Food cuts through society on so many levels that perhaps focusing on how we feed ourselves is the best chance we have to achieve progressive social change. If an army marches on its stomach, perhaps social action starts at our kitchen table.
For most humans (and many mammals too), eating together is a fundamental building block of daily social life. Lots of people are sitting down for a big meal with friends and family this time of year. Religious festivals, birthdays, celebrations, are often marked by an indulgent feast. Food and drink brings people together. Any community organiser will tell you it’s a sure way to fuel attendance at community meetings. The RSA itself was founded in a coffee shop in 18th Century Covent Garden.
The story of how we came to produce enough food for 7 billion people is wrapped up in the emergence of civilisation and society across the ages. Neighbours came together, over increasing distances, to form collectives, trade goods in markets, and make infrastructure investments through governments and tax regimes. We harnessed the power of tools, animals, machines and fuels to make agriculture highly productive. Irrigation, breeding, pest control – our food system is perhaps the best example of how we have organised ourselves to command and conquer nature, and also of the dangers we’ve created by doing so.
The UK food system – employing 11% of the workforce – is premised on a huge concentration of power – all 17 million hectares of agricultural land is owned by just 0.25% of the population. And we pay a price for efficiency: the environmental impact of an intensely farmed field is worse than a manicured back garden. As NEF put it: “our food system is defective, because the way we understand it is defective.” The drivers of the food system have historically been high output, low prices, and eradication of deficiency diseases. A globalised and commoditised food chain allows us to overcome local agricultural volatility and diversify local diets, but other costs are uncounted and global dependence comes with its own vulnerabilities. As my friend – an environmental campaigner – put it to me in the pub a few years ago, the climate change catastrophe will most profoundly be felt as a humanitarian crisis in the next two decades: “we aren’t equipped to deal with hundreds of millions of people, forced to move across borders because their land is no longer hospitable or productive”.
We need to stop complaining that local, fresh, organic produce is so expensive – and start asking why other foods are scarily cheap. We need to stop complaining that people can’t cook – and appreciate that cooking has switched from being the work of servants, to a signifier of class and status. Food is ‘having a moment’: it has become a marker of gentrification, part of regeneration strategy; and of counter-gentrification protests. We should capture the potential of this energy. While food banks are often in the news a depressing symptom of an economic system which leaves people behind, solutions to hunger and exclusion will work best if they are relational, harnessing the creative capacities of communities, rather than being transactional.
That’s because the dangers of our current food system are also social in nature: we are alienated from the process by which food gets to our plate, and the other people who make it happen. The obesity crisis – and the associated health costs – are connected to the fact that it is often corporations cooking for us – as Michael Pollan explained at the RSA last year. And corporations and brands are themselves in a complex web – sophisticated retailers failed to notice for months that horsemeat was in their beef burgers.
One in three young adults is unaware bacon comes from pigs.
Overcoming complex, interrelated challenges has attracted activists and social entrepreneurs, and authorities and businesses that realise that responsible business makes good business sense. For example, the low wages paid to fast food employees in the US have secured support for a higher legal minimum wage. In London, Shift Design is rolling out a model in London to provide a healthy version of the ubiquitous chicken shop. Lambeth, as part of its drive to be a co-operative council, is thinking strategically about food - connecting the municipal issue of food waste with resident issues of food poverty. Lambeth helped Community Shop expand south – it cleverly brings together cheap food recovered from the wasteful fringes of the food system with a range of advice and support services for low income people. Last year, Asda asked the RSA to recommend how it could enhance the community function of its supermarkets, and several of our recommendations are being trialled in Colne, Lancashire. From Newfoundland’s impressive Food Security Network, to the hugely popular idea this summer to bring Skyfarms to Central London, groups are working to ensure that we are more resilient, or, to put it bluntly, ensure we are more than “nine meals from anarchy”.
This year, the RSA has worked with participants in the Incredible Edible movement, which started in Todmorden in Yorkshire and involves several RSA Fellows. Incredible Edible has led to food being grown all over town, with projects partnering with the police, with local schools and with market traders. Our new report highlights how activists and volunteers are using food as a way to engage residents of a place in their economy, in their environment, and in their community and in shaping their future. Coming out of our research, we have defined a way for community food groups to measure the social network of their group – since the groups we met told us that the strength of the network was the key to success and sustainability of any efforts to grow, learn and thrive – in food, diet and beyond.
We recommend how community-led groups can overcome common challenges of self-organised voluntary groups, using network analysis; you can read the report here. It’s not as complex as it sounds. It basically just means recording and analysing answers to ten questions, to map the strengths, weaknesses and changes in networks. The potential for action derives in part from the strength of the network.
As Pam, who started Incredible Edible, is fond of saying: “If you eat, you’re in”. The food system connects us all. Through a mass movement like Incredible Edible, we may find the broad coalition that we need to address multiple and related challenges of poverty, sustainability and social and political engagement.
So as you emerge from your food coma in the coming days, ask yourself, “are things bad enough yet?”; then commit to joining a growing network of people already attempting to eat their way out.
To truly change the food system you really have to change just about everything: good nutrition stems from access to good food; access to good food isn’t going to happen without economic justice…Everything affects everything. It’s all tied together, and the starting place hardly matters: A just and righteous system will have a positive impact on everything we care about, just as an unjust, exploitative system makes everything worse.