Borough market
It can feel lonely to be passionate about food and where it comes from.

I feel like I’m a small island in an ocean of ambivalence

As a movement of people who are passionate about food, we need to connect to each other more, writes Jack Thompson.

Is it stating the obvious to say it’s exceptionally hard, as an individual, to take action against climate change, the nature crises, not to mention a disintegrating food system?

Well, I’m saying it. Living in and working as a reporter in the chaos of London, what feels like the nexus of consumerism, people don’t *seem* to care about these issues, or rather people don’t have the time to care. In this environment, surrounded by people with different priorities and worries, and where every minute seems jam packed, I sometimes notice a growing ambivalence in my own actions and purchases, and the impacts they have.

Whether it’s buying chicken that I suspect is from dubious sources, to not sorting the recycling properly, I justify myself:

“It’s so structural, no one person’s actions can make a difference.”

Or: “When no one else seems to care, why should I bother?”

I feel like I’m a small island in an ocean of inaction at times. Maybe I’m weak willed but I’m becoming more and more convinced that this is down to my environment rather than a statement about myself and my values. Let’s not forget that it’s hard to make any ‘right’ decisions when it comes to food, such is the nature of opaque supply chains and inadequate labelling.

As I look after the Wicked Leeks website and speak to our dynamic reader community in the comments section, I know that this issue also plagues other readers, as Doingmybest and Natz Bartlett commented earlier this year:

“I look around at the people who live near me and they are sublimely uninterested in any notion of sustainability. I find it all very disheartening – I’m not going to abandon my principles just because they are not universally shared, but I do feel sometimes like alone voice crying in the wilderness,” commented Doingmybest, on ‘Can London ever be sustainable?’

“It often feels very lonely trying to do the right thing, surrounded by family and friends who can’t understand why you don’t just get a Tesco delivery,” said NatzBartlett on Why eating in the city can be a minefield.

I wonder how many others feel like this?

The reason I’m becoming more convinced that our environment has a big impact of our motivation, is because I know what it’s like on the other side of the coin. What it’s like when you connect to people with similar values and the pulse of energy that accompanies a good conversation.

I used to sell veg boxes for Riverford at big events, and there was nothing like an encounter with someone who was similarly impassioned about good food and farming. There’s a reason why people say enthusiasm is infectious, it’s like being renewed.

It might sound obvious, but we can’t motivate ourselves all the time. We need each other and community to drive us on, to not only feel that buzz of energy, but to also keep us accountable for our actions.

Likewise, I found myself reporting at an Extinction Rebellion protest in London and speaking to passionate protesters and why they were there. In that collective, there was a feeling that yes, together, we can make a difference.

Similarly, when I got to Devon to see my colleagues at Wicked Leeks and the wider Riverford family, we get into debates about these big issues that we write on, from regenerative farming culture to making real bread more affordable, it leaves me feeling invigorated about the cause. It’s like being plugged in at the mains.

It might sound obvious, but we can’t motivate ourselves all the time. We need each other and community to drive us on, to not only feel that buzz of energy, but to also keep us accountable for our actions. It’s harder to stick to something if you’re only letting down yourself.

Consumerism thrives on making us individuals. Companies make more money and sell more stuff by encouraging us to be different and unique rather than what unites us. Otherwise, we might just realise that actually, we don’t need that to be happy.

As a movement of people who are passionate about food and the positive impact it can have on our environment, society and our health, we need to connect to each other more.

Whether it’s reaching out to other readers on the Wicked Leeks comments section or forming our own networks, it’s good to remember that we can’t do it all by ourselves.


18 Comments

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  1. You are not alone! If you think it’s difficult in London (some aspects anyway) you might spare a thought for us in beautifully green Milton Keynes. The green bit is fab but the choice of eating out ethically is almost non-existent. We used to have several places that used ethically-reared and sourced ingredients but they’ve nearly all been replaced by fast food outlets. We have to travel about 8 miles to find a village pub which is under the umbrella of a chain specialising in high welfare, seasonal and locally sourced food. People just don’t seem to care. But we press on. Doesn’t half make eating out hard work though. And as for travelling abroad – we look with a sort of envy at all the gorgeous food that we can’t eat because of the way the poor animals were raised. Middle class, first world problem, I realise but still. If you like sweatshop-produced fashion, you’re quids in!

