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Slow and steady

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In light of its 30-year anniversary, Slow Food and its supporters gather to reflect on how far the institution has come—and how we can all do our bit to help tackle the challenges that lay ahead

Words: Ellie Costigan

Borough Market and Slow Food are natural bedfellows. Indeed, last year Borough was named Best Food Market at the Slow Food awards for the sixth year in a row—a mark of the institutions’ shared commitment to championing food that is at once delicious, and produced, procured and eaten with respect for the environment and local communities. 2019 also saw both Borough and Slow Food mark important anniversaries: the Market celebrating 21 years of retail and Slow Food celebrating 30years since its establishment—events which prompted not only reflection, but also a serious think about the challenges facing the future of food.

On 18th January, Slow Food members and supporters met at Mary Ward House in north London to do just that. “We need to ask not what Slow Food can do for us, but what we can do for Slow Food within our communities,” opened Shane Holland, executive chair of Slow Food UK. “We need to think global and act local.”

‘Think global, act local’ is a recurring trope in food circles, particularly at top level, embodied by the likes of the Sustainable Development Goals which call on member countries to make national changes for global impact. But it’s a sentiment we can all live by, through recognising our power as ‘co-producers’ with the ability to influence the food system by being mindful about what we put on our plates and how we spend the money in our pockets. It requires “empowerment—that’s the key word—through education”; a shared understanding that the food we eat is part of a huge, globally connected system, which shapes public health, the condition of our soils, the resilience of our ecosystems and our ability to feed ourselves—ever-pressing concerns in the face of the climate crisis and an increasing global population.

Empowering prisoners
While the latter fact is frequently cited as an excuse to continue producing food on an industrial scale with little mind for the impact it’s having on people and planet, in reality, “the world produces enough calories to feed 10 billion people,” Shane continued. “Yet 20 per cent of people in the UK are hungry.” The problem is not a lack of food, but rather lack of sufficient access to it. What’s more, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), around one-third of all food produced globally for human consumption is wasted every year, equating to around 1.3 billion tonnes—a problem and injustice that needs urgently to be addressed. It’s why director for Slow Food Northern Ireland and Borough Market regular Paula McIntyre, as part of the Northern Irish convivium, is working locally on projects such as Skip Dinner, which uses would-be-chucked ingredients to feed school children, and why Borough Market works alongside charity partner Plan Zheroes to collect its surplus produce twice a week and redistribute it among local charities.

Paula stressed that the work within her local Slow Food community does and must focus not just on what’s on people’s plates, but how that food is served and eaten—both of which present opportunities for positive impact. “It goes back to that word, ‘empowerment’,” says Paula. “Through the Salon de Radika project, we are empowering prisoners by working with them to give them the skills to produce meals for other inmates,” she explained. “This also means they leave prison with employable skills.” Food as a valuable vehicle for social change is something Borough’s traders do in spades: Luminary Bakery, for example, runs a programme that helps vulnerable women back into work through baking skills in east London, while Change Please helps get homeless people off the streets and into housing and work, through its barista training programme.

Food can act as a catalyst for positive environmental change too: a point hammered home by Paolo di Arrigo, founder of Franchi Seeds (which are available at The Gated Garden in Borough Market) and 2019’s Slow Food Person of the Year. “The best way of preserving seeds—which are often overlooked in discussions about food despite the fact that all food starts with the seed—is to use and disseminate them. They’re no good in food banks,” he implored. The drive towards ever higher yields and increased efficiency has meant that “94 per cent of heritage vegetables have been lost in the last century”—in other words, people simply aren’t cultivating heritage crop varieties. This has had devastating effects on biodiversity and soil health, thanks to monocropping and the routine use of polluting pesticides and fertilisers. This and the Slow Food philosophy of “eat them to keep them” is applicable not just to heritage varieties of vegetables and rare breed meat, but also to keep those traders who do things the ‘right’ way in business—traders like Food and Forest, to name just one example, whose model flies in the face of the prevailing prioritisation of yield above all else.

Improving biodiversity
Food and Forest collaborates with European nut farmers—an area of agriculture infamous for its huge toll on the environment—to encourage them to invest in more sustainable methods of production. Namely, agroforestry: a method of farming which involves the planting of trees to prevent top soil erosion, negating the need for regular ploughing—one of the main causes of the depletion of nutrients in soils, as well as chemical run off—and improving biodiversity. Thankfully, there’s growing demand for this sort of product. “There is now an awareness of the link between food, biodiversity and the environment, which did not exist 10 years ago,” said Paolo di Croce, general secretary of Slow Food International and one of the most impassioned Italians I’ve ever come across—which is no mean feat. It is this awareness that’s prompting a growing number of businesses with fresh ideas about sustainability, health, waste minimisation and local production to set up shop—such as those the Market is supporting via its Food Futures programme.

The next 10 years, Paolo stated, are crucial. We must continue to make changes to the way we think about, buy and eat food—“we must raise our eyes and look not just at what we as individuals are doing, but what we can do within our communities and engage with other likeminded businesses. We must open our doors and involve as many people as possible,” he continued. “Our number one goal is for everyone to have access to food that is good, clean and fair. We need more action, clear goals, and to think about our impact. It can be done.”