Borough Talks: can food be a force for change?

Categories: News and previews

In the third of a series of Borough Talks, our panellists tackle the question: can food change society?

“Can food change lives?” asked Sybil Kapoor, chef, food writer and moderator at the third of a series of Borough Market Talks. The panel that would be asking this pithy but heavily loaded question comprised Tom Hunt, owner of zero-waste restaurant Poco; Rosie Boycott, co-founder of Spare Rib, food advisor to the mayor of London and chair of the London Food Board; Arthur Kay, founder of Bio-bean, which uses waste coffee grounds to create fuel; and Roberta Siao, founder of Mazi Mas, a pop-up restaurant and initiative that employs immigrant and refugee women.

“Is it possible to change society? Is it possible to change the environment?” The short answer, it soon transpired, was a resounding ‘yes’.

“On an average day, London serves up 33 million meals. It’s quite jaw-dropping when you think about it and almost impossible to think how you can make a dent in that,” said Rosie Boycott, when asked how food acts as a catalyst for changing things in her world—yet she has been doing so as part of the London Food Board—the official advisory body for the London mayor—in myriad inventive ways: by supporting small food start-up businesses and waste reduction initiatives, funding community gardens and putting gardens into schools.

She and her team have worked tirelessly to tackle food poverty, “a scandal in the city in this day and age”, by supporting food banks and opening a chain of social supermarkets where those on means-tested benefits can buy heavily discounted fruit and veg and access free cooking lessons. “There’s so much that’s really difficult, but there’s also so much that’s heartening,” Rosie continued. “It is a wonderful job.”

Rosie Boycott

Supporting people and the planet
Tom Hunt is renowned for his ‘root to fruit’ cooking ethos. A turning point for him was his involvement in The Forgotten Feast restaurant, which helped feed 200 people with food that would otherwise have been wasted. When it came to launching his restaurant, Poco, first in Bristol then in London Fields, he used that model as a blueprint. “I didn’t want to lose my morals. Our purpose isn’t solely profit; it’s about supporting people and the planet.”

Arthur Kay’s epiphany happened in a more roundabout way, via an architecture course at university. “I was looking at how you can create totally sustainable cities and carbon neutral buildings. I began by looking at coffee grounds. There’s half a million tonnes of waste in the UK alone and I wanted to set up a business to help tackle that. We now run the world’s first coffee waste recycling factory, which can process about 50,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds each year—around one in 10 cups of coffee produced in the UK.”

His business extracts oil from the grounds and turns it into biodiesel to power transport systems, and biomass pellets and coffee logs, which are used to heat buildings and power factories. All of which shows, said Sybil, “just what you can do with you have the energy and willpower to do it”. That and a knack for biochemistry.

Invisible army
The benefit of utilising wasted resources can also be seen in Roberta’s use of what she called the “invisible army” of women who live within cities, whose talents are often overlooked. “These women have a lot to give to society, but no space in which to give it,” she said. “We are an incredibly vibrant, rich city with lots of restaurants—but where are the women within those restaurants? Particularly older women, who have had children. No one wants them to cook.”

Mazi Mas was created to give these women opportunities to earn money and gain confidence. “Everyone wins: their children are supervised, there’s a cultural exchange—and the food is amazing. Mazi Mas is a fantastic way of bringing this all together.”

But what about the general population? “I see it as people versus food production,” said Sybil, moving the conversation on. “It is often suggested that it is unreasonable to offer the general population local, organic and sustainably sourced food, because it’s widely regarded as being too expensive.” Do our panellists agree, she asked, and if so, how do we go about changing it?

The response was mixed. Tom agreed that organic and local food has become a “luxury, with a lot of stigma around it”, but he said that buying locally is the solution to improving the global food system. He pointed out that “conventional farming is subsidised, meaning it’s unrealistically cheap. It isn’t the ‘true cost’ of food, in terms of pollution, loss of biodiversity and cost of healthcare.” The key, he continued, is to reconnect people with food, increase its perceived value and make seasonal, organic produce cheaper. Rosie disagreed that it is inaccessible, citing her success with initiatives that have provided good food at a price that is “cost neutral”.

Arthur Kay

Cost to public health
Sadly, we live within a food system where the interest lies in selling the public more products at a cheaper price, despite the subsequent cost to public health. “Reconnecting, cooking, availability—all of these things will help. We need to start looking at health holistically,” Rosie concluded.