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    1. Thanks for link. As for energy/motivation, I’ve always had a strong (stubborn, some would say) ethical core – both political and environmental and I’m an avid radio/podcast listener: so follow things like The Food Programme, The Food Chain (Radio 4 and The World Service, respectively). Plus there are chefs/restaurants out there who try to do it well eg Jamie Oliver, The Pig chain of hotels. And there’s Riverford leading the way, it goes without saying. It’s often expensive and exasperating but it’s just got to be done. I couldn’t do otherwise and feel ok about myself. That sounds holier-than-thou and I’m really not. Just trying to do the right thing knowing others are too.

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    2. It’s a good point, it’s hard to say these things without sounding holier than thou. Or is that something that is levelled at people that are pushing for progress? Just as people are made to feel like they’re overly sensitive for caring about social injustices. I think there’s something in that.

      Maybe we need more outrage…

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  2. It’s not a middle class problem, it’s a whole world problem, but a middle class battleground because we can afford to fight it.

    The community stuff takes the words right or of my mouth. This is what EcoCounts is promoting- it’s early days yet but the idea is to work out the best way to start foster such communities in North London, and then take the concept as a blueprint that can be done anywhere.

    I’d love to say Riverford veggie boxes will be an obvious part of the greenprint but like I said it’s early days and we’re not just aiming for a completely middle class membership!

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    1. In these times of financial pressures where time = money, do you think anyone other than the middle class will have time for it Adam?

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  3. I can completely relate to this. It feels frustrating to be a drop in the ocean, to witness capitalism and marketing, and feel the apathy towards food and the environment. Good to connect with other like minded people wishing to make a difference.

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  4. Perhaps you’ve just written yourself a brief Jack: start an online community of Riverford customers able to connect, share, pose questions etc.
    Equally, we have to believe that our individual actions make a difference. For me, it creates some sanity in a chaotic world. When I have guests, I try to gently inform based on what I’ve learned. Right now, the emphasis is on water conservation at home during this drought…
    As for community, we need a pack mentality and to be a pack that don’t fight with each other but support, guide, inform, and crucially ask questions constantly. We must at least try to slow down our extinction!

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    1. I think you’re right Max. Do you think a forum on Wicked Leeks where readers could ask their own questions and have conversations would work?

      I would agree with you in part; I think individual actions that lead to collective action is key. It’s not enough to think that an eco-consumerism, where we just change our purchases, will change our broken food system. I don’t think that’s how it works. We need a social movement! And like you say, I think that will come from a pack mentality where we ask questions, challenge each other, support and inform.

      I’ve been fascinated with the farmers protests in India because this is the best demonstration of a social movement in action, that has made real change. But that has been 20 years in the making and has taken huge amounts of community outreach, diplomacy, talking, debating; lots and lots of effort basically. I think we need to follow their lead.

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  5. I can understand the comment about middleclassness but the veg shop I work in has a complete mixture of people / classes. We do get the people who live around the corner and are not hard up but then they also go to the supermarket or their main shop in their 4 x 4s. Then we also get a lot of people who are obviously living in their vehicles / in a collective and have no money at all and live “off the land”. More often we are asked how far items have come and whether or not all the produce is organic. The “believers” are true believers and tend to make sure what they are buying conforms to that. However, it is very sad to see those who visit another part of the shop driving their 4 x 4s with clearly money to waste not caring about airmiles / plastic / sustainability / carbon footprint / plastic etc. etc. We can advocate and try to control the rhetoric of course but true commitment to an environmentally and ethically secure future must come from government. And in that respect we are not only a long way off but, I would suggest, flogging a very dead horse…..

