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Q&A: Sheila Dillon

Sheila Dillon, presenter of The Food Programme and a doyenne of British broadcasting, on food inequality, an Ethiopian farming revolution and the happiness to be found in markets


Interview: Ellie Costigan / Portrait: Orlando Gili

Sheila Dillon has worked on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme for more than 20 years. In that time, she has explored the best and worst of the food industry, both at home and abroad, and become one of the country’s most admired broadcasters and journalists. Her soft Lancastrian vowels have become part of the soundtrack to Sunday lunchtimes – and she’s been a regular at Borough Market since its inception.

Growing up in a Lancashire village, what were your formative experiences of food?

We had wonderful food. It’s more marginal now, but that area is still a fairly big producer of potatoes, asparagus, cabbages and so on, so a lot of the stuff we ate was from the region. I worked on the local farm, in the dairy and collecting eggs, so I knew about farming. My mum was a good cook, even though she worked full time from when I was four – she was a weaver in a cotton mill. She was a great food enthusiast. She and her friend Mrs Worrall would go mushrooming, we picked berries – it was all immense fun. People had gooseberries and blackcurrants and rhubarb in their gardens. I’m making it sound romantic – it wasn’t romantic, it was ordinary. I took good food for granted.

My dad, on the other hand, wasn’t remotely adventurous. I remember when the first Chinese restaurant opened in Preston and my mum and I went for lunch. We came back and told him we’d had rice. Rice? He could just about countenance it in a pudding, but rice with meat? Horrified.

When did you first develop an interest in the politics of food?

It wasn’t until much later. It’s one of the great oddities of my life: I was quite serious about food, so how can I have been so unaware for so long? We moved to New York from Edinburgh in 1977. I was working as a freelance journalist, mostly writing about women’s and feminist issues, when I had a baby. There’s a famous potato-growing area in Long Island and it turned out that a pesticide they put on the potatoes had seeped into the aquifer and people were getting sick, so they closed down the wells and were tanking water into these communities. I remember thinking, if it’s in the water, how much is in the potatoes? I’d been mashing potatoes to feed my son. That led me to the library, looking at pesticides. I was deeply shocked. I thought, who’s writing about this? And the answer was, not a lot of people. I got a job at a magazine called the Food Monitor – a wonderful magazine covering food politics and policy all over the world. It was a very, very good education. And that’s how I began.

How did you end up as the presenter of The Food Programme?

When I came back to the UK, I heard Derek Cooper on The Food Programme. I thought, god, this is good – this is where I need to work. I looked up the producer and I wrote to her. She was a bit dubious, but I came up with some ideas and ended up doing some freelance work for them. I applied for a job and didn’t get it, but amazingly, the woman who did get it dropped out, so they offered it to me instead. Isn’t it funny, the serendipity of life?

As someone who has lived in and reported from a wide range of countries, how do you think the British food system compares?

When I first got involved in The Food Programme, I couldn’t believe it – here we have Britain, a mixed farming economy, and rather than looking to France, Italy, Spain or Greece and saying, “People there aren’t obese, those cultures seem to have something right,” we instead follow the United States. The States has a disastrous food system. It’s disastrous for people’s health, disastrous for the environment. We started manipulating our food – lowering fat and all that rubbish. I found it almost incomprehensible: that our close relationship with America somehow led us into this disastrous copycat nonsense.

I think the European Union has a better model. We have been kept from our worst desires by the EU. It respects food quality and has a much better, stricter food safety system. It is in no way perfect, but it’s lightyears away from the American system. I go to the States a lot because my son, the baby that changed my life, lives there now and what I see is that if you are middle class, you can buy yourself into a decent food system. You needn’t take part, hardly, in the awfulness. It’s one law for the prosperous and one law for everybody else and I think that’s utterly horrible. It’s certainly a contradiction of everything The Food Programme’s about, which is based on the Derek Cooper – the Bollinger Bolshevik – idea of “Bolly for all”; the idea that good food is a democratic right.

How much has the food landscape changed in all your years of writing and broadcasting?

Some things have improved. We do now have a quality food system; this idea of a ‘foodie culture’. For the Food and Farming Awards, we get thousands of nominations. There’s a bakery in Barrow-in-Furness, a town with one of the highest rates of drug-related death in the UK – but it has this fantastic, affordable bakery. I was judging the food producer category with Andy Oliver, and just looking at bakeries, there were about 150 to 200 entries – and not every good bakery in Britain was nominated. We were going: “Yes, sourdough; yes, school visits; yes, local – and what else do you have to offer?” Ten years ago, how many great bakers were there in Britain? And all of them were concentrated in London, Edinburgh, Devon. Now, having a good bakery is becoming more ordinary.

