Tuesday, 21 May 2013

(Why) do we need food policy councils in the North East?

Posted by Duika Burges Watson

At a 'Food Policy Councils' workshop, organised by the Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability on 9th of May, I asked what may have seemed an obvious question of the expert panel of national and notable figures in food policy related work: do you think we need food policy councils and if so, at what scale - local authority, regional and/or national?

There were certainly people in the room with reasons to favour an advocacy body on food policy. As Jamie Sadler of Food Nation noted, the north east has seen a proliferation of food banks, loss of cooking skills, rising childhood obesity levels and a research lacuna about some of these issues (Jamie is involved in research with Fuse members). Food Nation have been working to establish a food policy steering group and food charter, but there may be insufficient political will to address these issues front on.

Bristol Food Policy Council's structure
Tim Payne of the much eviscerated Taste Club North East has long been a champion of local and regional food, but their advocacy work has been hampered by a lack of funding. Ian Short of Edinburgh Community Food (est. 1996) was also bemoaning the loss of support for his organisation, and they've had to respond by developing a social enterprise to sell to the corporate sector to fund their work. Liz Charles of the Durham Rural Community Council noted the high levels of deprivation, the export of around 75% of produce from the area, slow growth of alternative food movements and lack of diversity of local production heavily weighted to meat and grains.

The silence on food policy from the current government was noted by many - such a change after the 'joined up' thinking represented by comprehensive white papers such as Food Matters and the Scottish Diet Action Plan. Tom Andrews of the Bristol Food Group (a policy council by another name) noted the value of his organisation as advocates for food policy action in providing a legitimacy and expertise that could be used in the political process, but also expressed the difficulty of getting food back on the agenda of government.

The meeting was in itself a good example of stakeholder engagement - the diversity of participants included rural producers and retailers, non-government food groups, council representatives, health workers,  academics from Fuse, and the Centre for Food Policy at City University, and even the Newcastle University catering group. 

The keynote speaker was a US consultant and academic Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap, and Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin' Mamas and respected speaker on food policy councils. But the question of the difference between the UK and US context became apparent as the workshop developed. While we all may confront the possibility that we are not ready for the food challenges of the 21st century, US examples did not always 'resonate' for local participants. The organisation of UK agriculture and import/export context, the geography of distribution and the political context are all very very different. I certainly felt that while the US may seem to be forging ahead in establishing food policy councils, the UK has a good and solid record of stakeholder work on food policy, and we had an active national food policy council until quite recently. 

So the answer to the question? Clare Devereux of the very successful Food Matters in Brighton  was of the opinion that we need councils at all scales - local regional and national; others felt that regional was most important, others local. Whatever the answer, what stood out for me was the crisis of confidence and loss of stakeholder engagement in policy making, the major challenges that local communities are now facing, and the hollowing out of groups that have been working on food policy for decades. Given the impact of climate change on agriculture, the growing population, economic decline and worsening health issues; not doing something to beef up food policy is a recipe for trouble.

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