Whether they’re inspiring guerrilla gardening or grappling with governments, the academics at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy have one goal: to make food and everything associated with bringing it to our plates part of the national and international consciousness. Nicky Evans meets the three crusaders who consistently set the global food policy agenda and who have spent more than two decades hammering home the message that food matters.
The town of Todmorden, in West Yorkshire, is a town in bloom. Herbs sprout from the train station platform, fertile plots in the church cemetery double as raised beds and ears of corn wave in the breeze outside the police station. Wherever there's a stretch of unused public land, there's food - and it's all free to anyone passing by. The vegetables were the first stage in a multi-faceted project masterminded by activist Pam Warhurst. Tired of waiting for local government to rescue her town's dying market and flagging high street, she came up with an idea to use the common language of food to bring her community together, branding it Incredible Edible.
"I'd had enough of waiting for others to do something," explains Warhurst. "I wanted to see what we could do to help people rethink the way they live and the future environment they want for their children."
I decided to put food at the heart of community, learning and business and motivate people to create change for themselves.
What started as guerrilla gardening became a phenomenon that rejuvenated the town and its inhabitants. Warhurst encouraged allcomers to bring their individual skills to the project, with designers creating placards to describe the food on offer, green-fingered locals, helping children to grow vegetables and keen cooks turning leftover produce into dishes to sell in the market. Once established, it went further, obtaining lottery funding for a 'food hub' at the town's high school and developing donated land into greenfield sites. So far, this resounding success story has inspired more than 200 similar initiatives in Britain and worldwide.
Warhurst credits Professor Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City's Centre for Food Policy (CFP), as the inspiration behind Incredible Edible. "In 2007, I heard Tim remind us about the plight of the planet and future generations and I just thought, 'Right, that's it'. I made the whole thing up on the train home and it launched the following year."
A broad remit
Although inspiring grass-roots projects in English market towns is not the bread and butter of the CFP, the fact that it played a part in the origins of Incredible Edible comes as no surprise, considering the breadth and scale of the Centre's reach. Since moving to City in
2002, Professors Tim Lang and Martin Caraher and Dr David Barling have become major players in UK-based and international food policy conversations, sitting on advisory boards; working with government, industry and NGOs to establish policy frameworks; and
giving speeches about their research at international conferences. Their manifesto is ecological public health: looking at the food chain in its broadest sense and the impact each aspect has on public health and the environment.
"We are traditional academics trying to explore what a good food system is and holding up a mirror to society to ask, 'Is this what you want?'", says Lang. What this means in practice is that whenever there's a food and public health story - be it the fallout from last year's horsemeat scandal, chef Jamie Oliver's crusade to improve school dinners, debates about the quality of hospital food, childhood obesity and even edible towns in Yorkshire - the CFP's academics are likely to have been involved. They are also likely to be barraged by media requests for quotes and analysis: when the horsemeat scandal hit the papers, Lang conducted 70 interviews in just six weeks.
Over the last decade, the Centre has brought in nearly £1 million of research grants for work that illustrates both the scope and complexity of the food policy tapestry and the challenges we face.
Caraher has dedicated much of his career to children's health, including research around school meals and cooking in schools; the start of this year saw him author a report addressing childhood obesity, which mapped the fast-food outlets around two secondary
schools in Tower Hamlets.
Barling, meanwhile, explores food governance policies, covering issues from supply-chain management and traceability to food waste. He is currently involved in three pan-European projects including SENSE, which helps small and medium-sized food businesses assess and improve their environmental impact.
Lang is perhaps best known for his research into food security and sustainability; his 'food miles' concept - the CO2 produced by food travelling from farm to plate - drew widespread media attention in 2005 and has evolved into his current concern: sustainable diets.
"How do we eat food that is good for our health and the environment?" asks Lang. "Current government advice is to eat two portions of fish a week. Where is that fish coming from? We are told to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but we should be eating at least seven if we want to see mortality figures drop. We need to reassess land use to stop our fruit and vegetables being shipped from across the world."
All this energy and expertise has been harnessed time and again by government departments, NGOs, charities and campaign groups - from Lang's stint as a consultant to the World Health Organisation to Caraher's work alongside the Department of Health
and Barling's role as a council member of the campaigning charity Sustain. It all adds up to a lot of fingers in a lot of policy-flavoured pies.
There are only three of us but we are noisy - we have an impact bigger than our sum
That impact and influence can be seen all around us. Take the Cabinet Office Food Matters report, which was put firmly on the public's agenda by the Centre's academics in 2008. The first attempt at an integrated food policy since the Second World War, it was a document that offered practical solutions to the challenges posed by core food policy issues, including rising food prices, food waste and diet-related ill health. The report would go on to inform the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs' Food 2030 strategy, which aimed to address the long-term sustainability of the UK's food system.
