Few people automatically think of The Women's Institute as a radical and campaigning organisation, being more often associated with the 'jam and Jerusalem' stereotype.
Formed in 1915, to revitalise rural communities, the organisation's aims have broadened, and the WI is now the largest voluntary women's organisation in the UK. It has almost 220,000 members, in about 6,300 WI groups around the country.
As a federated organisation, the regional structures have a high degree of autonomy and independence. So when members choose a campaign, we can be confident that it’s on the issues that matter to women and their communities across the country.
Last week, at the House of Commons, The WI launched its new campaign, #WIFoodPoverty. The hard hitting commentary from their invited guest speakers pulled no punches. “Food poverty is not about access to food, it’s about poverty” said Professor Liz Dowler. Rt Hon Frank Field MP went further. “Let’s be clear; when we talk about ‘food poverty’, what we’re really talking about is hunger and malnutrition, in the UK, in 2018.”
Carmel McConnell MBE, FRSA, founder of Magic Breakfast, which provides breakfasts in schools where 35% or more of the children experience poverty, said “Right now millions of children are going to school too hungry to learn. The evidence says that a child hungry between 5 and 10 years old, will cost the state 3 times more during their lifetime.”
She said: “We’re sleepwalking into an era of savage levels of deprivation”. Time and again, speakers identified changes in work patterns and benefits as critical factors in tipping people into the desperate poverty that has seen the huge rise in food bank use in the last year.
Ann Jones, Vice Chair of NFWI, and FFCC Commissioner, said “Food is the glue that holds our communities together.” But what happens when the glue is coming unstuck? Lynne Stubbings, NFWI Chair said: “Systemic, long term solutions are needed, not just food redistribution [through food banks] or more education.” But, says Denise Bentley, founder of First Love Foundation: “the people who really know what food poverty is like are often left out of these conversations.”
And therein lies the rationale for the FFCC Commission. As citizens, we do not live in neat, distinct policy categories. Our lives are complex, connected, constantly changing, rooted in our relationships with the places we live. Thinking in systems, and place-based policy making, tackles the vertical silos of traditional policy thinking and practice. In the British Academy’s report on “Where we Live Now”, co-chaired by Dame Fiona Reynolds, also a FFCC Commissioner, they say:
“We are seeing significant societal and political changes. The changing world of work, those left behind by globalisation, aging populations, climate change and technology are shifting the balance of politics as usual. These problems can’t be solved by government, business, philanthropy or academy alone. New types of collaboration are needed.”
For all its positive intentions, Defra’s consultation, called ‘Health and Harmony: The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit’, is largely silent on two things most likely to lead to unhealthy and inharmonious lives - food poverty and food justice. For an ambitious and reforming Secretary of State, there is still so much more that could be said and done to join up food, farming and countryside policy-making with health, education, work and benefits, housing, transport and digital connectivity… All of these are an essential part of the conversation about what it means to live in vibrant, flourishing, sustainable rural communities.
It is enormously encouraging to see women’s organisations and women’s voices taking leadership in raising these issues. It is women who are more affected by food poverty, as mothers and carers, and as un- or under-employed or low-paid workers, often in the food retail, the food service and care sectors.
In food, farming and countryside debates, the discourse has been largely dominated by men, and men’s voices. This gendered phenomenon show up even when women make up the majority in the workforce. Women make up 57% of the broad ‘food’ workforce; their representation in its leadership diminishes, the further up the organisational hierarchies you look. In 2017, only three food or food service organisations were represented in the (still only) 37 of FTSE250 companies who have women executive directors on their boards (and two of those are categorised as ‘leisure’ - Wetherspoons and Dominos).
One remarkable and welcome change sees the largest farming union, the NFU, appointing its first woman president, Minette Batters. The number of women in farming has tripled in 10 years, and whilst women still make up only 17% of the farming workforce, this somewhat belies the way in which farming families work (especially the small and medium sized farming families, whose members are more likely to be working multiple jobs).
Of my own closest women farmer friends they - like me - all have other jobs: farmer AND psychotherapist: farmer AND lecturer: farmer AND journalist; but the way employment and agriculture statistics are gathered often renders their contribution invisible. Farmers are keen to understand, in Defra’s consultation, how they can earn a reasonable living, providing for their own families, and produce safe, healthy, sustainable food for their own communities and the country. And without a doubt a fair few of those farming family women will also be members of the WI.
As the FFCC travels the country in the next nine months, we will be visiting WI groups, farming families, rural businesses, community groups and many other organisations besides, to hear directly from people in those communities. We will be able to build a rich picture of rural life across the UK, where people can speak their truth in all its richness and complexity, on the things they care about, so that when we answer the question “So what kind of country do we want to live in?” we will know that women’s voices in all their variety and diversity will be heard.
For more information about the work of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission please visit www.thersa.org/FFCC and get in contact via FFCC@rsa.org.uk.