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Third Food Symposium examines local food policies

Professor Tim Lang reflects on the key issues raised at this year's Food Symposium
by Ben

nullLocal Food Policy, localised food austerity. By Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy.

The local is beloved of both the political Left and Right. Nowhere has this been more so than in the world of food, where localism has influenced a variety of changes, from culinary seasonality to shorter delivery systems, from farmers markets to the thousands of food items on the giant supermarkets' shelves all claiming to be and marketed as local food.

But how is this fairing in the new food austerity? In the new world where an already divided Britain is seeing those gaps between rich and poor consumers widen further?

As the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown, consumers are quietly spending less on food and drink. Food is and always is a flexible item in household budgets. Fixed bills - rent/mortgage, TVs, car payments - take the money first. Fuelling our bodies and cars compete to be squeezed from what's left. The ONS figures last week showed that the bottom 10% of households, by income, spent 9% less on household expenditure in 2011 than in 2010. Transport costs now account for more in the average household's expenditure than food. This is astonishing.

Why does this affect local food? Simply because if local food is merely bolted-on to existing patterns of consumption, it can cost more. It doesn't need to if the kinds of food people eat change and if, rather than buying pre-cooked 'local' foods, one buys local raw food and cooks it oneself. But that requires time, equipment, confidence - all of which tend to be in greater supply the further up the income ladder one looks. Localism is grounded by social economic status.

It surprises some that giant Asda claims to stock 6,000 local food items in its hypermarkets. Like others since fuel prices rocketed in the late 2000s, Asda has worked hard to cut its food miles. The industry realized that its food miles critics had actually opened up a saving. Less food miles = less fuel.

The existence of local foods on supermarket shelves isn't the only form that localism has taken. Alongside actual local foods has emerged a local food policy movement. In areas up and down the land, people have been experimenting with new forms of local democracy. Campaigners have joined with professionals via health authority and town council led projects.

A famous one, now over 20 years old, is that pioneered by John Middleton and Laura Davis at Sandwell, who both spoke at today's event. Its health and sustainability budgets spawned new urban agriculture and skills training schemes, urban regeneration and cultural transformation. But as the public health function is merged back into local authorities, such initiatives are inevitably being squeezed. In towns up and down the land, projects exemplifying this quiet version of ecological public health face uncertain futures.

This puts the spotlight on the community led food localism such as the much lauded Incredible Edible Todmorden's. In that small, de-industrialised Pennine town, for four years community activists have used food to re-engage civic pride, persuading for example the police and local GPs to plant food outside their buildings. They've now begun their own food college, by any other name.

Alongside these initiatives, big cities such as Bristol, Sheffield, Brighton & Hove and London have also debated the case for formal food policies. Bristol, for example, has created a Food Policy Council, the institution beloved of USA's radical food movement, and called for by the UN in 1992.

Where is this diversity of experience and democratic experimentation going? On the one hand, food is the vehicle for civic pride, people coming together on their own terms for the public good. But the question now being asked - overtly this week at this year's Food Symposium on the state of local food policies hosted by City University London's Centre for Food Policy - is whether the financial restructuring by the State is threatening this dynamism. And whether the fiscal pressure on social spending highlights how the corporate version of localism is being supported by the Coalition.

A split has emerged, the Food Symposium heard, between the market view of localism - one of local 'products', items vying for consumer spending - and the democratic notion of local food policies - where food is a means for social exchange, a cultural rather than monetary value.

The outcome of this political tension is uncertain. The researchers and activists gathered at the Centre for Food Policy read the situation. It remains to be seen whether the politicians of Left, Centre or Right read it too. In the 1990s, when the food safety crises crept up on the politicians, they were shocked by how they'd not seen the public mood. Fury about the loss of trust in food systems led to the Food Safety Act 1990 and the creation of the Food Standards Agency in 2000, itself now cut back.

The tensions building about food localism today may very well funnel into the political expression in a few years. One thing which unites financial analysts in the City of London with the policy analysts looking at food's role in society is that food costs are central to domestic politics. In that respect, today's food localism is recreating a domestic food politics which we've not seen since the austerity of the 1930s and 40s.

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