Andrew Opie, Food and Sustainability Director at the British Retail Consortium, which represents the interests of British businesses, witnessed Lang and Barling at work when they were part of the government steering group that created the Food Matters report. He credits the CFP for its creation.
"Food Matters was very much a group effort, but the CFP's big achievement was putting forward the need for such a document in the first place," he says. "The CFP was one of the first groups talking about the need for a more joined-up food policy strategy and arguing that food covers a lot more than just agriculture or food legislation."
When it comes to food policy, there is much at stake, not least for the food industry, where "big money and big vested interests" are at play, according to Lang. As he encourages government to rethink the issues around sustainable diets, big business is anticipating the potential consequences new policy could have - and using the CFP's expertise.
"The CFP helps to identify issues and find solutions that lead to private sector initiatives or policy framework conversations," says David Croft, Director of Quality and Technical at Waitrose. "The Centre helped us to assess the long-term sustainability of fish populations. All of our fish comes from sustainable sources, but by 2015 it will be fully third-party certified, which will ensure fish stocks are maintained in the long term. Tim's insight into these issues and how policy might develop from them makes it easier for businesses like ours to invest large sums of money in the future."
Navigating these choppy waters requires a steady hand, especially when the academics' message might not be what everyone in the room wants to hear. However, those on the business side of the table say the CFP's self-proclaimed "firm but acceptable critics" are
constructive networkers. "The way they approach problems and the fact that they have personal-level dealings with many people in the industry means that they get more access than they would otherwise do," says Opie. "Their approach helps them sell both themselves and the University." Croft agrees. "By discussing important subjects with passion, commitment and intelligence and in ways that are relevant to their audience, Tim, David and Martin influence people very effectively."
Having dedicated their careers to food policy issues, it is no surprise that the academics focus steadfastly on the bigger picture. Governments come and go, shaking up the policy landscape as they pass through, meaning policy changes the Centre has achieved during one political era can be reversed in the next. This happened with Food Matters: the report's recommendations were implemented in part by the last Government but shelved under the current administration.
"There are frustrations, but the nature of policy is twist and turn," says Barling. "It can be an incremental process much of the time. There are a lot of dead ends, but opportunities can open up again through another door. We always look at the big picture." Part of this bigger picture involves planning for the future and this means nurturing the next generation of food activists, many of whom go on to fill advocacy roles at NGOs, take up policy-related positions within the private sector, or continue academic research. The department welcomed 43 postgraduate students in 2013 from all over the world: three times the number who enrolled when the Centre first opened at City.
"Tim, Martin and David are the seedbed of the next generation of wellinformed food policists," says Opie. "They are taking the next generation forward."
A world-class reputation
They also supervise PhD students: one of Barling's current PhD candidates is studying urban food strategies at City as part of PUREFOOD, a Marie Curie-sponsored training programme which awarded the CFP a €250,000 grant. In 2012, he negotiated co-funding for a City Masters student to compare Australia's National Food Plan with British policies formulated as part of Food Matters and Food 2030. It is telling that the other organisation funding her research is Australia's national research body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Sydney, which had been impressed by a keynote speech Barling gave at its international conference.
Such global reach and the fact that the CFP's reputation precedes it in international policy circles, means that the Centre is a beacon for the University's worldwide reputation.
"We have a symbiotic relationship with City," says Barling. "We have grown with City over the years and as the University has become stronger, so have we."
Lang agrees that the CFP found a good home at City. "The University has been fantastic. It took a risk on us 13 years ago, when food policy and the questions we were asking were seen as radical. City gave us headroom and the space to ask awkward questions. We like to think that risk has been paid back."
Professor Andrew Jones, Dean of the University's School of Arts & Social Sciences, certainly thinks so. "The CFP is a truly world-leading centre which goes from strength to strength," he says. "It is no exaggeration to say that colleagues within the Centre have been responsible for developing the whole field of food policy on a global stage and have propelled City to the forefront of global policy debate in this area."
Despite their impact on the policy landscape and their contribution to the long-term rise in interest in food matters in Britain, the academics are wary of thinking about their place in history.
"We are in no place to talk about legacy," says Lang. "We are too focused on the future. Britain is a divided society and the food sector illustrates that we face rapidly growing rich-world hunger, a food system that's appalling in its land use and a massive impact
from diet-related diseases. I'm looking to the future. That's why young people come to study with us from all over the world: we are asking the right questions."
They are also inspiring non-policists, like Warhurst, to question convention and, more importantly, to take action. "I had long had concerns about sleep-walking into an environmental disaster," she says. "Tim boldly challenged the status quo from the stage. Bingo: the damascene moment just happened and I thought, 'I'm not a world leader, I'm not a national champion for the environment, but I'll have a go if no one else will'. The rest is history. I guess there was a bit of serendipity in the air that day."