The social eating network

Melanie Strickland invites people to get involved with a new forum for food growers – and shoppers – in Waltham Forest Few activities yield as […]By Waltham Forest Echo

Melanie Strickland invites people to get involved with a new forum for food growers – and shoppers – in Waltham Forest

Children prepare food at the Disco Soup event which launched the Local People’s Food Forum

Few activities yield as many social benefits as community projects oriented around food. I’ve been a social justice campaigner for more than ten years and have found that food projects, more than any other issue, bring together diverse sections of the community, and foster solidarity, co-operation, and community spirit.

This is important in the context of Waltham Forest’s diverse population – 48 percent of people are of a minority ethnic background according to Waltham Forest Council.

Most people have fascinating stories to tell about food, so it was was incredibly exciting to help launch the new Local People’s Food Forum in April. The launch was part of the ‘E17 Disco Soup’, which involved the community preparing a delicious free communal meal with surplus food that would otherwise have ended up composted, or going to landfill. Local shops and food workers’ co-operative Organiclea provided fresh food for the event and there were stalls by community food projects, including Plan Zheroes, Hedge Herbs, Eat or Heat foodbank, Transition Leytonstone, Organiclea, and Best Before.

Disco Soup also featured a committed contingent of dancing volunteers dressed as giant vegetables, who set the tone for a funky disco atmosphere! A couple of the many highlights was seeing so many happy children preparing a decent meal, and the intelligent conversations with them about food.

The Local People’s Food Forum is a network of people in Waltham Forest, involved in practical projects to transform our food system at the local level. It encompasses growers, educators, cooks, campaigners, horticulture students, people involved in projects to feed the hungry, and more. While there are many inspiring individuals and small groups in the borough doing amazing things, there has to date been little dialogue and co-ordination between them. This is not for any negative reason – but simply because much of this vital community work is undertaken by passionate volunteers who are already working at capacity and who don’t know what other groups are doing.

Food on offer at Disco Soup

This is why a network is so valuable; networks enable groups working for social change to leverage their strengths by sharing ideas, resources, and by creating new capacity. This is so much more efficient than one individual or organisation trying to tackle a complex social problem alone. It also gives us emotional support to speak with others that face similar challenges, and we can learn from how others deal with those challenges.

And there is certainly a need for a network like the Local People’s Food Forum in our community. Statistics show Waltham Forest is the seventh most deprived borough in London and the 35th most deprived area in England. Child poverty is estimated to be at 35 percent, much higher than the UK average of 25 percent. There are also significant health inequalities between wards in our borough – the life expectancy differs by as much as eight years depending on where you live. The borough has much higher levels of child obesity and diabetes than the rest of England, and cardiovascular disease is the biggest killer.

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Poor diet is a factor in all these conditions, but there are many complex factors at play here such as lack of access to nutritious food, not being able to afford good food, not having cooking facilities (particularly for the homeless or precariously housed), or not knowing how to prepare food.

At the forum launch we gave out copies of our manifesto – which addresses all the issues our groups are working to tackle – including lack of access to good food, food miles, food poverty, environmental exploitation, climate change, peak oil, food waste, food inequalities, social isolation and lack of food education. We are committed to building food sovereignty at the local level, which means taking back control of our food system. We will do this by, among other things, increasing the community food activities in the borough and by scaling up our own activities. We promote low impact and sustainable forms of food production (especially local and organic), and more equitable forms of food distribution.

Melanie Strickland (second from right) at the Disco Soup

We will campaign to ensure that the council implements its food strategy in a way that promotes food sovereignty – including by providing practical, logistical and financial support. There are already many excellent case studies of the council providing this support, for example through the ‘Cultivate’ festival of previous years, or its funding of horticulture classes and trainings. But clearly more could be done, and this would benefit our community in a multitude of ways; socially, economically and environmentally. Influencing the council and local politicians are key aims of the Local People’s Food Forum – we hope to have a mutually beneficial relationship with them.

Research shows for every £1 spent with local businesses, 63p stays in the community, while for every £1 spent with large businesses only 40p stays in the community. This means that the council can effectively boost the local economy by buying locally. According to the authority’s ‘sustainable procurement’ policy, 30 percent of council spending is with local suppliers. There are EU laws that place conditions on procurement by local authorities, however, this is surely an area for improvement. Procurement of food will be a substantial area of council spend, considering the schools and hospital in the borough.

We are seeking to align ourselves with other groups and networks working at the regional, national and international level that share our goal; the London-wide Community Food Growers’ Network, for example. Creating connections with other groups will enable us to be a stronger force for change. The Local People’s Food Forum is a horizontal association and an inclusive network. We would be delighted to welcome new people to participate – whether they are working or living in the borough.

The Local People’s Food Forum meets every six weeks at the Hornbeam Café in Walthamstow. To get involved and find out more:

Email [email protected]

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