Understanding the Role of Community to Inspire Change
Throughout February and March, the Get Togethers team have been doing what they do best and bringing people together across the four nations of the UK at our end-of-programme regional events. The aim of these events was to celebrate the programme’s impacts, the connections made and the power of networks that have been formed throughout the duration of the four-year National Lottery funded programme.
Taking place in Manchester, Wrexham, Glasgow and Newry, Northern Ireland, these events saw over 100 representatives from National Partners, Local Partners, My Food Community participants, and other interested parties. The events brought people together to solidify existing connections, meet other grassroots community leaders, share ideas and knowledge, and as discuss the key topics and issues around the food system and for Good Food Movement leaders.
Each event focused on:
- Impacts and learnings from the programme
- Food policy session specific to each nation
- How community leaders can create change
- A workshop and discussion, taking an agroecological approach to the different challenges in addressing food systems in rural and urban areas
Using the research findings so far, we ran through the impacts that have been identified throughout the programme to date. This includes the importance of building capacity, empowering leadership and connecting communities.
In Scotland, we were fortunate to have Professor Mat Jones, one of our academic research partners from University of the West England, give his summary of the some of the findings:
“Through our research we got the sense that food-based community events are often undervalued. There’s an image that holding community events are just about sharing some cake or soup. There’s a perception that they’re nice but not very important activities.
But our research found that community members are often highly skilled in using food-based activities to bridge social divides and involve very diverse groups of people. Maybe there is some sexism where a lot of the time it’s women ‘doing things’, or where community events are not run by professionals. However, there is clear leadership that deserves public attention and public investment.
In many ways the Get Togethers programme has taken place through a really difficult time in the pandemic, but these events shone a light on a field that has been invisible and overlooked.”
Bahareh Sarvi, Impact Lead for Get Togethers’ programme said:
‘Our research partners from CAWR (the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience - Coventry University) indicate a need for more empirical evidence on the impact of the civic sector's participation in the food system to facilitate community-level innovations that tackle health, affordability, cultural acceptability, and sustainability in our food systems. During the last four years, the Get Togethers programme documented the great work of the community food organisers and acknowledged the impact of empowering good food champions through My Food Community and Networks.
These regional events were an excellent opportunity to exhibit the power of networks to promote community-scale good food citizenship with the participants. These events also facilitated greater peer-directed work in regions and localities by encouraging network expansion and sharing ideas around using evidence-based findings for advocacy.’
Policy sessions on food systems
In each of the four nations we hosted a policy session focusing on the different food systems throughout the UK. Headed up by Soil Association’s policy representatives and partners from Nourish Scotland, Nourish Northern Ireland and Food Sense Wales, these discussions brought to light the challenges, varying levels of governmental input into a cohesive food system, and the crucial role that food partnerships and empowered community leaders can, and do, play in an effective and successful food system that is set up to benefit nature, climate and health.
A broken food system with light at the end of the tunnel...
When it came to policy discussion, in England Laura Chan, Soil Association Senior Policy Officer, outlined just how fragmented the food system is with no sole department having accountability for it – responsibility currently sits across 16 different government departments.
In Wales, Andrew Tuddenham, Soil Association Head of Policy Cymru, alongside Katie Palmer, Director of Food Sense Wales, detailed how Wales differs from England due to the jurisdiction of the food system being part of Welsh devolved powers. While there appears to be a clear understanding that the food system needs changing, in Wales there are currently numerous bills in progress, exacerbating the issue of a fragmented system. There is hope however with The Food (Wales) Bill which, if successful, could provide the start to a cohesive framework that is so vitally needed.
Andrew Tuddenham, Head of Policy, Cymru said:
“It was great to hear so much interest in the Food (Wales) Bill and enthusiasm and support for the food system framework that it proposes. Currently there’s no clear consensus on a collective vision for the food system in Wales, and food policy is vulnerable to partisan party politics and relatively short political cycles. As a result, nature is in decline here, producers struggle to make a good living and consumers are increasingly unhealthy and food insecure. The Bill provides an opportunity to build a solid, principled, long-term and institutionally embedded vision and put the food system in the driving seat, rather than the back seat of other policy areas.”
Northern Ireland painted a similar picture to England, with many frustrated at the lack of even a basic conversation at local or UK level about the reforms to the food systems that are so urgently required.
The shining light of the four nations was Scotland. The Good Food Nation Act received royal assent to become law on 26th July 2022, tying together all the vital parts of the puzzle, as Simon Kenton-Lake from Nourish Scotland outlined in his presentation jointly delivered with David McKay, Head of Policy, Soil Association Scotland.
Every presentation delivered a strong message: a working food system is about far more than just the food on the plate. It supports public health, mitigates climate change and builds greater resilience. A fully functioning food system would also improve biodiversity and reduce pollution, for example the pollution of rivers. As it is currently outlined, the Good Food Nation Act sets out to change all of this from the ground up by creating the infrastructure necessary to build a workable system around, and by working with the local community leaders and food partnerships at the forefront of this conversation offering real, workable solutions through their knowledge and experience.
