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Q&A: Dee Woods

Food ‘actionist’ Dee Woods on the need for a fairer food system, the hidden hunger that blights London, and why acting to change things is much more important than talking


Interview: Ellie Costigan / Images: Orlando Gili

Deidre Woods, known to all as Dee, co-founded the Granville Community Kitchen cooperative in Kilburn as a hub for serving her local community: from growing veg in the community garden, to teaching cookery skills, to laying on big, healthy, sociable dinners for those who need them most – a role that led to her being named BBC Food and Farming Cook of the Year in 2016. If that weren’t enough, Dee also sits on the London Food Board and Food Ethics Council, is a visiting research associate at Coventry University, and was named an ambassador for Slow Food in 2016. When I ask how she possibly manages to fit it all in, a broad grin spreads across her face. “I was told by a friend recently that I need to give something up. I said, ‘Okay, you’re right.’ So, I’ve decided to give up housework.” Sounds like a good compromise to me.

Has food always been a big part of your life?

I was born in London, but moved to live in Trinidad as a child. My earliest memory of living in London is my parents having lots of parties, bringing the Caribbean community together and cooking traditional foods. Then, in Trinidad, I was amazed by the variety of foods – I remember my dad taking us around the island and showing us all the different fruits and nuts and vegetables. I still have my first cookbook from when I was about seven. I use it during cookery classes with children. For me food is more than nutrients: it’s social, it’s cultural, it’s spiritual, it is all these many amazing things. It connects us to the earth and the cycle of life and death.

What sparked the Granville Community Kitchen?

My background is in youth and community work, but the impetus for me starting the Granville Community Kitchen was my own experience with household food insecurity, but also recognising it within our community and with other families and people. I recognised that a food bank isn’t the answer; that coming together and sharing our skills and our knowledge would be much better. We teach cookery to children, young people, all ages. We also volunteer in schools. We teach growing – from seed, to plate, to composting, all organically. I think it’s crucial. We have a generation of people who are disconnected from where their food comes from and I think understanding what goes into your food makes you value it more. Which is important, especially as we have so much household waste in the UK.

The main feature of the centre is our Friday night community meal. We partner with another charity: they generally cook but I sometimes cook with them. We just have this big community dinner where everyone comes together. The last couple of years we have been taking surplus food from local stores and using it for cooking and cookery classes. The excess we redistribute. We now have three sites, but it should be four soon, as we keep getting approached by different community groups and organisations who are looking to start a garden.

How important do you think these sorts of local initiatives are in terms of addressing issues within the wider food system?

For us it’s about modelling an alternative: alternative exchange, distribution, and even thinking about food differently. Our next phase is to develop a community farm, a local market and a micro-bakery. But we’ve gone about it very, very slowly. It’s taken work to get to this stage – rather than just doing it when it’s not something people want, we’ve been very clear that this is participatory, this is for the community. It isn’t a charity. It’s people-centred, people led.

Often, stigma is a big issue. A lot of these voucher schemes, for example – people don’t want to have to show up to a shop or a market and have to present them, because it says, “I’m poor”. With the mini market that we’re hoping to set up, we do want to take on vouchers but in a way that is more dignified. There’s the wellbeing benefits as well. We attract people from all around, many with mental health and social needs. A lot of people say: “I don’t need the food, I don’t need to come here, but I am lonely and I look forward to this on a Friday night.” It is enriching for a lot of people; it is a lifeline for a lot of people – just to feel a part of something and belong to a community. 

There’s a lot of talk about the need for a more ‘fair and inclusive’ food system. What would that look like to you?

I’m on the London Food Board, and when we were drawing up the last food strategy, a few of us were intent on that being a big part of it, which is why there were so many focus groups and events. We’re hoping to have some sort of forum where people can keep feeding into food policy – at that local level, but also in terms of local authorities developing their own food policies. It’s important to have proper input from everyone.

We are the country that sparked the global food system as it is – occupying land, taking resources, using mainly black and brown bodies so that people here could have everything they wanted on the table. It was a class thing, it was a racial thing, it was a colonial measure. And here in the UK we’re not even really beginning to have those conversations. It’s about agency: people should be equipped to have agency within a system and right now, the majority of people are disempowered. But food is a great connecting tool, across class, ethnicity and culture. You can have amazing conversations because of it – the community kitchen started just from conversations over food and coffee and tea. We need to be involving everybody in those conversations.

Do food markets have a role to play in creating a more equitable food system?

