The Future of Food
Two decades since the charity behind the Jellied Eel was formed, we hand over to Kath Dalmeny, head of Sustain and member of the London Food Board, to hear what’s been ticked off the ‘to do’ list and what still needs to be done.
Food was a pretty uninspiring affair when I landed in London back in 1999. Keen to make a difference, I started volunteering for Sustain and my first job was to undertake surveys of the cost and quality of food in shops and cafés. A few champions of good food were holding out – some artisan food retailers, a handful of wholefood cafés, some really great chefs and entrepreneurs working in a few schools, retail outlets and top-end restaurants. This handful of passionate pioneers felt like warriors facing down a tide of highly processed junk food and a ubiquitous flow of sugary drinks.
‘Back then, Turkey Twizzlers and chips were mainstays of school dinners.’
Food chaos ruled
At the same time, British farmers were experiencing a decade of serious disruption, rocked by mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease, E.coli and salmonella food poisoning. Meanwhile, obesity, climate change and food deserts were being talked about in the mainstream media. Back then, Turkey Twizzlers and chips were mainstays of school dinners.
Out of this food chaos emerged Sustain, an alliance of organisations motivated to work together for better food, farming and fishing. Everywhere, people were saying, we want to regain our trust in food; we want children to eat well; we want to know where our food is coming from. I joined Sustain in its infancy. Looking back, it’s truly wonderful to see how much the alliance has achieved by working together and being part of the wider movement for change.
Good food fought back
Nationally, we have collectively campaigned for (and won!) nutrition standards for meals in schools and hospitals; cooking skills on the National Curriculum; a ban on junk food advertising to children; better food labelling and sustainable fish commitments from caterers who serve well over 800 million meals a year. We’ve also catalysed a delicious renaissance in craft bakeries through The Real Bread Campaign, which celebrated its 10th birthday last year.
‘There are now beehives in parks and on roofs across the city’
Back in London, Sustain’s Capital Growth has been supporting community food gardens for over a decade with over 2,500 gardens under its belt. There are now beehives in parks and on roofs across the city and park-keepers are managing their land for people and wildlife. London became a Fairtrade City in 2008 and more recently, local authorities and communities around the country have been shaking things up by tackling excessive sugar in all our diets; this includes over 19 London boroughs who have signed up to our SUGAR SMART campaign so far. London is one of the pioneering cities to create a Food Board and a Food Strategy that has thrived under three successive Mayors. The strategy sets the framework for action to improve food across all 33 boroughs, has removed the least healthy adverts from our Tube and bus network, and achieved a Sustainable Food Cities silver award along the way!
However, these past two decades have also witnessed a dawning realisation that our food casts a long shadow. What and how we eat are major contributors to the greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss that are undermining the capacity of our planet to sustain us. Our farming, food trading and diets will need to radically change, and the good food movement could lead the charge.
‘Better food means better lives, livelihoods, farming, environments and community connections.’
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people in London cannot afford to eat well and rely on emergency food aid. Junk food and sugary drinks affect our waistlines, arteries and the health prospects of our children, with especially stark inequalities in London.
And I haven’t even mentioned Brexit…
If there’s anything the past 20 years has taught me, it’s this: better food means better lives, livelihoods, farming, environments and community connections. And when we decide to work together to improve things, we can. So we must roll up our sleeves and get cracking. Please join us, in whatever way you can.
This feature first appeared in The Jellied Eel magazine issue 59, April 2019