David McKay, Head of Policy Soil Association Scotland said:
“It was really inspiring to hear from all those involved in community food networks from across Scotland, from the Western Isles to the North-east coast. There is a real sense of opportunity in Scotland through the Good Food Nation Act and the requirement to produce National and Local Good Food Plans. If the government gets this right, these plans can be a catalyst for change in our food system, building on the great work that is already happening through community-led programmes all over the country.”
Do community Leaders and food partnerships have the answer to the food policy problem?
Regardless of the current position of the representative gov’t, discussion was equally energetic and filled with purpose when it came to how local community leaders and food partnerships can impact policy. In England and Northern Ireland, discussion turned to a plan on how to lobby local gov’t leaders and their MPs to push the conversation around a workable, cohesive Food Bill ahead of the next general election. In Wales the energy was focused on amplifying the already existing conversation that a Food Bill is needed, and in Scotland it was how to ensure that the vital input of food partnerships and local leaders are involved in the process of enacting the new Good Food Nation Act, and that there is enough dedicated funding to deliver the promise and potential that it holds.
Despite the varied landscape of food systems and policy throughout the UK nations and the varied scope of attendees at each event, the same conclusion was reached at all: by empowering community leaders through building their capacity with leadership development, small grants and peer-to-peer support, vital connections can be forged to implement real and lasting change. The change that is so needed within the UK food system will only come about with communities and food partnerships at the forefront of the conversation and decision-making process.
Laura Chan, Senior Policy Officer, Soil Association said:
“The work of the Food for Life Get Togethers team and the My Food Community participants is truly inspiring. The changes that are already being made on the ground and the passion of the people driving them prove that change is possible, and a better food environment is a reality for all of us. It was a fantastic event to have joined and I was honored to share in the energy in the room.”
Workshop: Connecting the Rural and Urban: Working Towards Food System Change (England, Scotland, Wales)
This participatory workshop used an agroecology lens, and an approach that focused on resilience and connectivity within rural and urban ecosystem, to explore the strengths and unique challenges of the good food movement across rural and urban areas. Experiences varied widely across the different nations – not least because of the contributions from those living in the Hebrides, who have a unique experience of close-knit rural livelihoods and community – but were echoed to some degree across all rural areas. Shared challenges included a lack of access to high quality locally grown food and the gap in affordability, the ubiquity of fast food, larger issues with commercial farming, farming policy and subsidies, and access to land. Discussions around the best way forward focused on enabling communities to come up with their own solutions, thereby playing both to strengths and opportunities across urban and rural areas. It was clear, however, that this needed to be developed in place-based discussions, where rural producers and communities could work with nearby urban areas to create solutions to address their mutual challenges.
Feedback from the events
These events were a crucial part of the wrap up of the full Get Togethers programme and were a much-needed celebration of all the hard work that has been put into the programme by all the individuals who have worked on it, including partners and participants who have been involved over the past four years. It was wonderful to hear from the attendees at the end of the events that the majority really enjoyed networking and forming new relationships within their regions and enjoyed the inspiring face-to-face conversations.
Chandra Pankhania, My Food Community UK Manager said:
“It was important to bring the My Food Community participants together to build support, action and leadership. The pilot programme delivered mainly online created a vital discussion space. However, meeting face to face allows for a unique camaraderie between our participants and adds valuable networking.”
According to the evaluations at the end of the events, most people came away from the events feeling energised, enlightened or inspired. Most importantly, they felt ready to build on the connections made and to keep elevating their programme as best they could.
Adam Carter, Senior Programme Manager for Food for Life Get Togethers’ said:
“It was great to bring such an important group of people together that have contributed so much to improving community food over the last four years. It was a real pleasure to see such committed and enthusiastic people connecting over a shared passion and making plans to continue their valuable work.”
Beyond the Get Togethers
We would love to build on the energy and knowledge we pulled together in the Regional Events. The online platform Circle is an excellent place to organise and plan activities collectively. We will add resources and information about the policy workshops over the next few weeks and welcome any other contributions.
Other Actions Community leaders and organisations can take:
- Continue to build on the networking and connections made through the Circle platform
- Promote opportunities where the voices of community groups can have influence across the food system
- Support structured leadership development at the point where change really happens
- Share stories from the ground
Head of Networks and Partnerships, Amit Dattani said:
“Change happens when enough dedicated and passionate people feel empowered, connected and able to step back and understand their role in the broader system, and the role they can play in improving it. We can all agree our current food system needs to change, and the My Food Community participants I met and heard from at our regional events embodied the energy and resolve needed to push for that change. As is always the case, a range of inspirational people are already making things happen on the ground at a local level, and events like this are so important in bringing them together and keeping that collective fire lit.”