Updated: Oct 12, 2021
Our food culture has undergone gradual yet extensive change over the last few decades, creating phenomena that will now be very familiar to all of us. Birmingham is developing an international reputation for the vibrancy and diversity of its food culture; whether it’s street food underneath railway arches or Michelin starred dining in Georgian mansions. We can boast the UK’s largest zero waste supermarket promoting fresh, local and sustainable produce and world class education for the industry at UCB. The city hosts a number of cooperatives and initiatives that create jobs and add value to our community - Birmingham seems to have it all.
The other side of our present food culture is less worthy of celebration. Fast food is the only affordable nutrition for so many and those that do cook at home typically source ingredients from a handful of big supermarkets with carbon intensive global supply chains.
Our high streets are suffering, but even before the advent of online shopping, retail parks with ample parking stole their footfall and left our local centres shadows of their former selves. With basic amenities now only accessible by car, a daily small shop that many would do on their way home from work has been replaced by a big wasteful weekly shop. Butchers, bakers and grocers that wrapped their produce in paper have been replaced by one big Aldi and plastic bags. The City Council is beset by an inability to organise waste collections, a problem that would be lessened by simply producing less of it.
The impact of poor nutrition and education around food on our health has reached epidemic levels. It is our diets that are largely to blame for the increasing incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. 1 in 4 Brummies are now obese and a soon to be demolished city centre McDonald’s has been sickeningly described as ‘iconic’ by our local newspaper.
It seems many of us simply don’t know or care where what we eat comes from or the processes involved in taking it from field to fork. We are disconnected from one of the most vital needs for our own survival and this is having a detrimental impact on our health, our community and our planet.
Now imagine a city where fresh, seasonal and locally produced food is tasty, healthy and affordable and that good food is visible, accessible and celebrated everywhere. Imagine a city replete with urban microfarms and parks filled with fruit and nut trees, where we encounter food being grown and lovingly made locally every day. Imagine a city that exists in symbiosis with its rural hinterlands, supporting local supply chains and where people and businesses can develop a direct relationship with local farmers and producers at markets and events across the city. Imagine if every school, hospital, care home, restaurant and office canteen served only delicious and sustainable food. Imagine if good food enterprises in the city could multiply and thrive and people of every age and from every background could develop skills in growing and cooking.
It is a vision that many cities are currently promoting by developing their own 'Food Policy'.
Policy makers and stakeholders are working together to achieve this vision and promote change by pooling their expertise and connections, understanding the complex problems we face today and the context in which we find them.
Bristol's Good Food Plan consists of 8 objectives that encourage every organisation in the city to examine how they can take action to influence change in the food system. Ghent, a small city northwest Belgium that may be familiar to you as the inspiration behind Birmingham City Council’s recent transport policy, launched their ‘Gent en Garde’ policy in 2013. The city aims to achieve ecological and social progress through changes to the entire food supply chain: from production, processing, and distribution to consumption and waste management.
The policy outlines five objectives to substantially reduce the environmental impact of how we consume, while providing practical solutions on how to organise the food supply chain in a socially responsible way that promotes the health of Ghent’s citizens. Since the local government’s strategy was created, Ghent has succeeded in bringing together a range of small scale initiatives to enable wide-spread structural change to the city’s food system.
Both plans promote system change by creating realistic targets and encouraging the relevant people in the food industry to get involved. Both cities aim to facilitate and develop a food system which from field to fork is good for people, places and the planet.
By synthesising ideas proposed in these groundbreaking strategies we can create a preliminary draft for Birmingham’s own Food Plan that outlines practical solutions to address what is an undeniably complex issue. The objectives and ideas discussed below are by no means a panacea but are a good place to start.
Draft Birmingham Food Plan Objectives
1. Build food production into urban development
The attitude of residential developers and Birmingham City Council needs to change to meet food production needs. Estate agents of the future will be asked far more frequently by prospective buyers of city centre flats whether their new home will come with an allotment rather than a parking space. Creating rooftop herb gardens and allotments should become the norm in new developments, making residents’ gardens productive rather than simply ornamental.
There is a perception that cities are congested and built up with limited green space. But there is actually plenty of potentially productive space, we’re just not using it properly. Birmingham has recently become one of the UK’s first tree cities and we have more public parks than Paris but very few of these produce food. Our parks could have forage areas of fruit and nut trees and communities could plant orchards in their shared green spaces. Instead of pretty and obscure species of ‘statement’ trees lining new boulevards and providing shade in new masterplans we could have apple and pear trees from from which passersby can help themselves.
Birmingham currently has 7,112 allotments across 115 sites and the last few years has seen a an increase in the demand for allotments across the city. A 2010 review suggests that this is due to a number of factors including increased food prices and a desire for self-grown, fresh, organic food. There is a huge demand for space where people can grow their own fresh and healthy produce and the very practice of doing so has been shown to increase people's sense of well being along with the environmental, health and social benefits allotments bring.
A flourishing allotments system has Birmingham since as early as 1731. These ‘Guinea Gardens’, so called because they were leased for one guinea a year, were on private land owned by many of the well-known local families such as Calthorpe, Gooch and Colmore. These family estates still own a lot of land across the city. James Drake writing in 1825 claimed these precursors to allotments promoted ‘healthful exercise and rational enjoyment among families of the artisans; and, with good management, produce an ample supply of those wholesome vegetables stores, which are comparatively seldom tasted by the middling classes when they have to be purchased.’ Introducing land that can be cultivated into private development is nothing new but could introduce carbon scrubbing greenery into the urban realm as well as promoting better physical and mental health.