Arthur highlighted the fact that “the food industry is dominated by some very large businesses and it is more lucrative for them to sell half price, mass-produced chicken and processed meat than it is to sell organic broccoli.” What is needed, he believes, is a way of making that broccoli more lucrative. “There needs to be a profit incentive.” There’s hope, though. “Farmers’ markets are doing just that,” Tom interjected. “And the produce costs what it should.”

Roberta has seen first-hand the effects of costly ingredients on poorer areas of London—and people’s determination to eat well regardless. “The women I work with usually come from poorer countries, so they are champions for eating well on a low budget, minimising food waste, and they are very proud of the fact their children eat properly. They have minimal resources so they use what is available.”

Re-think the model
Which led neatly on to Sybil’s next question for the panel: what is the most effective way of using food to deal with inner-city deprivation?

Rosie talked about initiatives to address “holiday hunger” (supporting children who are not able to eat well during the school holidays) and issues affecting the aging population: malnutrition and dehydration. “Within London, only five councils of 31 still provide ‘meals on wheels’, which equates to £20 per person per day. As a result, there are more old people going to hospital, where they are given high dependency beds at a cost of around £500 per day.” The way to tackle this is not to expand the state, “we never will”, but to “re-think the welfare model. Social enterprise is probably the only way we can do it.”

Initiatives such as Mazi Mas and Tom’s campaign against food waste may only have a small direct impact but they in turn inspire others, something which Tom emphasised should not be undervalued. “Today we are here to discuss how food can be a force for change, and it is just that,” he said. “Simple changes in our own habits, making conscious decisions about what we purchase, will have a huge global impact.” Arthur agreed: “I started with coffee grounds, and even on the small scale at which we operate, it has a large impact in terms of things like CO2 emissions.”

Tom Hunt

Don’t fall for it
The simplest solution, according to Tom, is “to cook and grow our own food and reconnect with food and its origin.” For Rosie, it’s about encouraging people to make conscious decisions. “Know your food origin, buy meat that comes from a good place, buy local where possible—don’t fall into the trap. There’s a new thing out called a breakfast biscuit—for heaven’s sake, why do we need breakfast biscuits? We don’t need breakfast biscuits! They’re so calorific, but they’re marketed furiously as something that’s great to have on the run, to make your day easier—it won’t! Don’t fall for it.” For Arthur, we need to find a solution that’s better economically as well as environmentally and socially.  

One questioner was keen to expand upon the topic of the ‘true cost’ of food and the need for more radical intervention in order to address the resulting problems, a notion with which Rosie agreed wholeheartedly. “We are causing a planetary breakdown. The big subsidised crops such as corn syrup, soy, wheat, rice and palm oil dominate our food system and until they stop doing so, the global playing field will never level out. Though lots of scientists say that genetically modified crops are a good idea, it’s a very scary idea because it’s all about limiting the gene pool. We need biodiversity.”

It is, however “cheap and efficient”, Arthur interjected, a response which was quickly rebutted by Tom. “That’s where true cost accounting comes in—the fact is that through holding on to those practices which were designed to make profit, we’re destroying our planet and smaller communities. At the moment the industry is so geared towards big businesses and shareholders, with very little concern for the people or the planet, and it’s having a really harmful effect which we can help change.” We need, Roberta agreed, to start looking at the bigger picture and “hold our government to account. Otherwise we have no chance of addressing the problem.”

Infiltrate the culture
Asked by another audience member how we can engage teenagers with food, Rosie pointed again to schemes within schools and the reintroduction of cookery to the curriculum, though she would like to see laws against fast food chains’ ability to sell food at such a reduced price. “It needs to infiltrate the culture so that the idea of eating healthily becomes a cool thing to do. Legislation, pricing, culture. We will do it.”

Finally—and perhaps the crux of the evening’s debate—how do you turn the healthy choice into the easy choice? Tom believes that, “as Carlo Petrini said, ‘We’re reaching a chasm and soon we’re going to have to turn around in order to move forward.’ Arthur said: “We need to make healthy food cheaper, and delicious”—to which an audience member neatly replied: “The cultures which eat well do so because the emphasis is on pleasure, rather than health. In England, all anybody talks about is health and it’s so boring! We need to get back to making food about pleasure.” It’s a statement with which our panellists—and no doubt the rest of us—would wholeheartedly agree.