Sustainable Food Cities Conference 2019

Duncan relates his experience of the 2019 Sustainable Food Cities Conference:

The Cambridge Food Hub project has Sustainable Food Cities’ DNA running right through it: the project itself dates back to the occasion when Cambridge joined the Sustainable Food Cities network, and indeed the Food Hub project was conceived to address the ‘six key issues’ which Sustainable Food Cities have identified as being key areas of transformation necessary in the food system. The annual Sustainable Food Cities conference is, therefore, an important event for us. Earlier this week I, along with Sam Dyer and Gemma Birley of Cambridge Sustainable Food, travelled up to Newcastle to attend this years’ conference.

This year’s SFC conference was paired with the ‘Food Power’ conference. Food Power is a food poverty initiative which is conducted by the food sustainability organisation Sustain. The workshop which I attended focussed on ways to better link the various food poverty initiatives that are taking place all over the country: usually it is the case that the best projects are run by local people at a grassroots level as they are often more relevant to the community they serve than a national scheme. One of the themes that emerged from this session was the importance of not considering the problem of food poverty in isolation from other issues concerning both poverty and inequality, and food. This was pleasing to hear as the Food Hub’s approach is to consider the local food system as a whole, with low-income communities regarded as an equally important element of the local food ecosystem.

The evening between the conferences was spent at the Tyne Bank Brewery, where a delicious vegan and vegetarian dinner was laid on for the delegates by a local catering business called Harissa, which has three-star rating from the sustainable restaurant association. Of course, it is the social events that take place around the main conference when the best networking takes place, and I had terrific conversations with people who are doing great work around food sustainability in places like Manchester, Leeds, Exeter, Cornwall, London, Sheffield, Preston and Hull to name but a few.

The main conference itself began with talks from Tom Andrews of the Soil Association. In what turned out to be a recurring theme of the conference Tom talked about the climate emergency, but expanded on that by saying that we are also experiencing a biodiversity emergency, and a public health emergency, and a pollution and waste emergency, a loneliness emergency, a poverty and inequality emergency, and also a socioeconomic emergency which manifested itself in low-pay and the hollowing out of the high street. And at the heart of all this is food culture.

We also heard from Cllr. Kim McGuinness of Newcastle city council. Holding this conference in Newcastle seemed particularly pertinent and it was very valuable to hear first-hand accounts from people who are on the front line in a city that is experiencing particular challenges relating to food: Newcastle has the country’s largest food bank, and we heard that over 70% of the population of Gateshead are overweight. With challenges like these in mind, it was fantastic to hear that Newcastle was one of this year’s SFC awards winners.

I had chosen to attend a workshop entitled ‘Putting Good Food at the Heart of Good Planning’, which I felt was especially relevant to our plans for the Food Hub to be at Northstowe, and how this was an important aspect of the way in which good food is being planned into the design of that new community as part of the NHS Healthy New Towns scheme. We were told about the ‘Spatial Vision for a Sustainable Food City’ and the exercise we then performed (which I thought was brilliant) was to visualise how our ‘place’ might look like in ten years if the vision of a sustainable food city was successfully realised, and then design a postcard which depicted that place. How might Northstowe, and indeed Cambridge, look like if the Food Hub project is successful? Will there be a vibrant community of shops, restaurants, and cafés who are proudly serving locally produced food? Will there be productive green spaces and community places that bring people together? And will those people enjoy health and happiness that stems from a great diet?

After lunch, there was an awards ceremony for the nine cities who had achieved a Sustainable Food Cities award this year. Bournemouth & Poole, Edinburgh, Hull, Lancaster, Leeds, Lewisham, Stoke-on-Trent, and Newcastle all achieved bronze, and Middlesbrough achieved silver. This was the largest number of cities to achieve awards in a year. The total number of award-winning cities currently stands at twenty-two bronze winners and four silver. Although it is really brilliant that all these places are doing such great work to promote food sustainability I have to admit to being a little surprised that the number wasn’t higher. I think this is testimony to just how stringent the awards criteria are: a city needs to be taking significant action in a number of areas in order to meet the requirements. This made me very proud that Cambridge was among the first nine cities to get an award, which was achieved in 2016.

The conference finished with a talk from Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain and one of the most inspirational people I know. Despite being someone who frequently rubs shoulders with politicians and policymakers at the highest level, she managed to make everyone in the room feel special and important and feel good about the work that they do; be it coordinating a local food partnership, running a community food project, or indeed trying to set up a local Food Hub. She described us collectively as people who ‘get it’; people who understand that food is the stuff of life and when each mouthful is right we feel connected to the planet. Kath will be lobbying to ensure that the food system can be transformed by people who ‘get it’.

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