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  6. Hi Jack,

    Real Local RVA is located in Richmond, VA and we’re aiming to do just that – foster connection and collaboration within our local food system. I was even asked, “What do you do to stay positive?” when I applied for the Executive Director position. My response was probably the lengthiest I gave during the interview! It’s easy to get despondent when ‘doom scrolling’, but getting out into the community, attending markets, and getting to know my local business owners – grocery stores, restaurants, even my mechanic – and having them remember me always gives me hope.

    On another note, would you be comfortable with me reposting this article on our website at reallocalrva.com? Full credit of course – but our members have been expressing that networking is the biggest benefit of what we do, and I’d like to share your words across the pond. You can email me at samantha@reallocalrva.com if you’re interested.

    Best,
    Samantha Jameson
    Executive Director, Real Local RVA
    @reallocalrva

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  7. I can really empathise with this article and the comments. I have been working for the past two years in organic growing, and one of the best things about it has been meeting likeminded people. It has really made me see the world (and people) through different eyes. It is a roller coaster ride of hope and despair.

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    1. Sounds as if you’ve got a good network of people to plug into, definitely need that. I like what you say about seeing the world through a different lens, but was wondering what you meant by that? Through the lens of food?

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    2. Hi Jack, I have answered a little in my comment to Compost. I am referring mostly to the knowledge I have gained about ‘conventional’ versus ‘organic’ farming and growing. Also to the value I see that we put on where food has come from, how it has been produced and the people behind it. Working on the land is hard work, and not well paid. I know that most people would not choose to do it for those reasons, and yet we all want food to be cheaper. I feel that the problem is that, for a long time, food has been too cheap, and the prices are dictated by the supermarkets, who of course can afford to charge very little, and not for reasons that we should be celebrating. There is only so ‘cheap’ that food can be, if we wish to be gentle with the environment, and pay people what they deserve. For me, ‘cheap’ and ‘expensive’ have lost their meaning. It is all relative to what we are willing to pay, what we can afford, and what we choose to spend our disposable income on.

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  8. Add Hertfordshire to the list of eating out places where organic food is non existent. We grow most of our own organic food but a treat out would be nice sometimes. But the big question which has been unanswered for years is how do you get healthy organic food to people who can’t afford it. A recent poll said the majority of people who can’t afford organic would love to eat healthy food. Don’t rely on governments, they would say let market forces dictate and look where that has got us!
    Rob Street

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    1. Hi Rob,

      I think that’s a real sticking point and major concern for anyone working in the industry. From my view, I think part of the equation is making the industry more efficient through research and development, which is sorely lacking. But also I don’t think organic should squeeze their prices too much because a big part of organic is paying people fairly. If you don’t pay people fairly, how can they afford good food or a good life. So i think so much of this is a big systemic problem. You can’t have cheap food without consequences, and a big one is the livelihoods of farmers and people who work within food production.

      Also, what is this poll you’re talking about? I’m writing about this subject and it would be useful to see its results. Thanks, Jack

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    2. Hi Compost and Jack, I also often think how we can make organic food more accessible to all, and agree with Jack that it is a systematic problem. Many organic farms (at this time of year) rely on seasonal staff who are paid very little. Often the people working on the farm cannot always afford the food they are growing. Organics are trying to (having to, due to consumer expectations) match supermarket prices, when the means of production just cannot be compared to large scale ‘conventional’ farming and growing. I do not have the answer I’m afraid. I think a greater understanding (and appreciation) of where food comes from, and how it is produced, is needed. Greater transparency, and a shift away from supermarkets for those that do have the disposable income.

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  9. You may find it isn’t always ambivalence. Research suggests that the more unpalatable the information, the more likely humans are to retreat into rejection and denial. Much of the environmental discourse has been on the (likely) doom scenarios. There are very few people painting a compelling and attractive vision of what life could be like if we made the necessary changes and many more who are focusing on the implications of inaction. This, in addition to the “what can I do – I’m just one person?” and the perceived personal costs of the change, including potential ridicule from friends and family, can keep people where they are. What can those of us already taking action do to tip the balance towards change for those who are probably sub-consciously anxious about the outlook, but keep looking away because it’s too scary? Happy do discuss and take further if this resonates with anyone. For context: I’m a leadership coach and change mentor and member of the Climate Coaching Alliance.

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