Fixing our faulty food system: how community food partnerships work

Britain has a food system where many of us are eating foods that are not only detrimental to our own health but are potentially destroying the planet. In the first of two articles on the subject, new writer Ali Ghanimi, the Operations Manager at Brighton & Hove Food Partnership, reveals what food partnerships are doing to redress the balance right across Sussex and beyond

A Cin Cin masterclass in Brighton and Hove Food Partnership’s Community Kitchen. Photo credit: Emma Croman

How did we end up with a food system that can feed the world but also makes us ill? One that destroys wildlife, pollutes our rivers and air, and produces almost a third of our greenhouse gases?” 

It’s a good question posed by The National Food Strategy, a government-commissioned independent review of the food system, the first in 75 years.

Building a better food system

The strategy’s author, Henry Dimbleby, calls on the government to build a better food system to protect the NHS and the environment, and recommends a raft of measures including a landmark Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax, expansion of Free School Meals and a major overhaul of food education.

The 290-page document, developed in consultation with people across the food system, including those “at the sharp end” of it, paints a bleak picture. Poor diets contribute to approximately 64,000 deaths every year in England alone, costing the economy an estimated £74 billion. 

Unhealthy food is now cheaper per calorie than healthy food and the vast majority of food advertising spend promotes unhealthy ‘junk’ food. The poorest neighbourhoods have double the density of fast-food outlets and we know all too well about soaring levels of food poverty and the proliferation of food banks.  

Climate change: the next big food supply shock

That’s not all. We are warned that our eating habits are destroying the environment, and that this in turn threatens our food security. Yet over a quarter of the food grown in the UK is never eaten. 

“The next big shock to our food supply will almost certainly be caused by climate change,” writes Dimbleby, “in the form of extreme weather events and catastrophic harvest failures. For our own health, and that of our planet, we must act now.” But the report concludes that transforming the food system will require “change at all levels: structural, cultural, local and individual”. 

Local groups are ahead of central government

Across the country, many community groups, businesses and policy makers are already implementing this change, connected and supported by local entities called food partnerships.

One of the fastest growing social movements, there are now around 50 UK food partnerships driving innovation and best practice on all aspects of healthy and sustainable food.

Very Local Food Hubs Stall at Moulsecoomb Community Market. Photo credit: Kate O’Donoghue

The first food partnership started in Sussex

It was here in Sussex that the first food partnership was born: a non-profit organisation, the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership helps people to learn to cook, eat a healthy diet, grow their own food and waste less food. The city was also first to adopt a food strategy and the first to win the coveted Gold Sustainable Food Places award.

More food partnerships have now been established, or are in development, across East and West Sussex, including in: Adur & Worthing, Lewes District, Mid Sussex, Wealden, Eastbourne, Rother and Hastings. As well as having their own local focus, the Sussex food partnerships work together on common food issues across the region, sharing information and good practice.  

Fixing our food system one community at a time

Food partnerships play a central role in helping people to learn how to grow and cook food and to eat well. Community gardening groups, abundant across Sussex, are a great way to learn how to grow food, connect with nature, make friends and keep fit. Setting up a community garden can be a great way to turn forgotten and neglected space into a vibrant, community resource.

Tea break for volunteers of Saunders Park Community Garden. Photo credit Ali Ghanimi

In Brighton and Hove, the food partnership’s state-of-the-art Community Kitchen has earned itself a reputation for inspirational classes. Residents can book a Masterclass with one of the city’s finest chefs, brush up their baking skills, or learn to cook a range of world cuisines.

No citizen left behind – cookery courses for all

This all helps to fund community cookery courses for those who are vulnerable or on a low income. As Jess Crocker, Senior Manager at the food partnership puts it: “We want everyone to experience the benefits of cooking and eating together, regardless of finance, confidence or ability.

In Bexhill, Isabelle runs Rainbow Kitchen Magic, providing an exciting range of cookery courses for all members of the community in a friendly and supportive atmosphere. From basic cooking skills to understanding nutrition, the courses are a careful mix of teaching practical skills and individual coaching, enabling people to build confidence, make better lifestyle choices and to enjoy and share a good meal with others. 

Waste not, want not

A similar initiative with a sustainability theme is NourishEd run by UKHarvest. This free cookery school in Chichester teaches people to prepare delicious, healthy and affordable meals whilst learning how to fight food waste.  Another way to get a community into cooking is to ask them to share recipes, and this is what Lewes District food partnership is doing through Seahaven Community Food Stories.

According to Henry Dimbleby, when it comes to creating a better food system “There is only so much government can do” and much of the transformation required must be done at a local level. 

Working with others is key

The Eastbourne Food Partnership is a good example, bringing together organisations, policy makers and residents to create a unified food strategy for the town. 

Caroline Tradewell, Food Partnership development officer at 3VA explains: “We can achieve more when we work together, and there is a real drive across the town to collaborate, and create a unified vision and action plan for longer-term change. 

We particularly welcome the recommendation for all local authorities to put in place a food strategy, developed with reference to the National Food Strategy’s goals and metrics, and in partnership with the communities they serve.

NEXT UP: How the Covid crisis energised communities and food partnerships to deliver much-needed emergency food

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