If you look at pre-fifties Britain, what did we have? Local shops. We had markets. We’ve lost the high street to the big supermarkets and chains. Farmers’ markets are now something that are seen as elite – until I bring people to Borough Market and show them otherwise; that they’re something anyone can shop at. It is about recreating some of those things that happened in the past. Markets are also important for knowing where your food comes from. When I come to Borough, even if it’s produced elsewhere in the world, I am able to find out where that food is coming from. I avoid supermarkets like the plague – there is a superstore five minutes from me, but I would rather trek. Markets are also about building your local economy. That’s one of the things we had in our vision for the community kitchen – that we would equip people with skills so that either they can start their own small micro food business or go elsewhere and work.

What is the biggest food-related challenge we are facing as a city?

There’s a lot of hidden hunger. At the kitchen we’re getting a lot more asylum seekers and homeless people. These are people who are often totally unrecorded and who cannot even afford basic human rights: they have no food, no access to medical services, no housing, no work. That’s not right. I think the biggest global issue today is access to food. It’s shameful that we produce enough food for everyone in the world and then throw half of it away.

We need shorter food chains – not necessarily more local food, but more localised. I think people get confused with the terminology: localised means you’re still connected to the global and in that way we’re more inclusive, particularly when you have a diverse city such as London. It means you can still bring in food from elsewhere, but you’re doing it in a way that’s fair to whoever produced that food. Most people don’t even think about the consequences of their choices. Even the rise in veganism has caused some major impacts on other parts of the world. We’re in the middle of a climate crisis. We need to think, what are we growing, going forward? What are we eating going forward? We drastically need to change what we eat, and it might take a crisis to change it.

It looks like that crisis might be occurring, if national politics are anything to go by. What changes would you like to see?

One, a national food policy – which is in the works. Hopefully that will involve consulting ordinary people, through citizens’ assemblies. Second, someone responsible for food – there is no one solely responsible for food in this country. We need a minister for food. Third, the right to food needs to be enshrined in legislation – the right to good food and nutrition, and culturally appropriate food. We’ve signed up to all these things at UN level, but we’re increasingly in violation of them. So many people in this country are going hungry.

Why do you think that is?

Part of the issue is, our food system is dominated by mega-corporations. It’s about money and profit, not people. For example, we now have big companies who patent seeds and control them so that you cannot replicate them. You have to buy their seeds, buy their chemicals. Seed sovereignty is the crux of any food system: if the farmers can’t control the seeds, which they had done for millennia, they can’t control the food system. All this power is concentrated among a small group of people who are profiting and who are not changing anything. They’re greenwashing. They say, “Oh, we’re all for corporate social responsibility,” but at the end of the day they are still making mega profit, while there are farmers supplying them who work for less than a pound a day.

And still, people can’t even afford the cheap processed food these corporations are producing – some can’t afford anything at all, by the time they’ve paid rent and everything else. Food is now a commodity, something to be bought and sold. Whereas if we value food for what it is – something that gives us life, as something that’s part of this universe and this earth, something we are connected to – then we will think differently.

Do you think it’s possible to address these overlapping issues with a national food policy?

Food is very difficult and complicated because it’s a planning issue, it’s a transport issue, a health issue, an environmental issue, you name it. And it is the most important aspect of our lives. Without food, we can’t do anything. That’s why we need an integrated food policy: we can’t have environment talking here and public health talking there, and they’re at odds with each other. People need to be talking to each other and that’s why we need a separate ministry for food and somebody responsible for overseeing all of that.

One of the things I don’t like is this dissection and hierarchy of poverty: there’s period poverty, there’s child poverty, food poverty, all these various poverties. No. It’s just poverty. The only way to get around that is to ensure people are paid proper living wages, end zero-hour contracts, and put a proper welfare system in place so that those who cannot be part of the work world and who need that support have it. Elderly people and disabled people and children and the most vulnerable in society are being targeted by austerity policies – come on!

You often describe yourself as a food ‘actionist’ rather than activist. What do you mean by that?

Even as a child I was always questioning things. A lot of people talk and they’re on frontlines and they’re doing various things, but they’re not actually effecting any change. For me, that is important. That’s why I got involved in food policy, because that’s where we make change. Lately, I have become involved in research and writing, which is quite hard as a non-academic. But if we’re talking about shifting power and more equity, then we need to hear different voices and value different types of knowledge, and not just academic knowledge and voices. I feel like I need to start making a stand because there are certain things that really aren’t being discussed: race and gender are the main ones. We need research and analysis around those things. How are we going to change anything when we don’t know who is being affected? My eighties feminist self has re-awakened!