Written by Sabine Parrish, Stephanie Walton, Charlotte Gallagher-Squires and Corinna Hawkes of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London.
In September, the world of sustainable food producers and advocates gathered in Turin, Italy for the Terra Madre, the international food festival organised by the Slow Food movement.
Alongside thousands of others, our team of academics from the Centre for Food Policy participated in four days of tastings and talks themed around food systems regeneration.
As the UK faces a devastating cost-of-living crisis, we were struck by the tensions between the vibrancy of the Slow Food movement, a grassroots organisation born out of founder Carlo Petrini’s protest of a McDonalds opening in Rome in the 1980s, and the reality of bleak and difficult circumstances currently faced by so many.
It was an exhilarating event, yet one of our researchers, Sabine Parrish, who researches family food insecurity in London, described a sense of dissonance between her work and the event’s vision.
Aware that many of the families she works with could never afford the produce on offer, we started to ask ourselves how the UK could meet the slow food principles of good, clean and fair food for all while facing stark and rising inequality?
One of the leading perspectives from the podiums at Terra Madre was that as consumers, individuals must recognise the true cost of food, stop buying fast food and start buying ‘slow’.
This vision sees food systems ‘regeneration’ as the outcome of individuals ‘voting with their money’ to support ‘slower’ food producers and practices. But this is impossible when so many families around the world are choosing between heating and eating.
When struggling to meet these basic needs, artisanal foods cannot be a priority, even if people have the best intentions. The cheapest, often industrially produced, foods will win out.
The problem is not an ignorant consumer who doesn’t want to spend more on good cheese. It’s a problem with the inherent tension between ensuring producers earn a proper living while also allowing individual consumers to turn the heat on this winter and meet their basic food needs.
What must happen, then, to make this regeneration move from marginal to mainstream, to enable everyone to benefit?
Taking up slow food’s call for action on regeneration requires looking beyond food itself, considering it in relation to the other systems which create constraint in people’s lives – energy, childcare and unstable employment, to name but a few.
We were inspired by the presentation of Brazilian chef and activist Bela Gil, who passionately highlighted the need to regenerate our economic, social, and health systems to ensure people have the infrastructure, time, and money to access and prepare foods with fresh and local ingredients.
As the UK grapples with its current crises, we would be wise to listen to voices like Gil’s with a wealth of experience fighting for good and dignified food in social and economic inequality around the world.
For far-reaching, systems-wide regeneration, we must look beyond the individual consumer as the pivotal agent of change and instead challenge the systemic inequalities that shape the foods people are able to acquire and eat. Only then will we arrive at food which is good, clean and fair for all.