Over 80 people from across Cornwall’s food sector came together at Cornwall’s first Food System Summit, organised by Sustainable Food Cornwall, last Tuesday. A diverse group of farmers, food producers, food businesses, public sector and health professionals, community and voluntary sector groups and activists, educationalists and journalists shared perspectives, experiences and ideas around transforming Cornwall’s food system to one that provides ‘Good Food for One and All’.
We started off the day with the question: what exactly does ‘Good Food for One and All’ mean?
For starters a Good Food system is one where healthy food is available to EVERYONE in our communities, and not just the more affluent, or those who live in a particular geographical location. Caroline Court, consultant in public health at Cornwall Council, gave us a shocking glimpse into the scale and spread of food insecurity and diet-related health inequalities in Cornwall, where the poorest households would have to spend a whopping 75% of their disposable income on food to follow the UK government’s ‘Eatwell’ guidelines. Clearly that’s an impossible ask, so many in our communities have no option but to fill up on the unhealthy, ‘beige’, high fat, salt and sugar foods which cost a third of the price of the nutritious foods our government recommends. (With all the implications for health that brings with it.)
Many of the delegates in the room on Tuesday are working to try and plug the gap – growing and supplying subsidised vegetables to low-income households, cooking healthy, nutritious food for those who can’t afford it or who don’t have a home to prepare it in, ‘gleaning’ and distributing those vegetables from the fields that local farmers can’t sell and which would otherwise go to waste, and working in food banks and community larders, for example. But we all have to keep lobbying for, and doing what we can to support, a fundamental transformation of a system where access to healthy food has become a luxury, and diet-related sickness the norm.
Engineering change can feel like an impossible task, but we heard from some amazing food health pioneers in Cornwall who are doing just that. GP Dr Kath Brown described how healthy veg boxes, grown by Newquay Orchard to agro-ecological principles, are being ‘prescribed’ to patients in the early stages of type II diabetes, and how they’re reducing disease markers and improving health and wellbeing in a way that pharmaceutical prescriptions just can’t. (And reducing GP surgeries’ carbon footprints to boot.) A similar scheme at the Royal Cornwall Hospital hepatology department is helping to reverse early-stage non-alcoholic fatty deliver disease. Let’s shout about these fantastic successes and lobby for more support and wider rollout for initiatives like these!
Good Food is also about a thriving – and fair – local economy. Lucy Jones of Cornish Food Box Company and Dr Robin Jackson of Duchy College Rural Business School looked at the some of the challenges facing our farmers, producers and food businesses in a system where 97% of food in Cornwall is bought through the big supermarkets, and where the catastrophic effects of our current food system on nature, on the climate and on our own health aren’t factored in to food’s ‘value’. Everyone working in our food system has the right to a fair wage or income – but that’s not happening. Our producers and food businesses are working to incredibly tight margins, and it’s hard for them to ‘do the right thing’ and still make a living. But surely putting our health at risk while allowing the climate and nature emergencies to threaten our very ability to produce food in future is, to put it mildly, a false economy? We need action and support for our food sector at a strategic level, but we must also, as individual consumers, think about how and where we buy our food. Those of us who can, should support our Cornish food sector by buying from local and independent sources and from agro-ecological growers. As Robin said, let’s rethink food as a force for good and not just a commodity!
We often hear about the ways in which modern farming practices contribute to climate change and negatively impact on biodiversity. So it was fantastic to hear from the agricultural sector about how Cornish farmers – at all levels – are working to turn that around, and how it can be done. In other words, Good Food can be (must be) good for the planet. Hannah Jones from Farm Carbon Toolkit reminded us that agriculture is one of the only business sectors that can produce food AND take carbon out of the atmosphere and outlined how the Farm Net Zero Project is supporting farmers to calculate their carbon emissions and then reduce and offset these on the farm through practices that improve soil structure and carbon sequestration, reduce pollution and increase biodiversity. Sheep farmer Matt Chatfield shared a heart-warming ‘before and after’ story and videos of his farm, where biodiversity has skyrocketed in just a short space of time thanks to the implementation of some simple grazing and land management techniques, and where better stewardship of the land isn’t ‘instead of’ farming for profit but rather underpins his ability to make a living by producing high-quality, high welfare meat. As he said, we’re “really good at growing grass in Cornwall” – and as Hannah pointed out, if it’s the right sort of grassland, it’s highly biodiverse and can sequester more carbon than young woodland. As consumers, we have an opportunity to be part of the change by knowing where our food comes from and supporting the farmers who are making an impact.
As well as nourishing us, providing prosperity for all and being planet-friendly, Good Food can be a glue for our communities – something that brings us together and which has enormous social benefit. Jenny Hindson is COO of Newquay Orchard, where no-dig food growing provides jobs, education and skills training, as well as opportunities for local schools-outreach and volunteering. She presented how more than 850 volunteers, some of whom have been connected with the Orchard by social prescribers, have worked, learned and socialised together and shared seasonal, healthy food in the café, which has provided over 17,000 healthy volunteer meals. 65% of Orchard users have reported an improvement in their diets, with 72% noting improved physical health, 94% an improvement in mental wellbeing and significant numbers having fewer GP visits and less prescribed medication. Food here is one integral part of a wider social and community hub that brings together small businesses, health and wellbeing providers, social prescribers, schools and youth groups, and people from all parts of the wider community, and has generated an estimated £4-5m of economic benefit for the local community, sequestering 15 tonnes of carbon and increasing biodiversity fivefold in the process. This is as it should be, argued Jenny, who is a passionate advocate of the links between the social, economic and environmental benefits of Good Food, and wants to remind us all that we should be joining these dots and using the triple bottom line approach when we think about the real cost and value of our food.
Which leads us to Holly Whitelaw, the force of nature who started the Cornwall Gleaning Network (now the biggest one in the UK) and, who, by squaring up to food waste, Cornish public sector food procurement and supporting local farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture techniques (amongst other projects) is a one-woman reminder of how everything is connected, and how we must adopt a ‘systems approach’ to changing our food. Holly challenged the notion of ‘cheap’ and ‘convenient’ food (with its hidden costs and negative environmental, social and ethical impacts – anything but convenient) and called on us all to be ‘brave’, ‘kind’ and ‘strong’ as we bring ‘all hands-on-deck’ and build a Good Food movement in Cornwall.
And all this before the morning break….!
Good Food, then, is good for our health, good for the planet, good for the economy and good for our communities and society. These are the pillars of Sustainable Food Cornwall’s ‘Good Food Charter’, a draft of which was shared at the summit. Delegates made commitments around how they – as individuals or organisations – would help to implement the Charter, and how they would collaborate with others to make the changes that can help transform Cornwall’s food system. We’ll be publishing the Charter on our website soon – and we’ll be asking “What can YOU do?”
You can access some of the presentations below.
Morning Sessions – What is Good Food for One and All?
Consultant in Public Health, Cornwall Council
Dr Kath Brown,
GP and Chair of Greener Practice Network
Cornish Food Box
Dr Robin Jackson
Director, Rural Business School
Nature & Climate
Farm Carbon Toolkit
Tamar Valley Farmer
People & Society
Food In Schools
My Journey Through Food Education
Camborne Science & International Academy
Nerissa Buckley & Nicole Pisani
Chefs In Schools
Dr Fatma Sabet
University of Exeter
Exeter University – School Food Survey:
Towards a Sustainable Food Cornwall
Use the links below to download our first report ‘Towards a Sustainable Food Cornwall’ – in full or in summary – and to download the slides of our May 2021 workshop where we shared the results of our survey with 40 stakeholders.