt meals.

In the fourth blog of the series Katie Powell and Fiona Jarvis from environmental consultancy and Bristol Going for Gold partner Resource Futures consider the benefits of closed-loop systems. These are essentially systems that help the city conserve resources – and money – designing out unnecessary pollution and waste and treating anything that remains as a resource, not waste.

In the fifth blog, Stuart Hatton considers the importance of retail diversity. Stuart is managing director of Umberslade, developer of Wapping Wharf, Bristol’s much-loved harbourside neighbourhood and home to many independent food businesses.

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