Can thinking regionally transform our food system?

4th Mar 20 by Lucy Antal

Creating regional food economies, feeding people fairly and regenerating nature with alchemy, a kitchen and a community.

Feedback has just gotten through to the semi-final of the prestigious Food System Vision Prize with our Alchemic Kitchen Project. We are in the top 6% of applications, placing in the top 79 out of  1,319 applicants. Find out more about our vision:

My name’s Lucy, and I was born and raised in Liverpool, a city in England’s North West. Before joining Feedback, I worked on sustainable food and environment-focused projects for 20 years. I’m passionate about the North and its people, and I’m excited to tell you a bit about my project, the Alchemic Kitchen, and how it fits into our wider vision for a regional food economy in Merseyside.

But first, a bit of context:

Liverpool city region is densely populated (1,518,000 pop.) and wonderfully distinct, dotted with rural agriculture, industrial towns and busy cities. We have the legacy of past glories found in the beautiful architecture, many cultural institutions and wonderfully diverse communities, we’re a shiny new tourism destination, with shopping, restaurants and bars attracting visitors from across the world keen to spend time and money in our city.

We also have the legacy of poor health and high levels of deprivation following decades of industry decline, generational unemployment and under investment. We have health inequalities resulting from poor diet, low income and funding cuts that continue to affect our most vulnerable citizens. We have a thriving independent business sector yet are facing the economic challenge of a £57M hole in our council’s running costs due to the inequality of devolved council income vs social care expenditure to support a more vulnerable citizenship through the austerity measures of the past decade.

We’re situated on the sea but have no regional fishing economies: During the 19th and 20th centuries, significant pollution from industry and the docks destroyed the oyster beds; while the water is now clean, with mussels and wild salmon to boot, the skills and businesses to catch these have been lost.

Moreover, despite a well-established agricultural base that produces brassicas, apples, dairy and beef, we grow little food in Liverpool city region. What’s more, high inequality and urban deprivation have led to parts of the region being classified as food deserts.

Survey this scene, I’ve been asking myself and working with other Feedback colleagues on an important question: The food system clearly isn’t working for people or the environment in Liverpool and Merseyside. What could work instead? From this question, the Alchemic Kitchen was born.

Alchemic Kitchen draws on important visions: realising the true value of food and the true value of people. We do this via a programme of workshops, outings and trainings adapted and inspired by demand from local community orgs, such as a veterans’ organisation, centres for people recovering from addictions and groups helping low-income families with children facing holiday hunger. In tandem, we gather surplus food arising in the region (from retail supply chains & farms) and, from this, make delicious, zero-waste preserves, chutneys and jams, which we sell to raise awareness of food waste issues and help fund our community work. Alchemic Kitchen forms the baseline and inspiration for my Vision for Liverpool city region. Since founding this project, I’ve been joined by two local employees to help make the Alchemic Kitchen a success.

 

A major problem with our current food system is the emphasis it places on cheap, ‘fast’ food, which is negatively impacting our health. But, I know that this is just the tip of the iceberg: with rising housing costs and other bills, the food budget takes much of the strain of low and falling incomes.

Counter-intuitively, food is simply too cheap. Prices don’t reflect production/processing; those growing, preparing, serving and selling food are among the lowest paid in the region. To deliver low-cost food, production’s been de-regionalised: Food production, retail and manufacture are largely controlled by corporations. While some of these may be HQ’d in the region, they’re largely divorced from local values and value chains, majorly financially benefiting shareholders. Low access to varied, locally grown food, combined with high food poverty has led to communities having little awareness of how food is produced, its nutritional benefits or how it can be most deliciously and healthily enjoyed: We’ve lost the true value of food.

I wanted the Alchemic Kitchen to help local community members not only increase their knowledge of our food and nutrition, but also help to create a system that makes attaining fruit and veg more accessible. I want to help people realise their strength as food citizens instead of food consumers and create stronger community bonds and improve wellbeing, particularly by making sure we continue involving and creating opportunities for people who may be socially isolated or often excluded. Through social events like Disco Chops and training sessions, the Alchemic Kitchen is providing a fun and easy way for community members to come together and to gain knowledge and skills regarding food, nutrition, and cooking.

The last key aspect of the Alchemic Kitchen is how it can contribute to driving Liverpool city region’s economy. From repurposing food that would formerly have been regarded as waste, from surplus produce on farms to spent beer grain, and creating new, tasty products, we’re ensuring local produce and local money is kept locally. Moreover, I want to create opportunities for skills sharing and development that would empower local community members to open their own regional food enterprise and explore new markets for regionally produced food.

Our Vision is of a patchwork of similar locally and regionally owned enterprises, alongside community institutions catalysed by anchor institutions such as hospitals, local authorities and universities. We see opportunities in the development of locally controlled new food sectors, including foods which will provide micronutrient alternatives to high meat and dairy consumption – likely to become particularly important as the region shifts away from dairy and red meat production.

My hope for my beloved North is a more food-confident, happy, healthy and empowered citizen base, stronger local economies, and a more sustainable planet – I’m certain we can get there with a little alchemy, a kitchen, and a strong community.

Read more about our vision here.

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