On the other hand, you’ve got the giant food corporations conglomerating to be even bigger. As Michael Pollan pointed out in one of his books, we say that poor people need cheap food, but we have a system that doesn’t pay people enough, which is why we require it. Supermarkets and other food companies employ people on minimum wage, and then those people require universal credit to supplement their income because they’re paid so little. We pay for that out of our tax budget. What I take heart from is that these issues are more widely understood now. When I came to The Food Programme, this sort of thing was the province of very few specialists. Organic food was seen as muck and magic. It takes a long time to turn things around, but it is being talked about. The forces against change, though, are huge and powerful and have big PR budgets.

What do you think is the biggest issue we’ll be facing over the coming decade?

It’s difficult to say. Things are all tied up. What we’re facing at the minute is health problems that are immensely costly, both in terms of people’s lives and economically – it’s the consequence of eating a highly processed diet, and that’s spreading globally. We made a programme in Mexico a few years ago, covering the World Trade Organisation meeting, and we went to see the director of public health. The North America Free Trade Agreement had been signed a few years earlier and one of the many things that changed as a result of that was, it became a free market for the beverage producers – Coca Cola, Pepsi, all the rest. They’d done this massive marketing campaign in rural Mexico and consumption of sweetened beverages had gone up dramatically. What the chart behind his desk showed was that deaths from diabetes and stroke had rocketed, in line with the increased consumption of these things. Many people in the food industries say the intensive system of mass production has brought cheap food to everyone; it’s brought disease and death as well.

In Britain people often say, “Well, it’s alright for you, you’re middle class” – certainly I have become middle class, but I didn’t start out that way. I came from people who had pretty low incomes, but they knew how to cook and they knew how to shop. They ate well and took pleasure in food. What frustrates me is, we look at France and say, this food is wonderful – these long stews made with cheap cuts. Well, what’s that but poor food? Why in one culture is it greatly lauded as marvellous, romantic and lovely, but if we say cooking that kind of thing would be good to learn here, it’s somehow degrading?

Are there any experiences you’ve had with The Food Programme that have particularly inspired you?

There are things that really opened my eyes. I once followed a farmer around Ethiopia. We went to this part of the Great Rift Valley – the area that had terrible famines. I saw – and I hope people listening did too – that one of the causes of these terrible famines were the hybrid crops that had been pushed onto these farmers by development experts. These varieties needed quite a lot of water, so when you had a series of droughts, you got famine. The soil was completely denatured. But from the bottom up, they had been rebuilding the farming system. They’d gone back to rotation and created big plots of three layers of crops – papaya, coffee, vegetables – whose root systems go down to different levels, so you can grow all three in the same space. Some were cash crops, some they used to feed themselves.

To see people in circumstances we could barely imagine – they’ve watched their children die – having to rebuild a system, you see how stupid conventional opinions often are. You have to think for yourself – for the food system as in life. When food becomes a business, margins are what counts, rather than feeding people.

You started out writing about women’s issues. How have you been treated, as a woman working in food?

I’ve been incredibly lucky. Certainly Radio 4 has always been very supportive of The Food Programme – although generally in news and current affairs, food is treated as a soft subject; it’s seen as feminine. If you’re a woman working in food, that’s a double whammy. There are people who still think The Food Programme is about making cakes. Sometimes on news and current affairs programmes, I’ll listen to someone talking not very knowledgeably about something to do with food and the environment or economics, and it hasn’t occurred to them to call up The Food Programme and say, “What do you know about this?” There has been, I think, a slight contempt for food as a subject and there is a sexism about that.

This is a very broad brush, but until recently a lot of the most successful chefs have been macho guys – big, tough, angry, four-letter-words, a lot of posturing, as though that overcomes the fact they’re somehow involved in this dainty little profession. There’s still this gap between that and what is considered ‘women’s work’. But women in this industry are – and need to be – getting together. And I think that’s very important.

Has your involvement in policy and politics had an effect on the pleasure you get from food?

I love food. Sometimes I eat rubbish, but mostly I don’t. If you can cook, and I can, why wouldn’t you make lovely food? It’s not a hardship to buy and eat nice ingredients. I’ve always eaten good food – by that I mean ‘proper’ food: hot pots and things. Last night we had this silly thing my husband who doesn’t cook much makes. He calls it ‘Roman cauliflower’ – I don’t know where he got it from. You parboil a cauliflower and then you drain it, fry it in olive oil with a lot of garlic and some tomato paste and then you put parmesan or cheddar on at the end. It’s great! You sit there and think, this is really good. It’s just a cauliflower.

What do you think is the role of food markets?

I think food markets are utterly key. I was there at the beginning of Borough Market. I remember taking my mother one November and it was raining and cold. There were hardly any customers because the weather was so filthy, and I remember thinking, these people have real fortitude. The conventional wisdom was that out-of-town supermarkets were the future and markets were old fashioned and dead and of no advantage to the consumer. But suddenly people were fed up. There was no fun in it. And what you saw when you walked around Borough and the other markets that began to revive – because people were given energy by the success of Borough – was people smiling. People were happy.

Borough Market was profoundly important, because it showed people what could be done; that there was an outlet for small farmers and producers, that there was a desire to buy that kind of food. It showed the possibility for regeneration through food. We take it for granted now, but it is so important.