Transforming the food system

Melanie Strickland explains how local food co-operative OrganicLea plans to change the way we buy food

OrganicLea

Workers’ co-operative OrganicLea (credit Martin Slavin)

There are many ways in which food and food rituals enrich our lives, and bind us together as friends and communities.

Food is fundamental, beyond its role in nutrition. And yet the food system in the UK, taken as a whole, is exploitative and damaging. I was aware of this context when I joined OrganicLea as their ‘Community Food Movement Builder’ earlier this year.

OrganicLea is a community food project and workers’ co-operative in Waltham Forest. It runs a successful fruit and veg bag scheme in the borough, among other activities such as formal training, structured volunteering opportunities, and tailored support to people that want to set up their own food growing projects. My role is to develop and communicate the work that OrganicLea does to transform the food system.

Our vision is for a food system that is low-impact, fosters mutually-beneficial relationships between people, wildlife and plants to maximise food production, and operates without the need for chemical inputs in the form of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilisers.

Food producers should be valued, and receive a fair wage for the work that they do. People who buy food should know the people who grow it, and so have a better understanding of how their food is actually produced. Love and care is required to grow food in an ecologically and socially responsible way. Low-impact food is nutritious and tasty, and helps make us fit and strong.

Consumers could eat what is in season and become familiar with a range of fruits and vegetables. Diversity is encouraged. Food can be grown and distributed locally, eliminating or minimising the need for fossil-fuel powered transportation. There are numerous benefits that flow from community-produced food, including very simple things such as having a conversation with a neighbour at your veg bag pick-up point.

Hawkwood Nursery

Hawkwood Nursery in Chingford, home to OrganicLea (credit Martin Slavin)

By contrast, the current food system is industrial, dominated by multinationals motivated by profit. Food businesses such as Tesco are among the largest companies by revenue globally. For these companies, food is a commodity. They sell a range of goods flown in from all over the world. While they claim to cater for ‘consumer choice’, in reality they replace diverse food cultures with homogeneous products most likely produced by people who are themselves exploited. This means we can get strawberries in December, but we’re much more likely to see apples from South Africa and New Zealand than the many varieties of apple grown in the UK.

These big companies are not accountable for the harms they cause to society, including local economies being impoverished as profits are sucked out of communities and distributed to shareholders and bosses, or the public health crisis attributable to poor diets and low-quality food marketed to us, in addition to the high environmental costs – in the corporate food system huge fossil-fuel inputs are required at every stage from growing to distribution and retail. The United Nations estimates that one-third of all food is wasted globally, another indictment of the system.

To regain control, we need to transform it so that people and nature are at the centre. To do this we need to broaden and deepen the social movements working towards food sovereignty. People power can bring about this radical change. At the local level, this includes participating in community projects that grow food, supporting local growers, or helping to deliver practical solutions to the problems caused by the industrial food system.

OrganicLea volunteers

OrganicLea volunteers tending to vegetables (credit Martin Slavin)

There are numerous inspiring food projects in addition to OrganicLea in Waltham Forest. They include Transition Leytonstone, This is Rubbish, and Hornbeam Cafe with initiatives such as the People’s Kitchen, to name a few. OrganicLea itself also actively participates in networks that campaign for food justice nationally and internationally – it is a member of the Landworkers’ Alliance and La Via Campesina.

La Via Campesina is an international organisation of small producers and indigenous landworkers that defend small-scale growing as a way to promote social justice and dignity, and oppose corporate agriculture. Another way we can broaden and deepen the food justice movement is by identifying what we have in common with other groups, and finding ways to demonstrate our solidarity with them, so that they will stand with us.

Solidarity is not about being active on every single issue. Rather, it is about being mindful in our work that our goals are connected to other struggles. For example, workers in the industrial food system want better working conditions. That is something we want for ourselves too. Publishing a solidarity statement in support of striking workers might be a good way of starting a dialogue with those workers, as might attending a picket and bringing a banner.

Another example of solidarity is members of OrganicLea working with housing activists, land workers, artists and others on a project to provoke a mass popular debate about land ownership in the UK, and to reclaim spaces. Having access to suitable spaces is essential for meeting our basic needs for accommodation and our livelihoods, as well as culture. This is a long-term project and is vital to transforming the food system – a major barrier to food sovereignty is lack of access to land.

The upcoming Cultivate Festival in Waltham Forest will include space for more conversations about food sovereignty and transforming the food system – in particular at the Global Shoots Film Night on 8th September and at the Global Shoots info stall on 10th September, both at the Hornbeam Centre. These will be participatory and interactive so come along and find out more, or get in touch with us here at OrganicLea to learn about more ways you could get involved with transforming the food system – both locally and nationally.


To find out more about OrganicLea:

Visit OrganicLea.org.uk

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