This article is part of a new series by Wicked Leeks, Sustainable Cities, exploring what sustainable food means to those living in the city.
Bristol has never been short of accolades for its dynamism, alternative spirit and desire for social justice. The Soil Association, the Sustainable Food Trust and vegan charity Viva! are based here, and in May last year, the city was awarded Gold Sustainable Food City status.
However, the concept of ‘sustainable food’ is one of the most contested of subjects, often fraught with strong emotion. It’s not just about sourcing from the likes of local, organic or agroecological growers, but also how to provide access to good food for everyone in the city. These four organisations show some of the exciting work happening in food and sustainability in the city that give hope for the future.
Urban goat farming
A genius idea this one – farming goats in the city and helping to regenerate overgrown land. As well as the grazing element to Street Goat’s work, there are four milking sites at Troopers Hill, Begbrook, Royate Hill and Bridge Farm. Georgia Marshall is a milking member at Troopers Hill where part of her motivation is ethical dairy: “Goats lactate for longer periods than cows, meaning there are less kids than calves as a dairy ‘waste product’, improving animal husbandry skills, as well as getting milk.” Marshall is a vegetarian and animal welfare is crucial: “I don’t believe eating meat is wrong. There is an ethical way to raise and eat animals, hence a project like Street Goat is great because it takes away the food chain links and allows people to see where their meat and milk is coming from.” The project collaborates with the local council to graze sites that can then be used for horticulture, encouraging more diversity of vegetation and wildflower: “Street Goat helps clear overgrown city spaces in a natural way. Goats love ivy and bramble, which is what commonly populate brown urban space,” explains Marshall. After 12-18 months of happy grazing, the goats are slaughtered in a local abattoir and the meat is available for sale.
A holistic food education
For more than 30 years, Barny Haughton, founder of Bristol community cookery school Square Food Foundation has been campaigning for food education to be at the heart of discussions about sustainability and health. He was awarded an MBE in December 2021. Square Food has recently launched a Food Leaders course which sets a standard for a different kind of food education. He says: “When people think of food education, what springs to mind is cooking and nutrition. Of course those two things are fundamental, but what we mean by food education is that it’s about cooking and food and chopping and all those things. But it’s also about understanding what’s happening in the soil, what’s wrong with food systems as they are at the moment, what damage they’re doing, both to the soil and to our health and animal health as well.” Another vital part of Square Food’s work is a programme working with managers of care homes of people with learning difficulties. In schools too, where Haughton says it is not enough to simply visit and do the odd cookery class. He is also well aware of the tension between Bristol’s good food image of flourishing projects “all of which paint a really positive, dynamic, radical, enlightened food movement in Bristol, but that’s very much at odds with the reality of higher levels of poverty – food poverty in particular – which manifested so vividly across the whole of the UK in the first lockdown”. Sustainability for him is about local connectivity: “A community having its own strategy, its own infrastructure to deliver production, using as local as possible growers, producers and farms.”
The shop on ‘the greatest street’
Founded by Ugandan refugee Kassam Majothi in 1978, Easton’s Bristol Sweet Mart is a true Bristol institution. His son Rashid Majothi, one of four brothers who run the business now, explains how a passion for food and cooking from scratch is woven into the fabric of the shop: “We still as a family have a hearty breakfast in the morning, the brothers, and our business meetings are always done with food. It breaks the barriers.” The shop has an astounding range of fruit and vegetables from all over the world. There are around 50-60 different types of Asian vegetables, from what Rashid describes as “your run-of-the-mill karela” (bitter melon or gourd) to all kinds of chillies and herbs. Around 30 per cent of the fresh produce and dairy products are sourced locally and from the South West, and milk is supplied by Somerset’s Chew Valley Dairy. Rashid explains how supporting local cottage industries is important to the brothers; falafel and hummus are supplied locally, and many other plant-based products come from Bristol-based workers’ cooperative, Essential Trading. Bristol Sweet Mart has a unique role in the local community. In the 2020 Urbanism Awards, St Mark’s Road, home of the shop (and Bristol’s Grand Iftar celebrations) was named ‘The Greatest Street in the UK’. Rashid says: “When the judges came to look at the street, they saw something completely different. You’ve got a mosque, a church and a pub and the businesses are all working together.” Pre-pandemic Sweet Mart played a major part in the Grand Iftar, held to mark the end of fasting for Muslims during Ramadan: “At the last one we gathered 6,000 people on the street and fed everybody, with half the food from Sweet Mart, cooked here, and that people generously gave out.”
Putting BS13 on the map
If there was ever a project that epitomises the saying ‘think global, act local’ it is Heart of BS13, which runs two initiatives to make local, sustainable food accessible to people in the BS13 area of Bristol. The Kitchen Garden Enterprise offers training and volunteer placements and The Heart of BS13 Kitchen provides ready meals made with ingredients grown in the garden. Every order made from the Pay It Forward range helps support a household of four to have high-quality food choices and professional support to tackle the challenges they face. In an area where one in eight households are experiencing severe food hardship and within the backdrop of the current cost-of-living crisis, food security programme lead Jodie Smith explains how the project is taking action to challenge food hardship, improve the environment and address physical and mental health concerns in BS13. Food projects that are so deeply embedded in their local community are vital for our cities to flourish, as Smith puts it: “The impacts of climate change on the future of food will be profound, both locally and globally. We are already seeing how these changes will affect what we eat, the price we pay, and the availability and choice people have. We will all feel this shift, but vulnerable groups and low-income families will disproportionately feel the impact.”