Good food for everyone is a matter of social justice and if you’re not angry about the current inequalities, then maybe you should be.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Tens of thousands of years ago, all human beings gathered, hunted, cooked and shared what they needed. In many communities, food was communal. Why would you not want your family and friends to have enough to eat? Items like rare spices would have been traded and exchanged over long distances, but food was never seen as ‘just a commodity’ or something to make lots of money from.
Now things are different. The food industry doesn’t settle just for transporting, storing and processing produce in order to supply the world. Instead, it finds ever more inventive (and harmful) ways to ‘add value’, while paying those who grow it a tiny fraction of what the public eventually spend. Distant and disconnected investors get rich through trading ‘food futures’ – a form of gambling on prices for as yet un-grown crops, causing shortages and lost livelihoods.
In Bristol, the system that puts most of the food on our plates has shifted to being virtually invisible, and the underlying driver is not health for people and planet, but commerce. Governments around the world deny responsibility for food supply even in an emergency, saying instead that it is all up to industry including providing for hungry young people.
This is why we should be angry. We can be powerful if we radically shift our collective awareness. Relying on each and every resident of Bristol to find out about and change the food system one by one won’t work. Instead, we do it by changing the culture. Decades of tobacco campaigning led, on 1 July 2007, to an overnight game-change when it became illegal to smoke tobacco in enclosed public spaces. Two critical elements in achieving this were raising public awareness about illness and deaths from second-hand smoke amongst hospitality workers, and demonstrating that almost everyone (smokers included) disliked indoor smoke and were too polite ever to challenge it. Until 2007 the tobacco industry had successfully persuaded everyone to stay silent, by portraying smokefree supporters as do-good, bossy, killjoy, unpleasant zealots. Who wants to be lumped into a group like this?
Similar forces are at work suppressing the changes we need in our food system. Businesses are wonderful things, and provision of goods and services is an essential part of human society. But ‘big food’ has copied ‘big oil’ and ‘big tobacco’ in protecting their business model when evidence of adverse impacts for health, for human rights, and for the natural world began to challenge it. In 1977 a US Senate Committee that found fatty, salty and heavily processed food were causing the growing epidemic of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The food industry backlash was swift and effective. They forced a rewriting of the Committee report, and unleashed a wave of marketing for ‘healthy’, ‘low-fat’ processed products. When in 2003 the World Health Organisation was set to recommend that sugar should make up no more than 10% of calorie intake, pushback from the industry and the US health secretary led to all mention of sugar disappearing from the report. Much of the food industry’s public relations activity is hidden, enacted through ‘news’, magazine articles, celebrity pronouncements, and online propaganda. It is no accident that the public see organic food as overpriced and elitist, and that poor quality food is justified because it is ‘all that people can afford’, and that the mass media keeps us all confused with ridiculous fads, superfoods, scares, diets, and unregulated ‘supplements’.
The last ten years have seen a welcome shift in food culture in Bristol. Allied campaigns, including the move to ban advertising billboards from our public spaces and the new Bristol Bites Back Better campaign, are important. The grassroots response to support people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic – whilst I wish it were not so badly needed – has been inspiring and incredible, and has evidenced the commitment to food inequality that exists right across the city.
However, we can’t allow that momentum and city-wide focus on food systems to wane, particularly as things ‘get back to normal in 2021’. Now is the time to accelerate our efforts in shifting our collective food awareness. It’s time to get defiant, get angry, get informed and communicate about why good food matters to every citizen of Bristol.
Food poverty is in the spotlight because of Covid-19 – now it’s time to a act
The pandemic has put food in the spotlight – the way we access it, how it affects our health and wellbeing, what it does to our environment, and how many livelihoods depend on it. By sharing knowledge, skills and stories, building networks and amplifying voices, we can address these issues through the lens of good food.
Bristol Bites Back Better is a campaign that empowers Bristolians to create a food system that will nourish our city far into the future.
The campaign brings together individuals and communities, food businesses and all kinds of organisations to build a better food system for Bristol, celebrate the diversity of our food community, and ensure that everyone has a say on the future of food in our city.
If you’re taking action or would like to do more, individually or as an organisation, to create a better and more sustainable food city, visit bristolbitesbackbetter.co.uk and join the conversation.