CityPark4Brum have campaigned tirelessly for a new public park in the Smithfield development citing insufficient green space in the masterplan. A new park is one thing, the UK’s first urban orchard is an entirely different proposition and will more appropriately fit into a development that includes a brand new retail market and so has food at its heart. Birmingham City Council’s plans to regenerate the Ladywood estate offers another opportunity to put good food at the heart of the community and the Rea Valley Masterplan could take advantage of its idyllic uncovering of the River Rea to provide micro-farm terraces inspired by the Inca for residents and businesses in the area.
An instance of urban farming already exist in the city. In 2017 Argent College established a microfarm on the rooftop of the New Standard Works in the Jewellery Quarter, providing produce for the college kitchen and Hive Café. Students grow seasonal, organic-biodynamic food crops, herbs and flowers as part of their integrated Seed-to-Table Curriculum. They are involved in each process; growing, harvesting, preparation and cooking. Each year the microfarm produces hundreds of kilos of vegetable and herbs just a few steps away, compared to the hundreds and sometimes thousands of food miles travelled by what we are used to purchasing in supermarkets.
2. Make it easier for people to cook from scratch, grow their own and eat more fresh, seasonal, locally grown food
Change, like charity, begins at home. We are a nation that voraciously consumes TV cookery shows from the Great British Bake Off to Saturday Kitchen and yet very few of us regularly cook from scratch. While the nation’s favourite celebrity chefs tempt us with their delicious recipes and sell-out cook books, ready cooked convenience meals and takeaway food are still the norm for most.
Food growing around the city should be highly visible and good quality fresh produce should be widely available. Encouraging the proliferation of businesses like the Clean Kilo on high streets will make it easier and cheaper for people to cook at home.
We have numerous outstanding Brummie chefs who could produce a new online cookbook, creating exciting yet easy recipes to cook at home and collaborating with businesses where you can buy the ingredients in meal kits. Education is also key and cookery schools across the city need to be promoted and made more accessible.
Making food growing and cooking lessons as well as farm visits part of every child’s education will familiarise future generations with where their food comes from.
Since 2014, over 42 schools in Ghent have received training in how to develop community garden beds on their campus, with other 240 parents and teachers having participated in these workshops.
The Kitchen Food School in Digbeth began as a pop up and the school now offers a range of cookery classes for enthusiastic cooks and children, keen to develop their skills. The classes offered are remarkably diverse and range from plant foraging along Digbeth Branch Canal to butchery classes. To continue their community based work, they host Take Away Cooks where pupils can cook their own supper with help from qualified tutors, then either take it home or give it to a homeless person or charity.
3. Reduce food waste
Agriculture and food production are responsible for one third of total greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that 800 million people worldwide are left without enough food, and yet around 30% of food globally is wasted. In the UK that figure is closer to 40% of food produced along various stages of the supply chain.
There are several interventions that can minimise domestic food waste, the first of those is at the buying stage. Meal planning can ensure that you never over-buy items that then go unused or get thrown away. Despite seeming simple, the reality is that ingredients will come in set weights or packet sizes from supermarkets that can be too big for your needs. The larger packet sizes also mean that they can cost more so trying something new might become prohibitively expensive.
The UK’s largest plastic free supermarket, The Clean Kilo, provides an elegant solution. Customers can buy food, drinks, toiletries and cleaning products by weight, all dispensed into containers that you bring from home. You can also buy reusable containers or use supplied paper bags reducing plastic waste as well as food waste. Buying by weight means you can you can purchase as much or as little as you need. You can therefore try a new dish without having to buy tonnes of ingredients, saving you money, minimising what you might end up throwing away and more easily introducing more variety into what you cook at home.
The Clean Kilo also help to educate people about sustainability issues, organising workshops, school visits and company visits in order to spread the word about zero waste and providing education around what people buy, how to store it correctly and meal plan. If we were all able to shop at a Clean Kilo we would produce far less food and packaging waste, reduce what ends up in landfill and the frequency we'd need bin collections.
Encouraging the proliferation of businesses like The Clean Kilo will have a transformative affect on our high streets. A zero waste supermarket that prioritises fresh, local produce and runs events and workshops can become a community hub. It appeals to sensibilities of younger people who are typically more environmentally conscious as well as older generations who are nostalgic for the thriving high streets they remember. A Clean Kilo on every high street adds to the need to create 15 minute communities, where nearly everything you need is within a 15 minute walk, minimising the need to travel long distances as well as ensuring that the groceries we buy are part of shorter, local supply chains - far better than a big soulless Aldi.
For when you’re eating out, Ghent introduced a local version of a doggy bag called the Restorestje Box which has since been widely replicated across Belgium since its introduction in 2015. 100 restaurants in the city distributed 11,000 boxes to their customers to take home their leftovers. If you’re struggling to finish that pizza there is no need for embarrassment; you’re saving the planet, reducing food waste and you can enjoy your delicious leftovers at home. Keepcups are available across the city too and offer a greener alternative to disposable coffee cups. Many cafes also offer discounts on your take away purchase if you bring one in too.
Apps like Too Good To Go have offered restaurants the ability to sell off their remaining freshly made meals towards the end of the day at a discount, but even those that do go unsold can still be enjoyed by those who need a healthy meal the most.
Ghent launched a new distribution platform called Foodsavers that has redistributed over 1,000 tonnes of surplus food over the past two years to over 57,000 people in need – this amounts to being more than 20% of the city’s population. This food is distributed through 106 local charities such as food banks. It is estimated that this redistribution of food has saved around 2,540 tonnes of CO2 emissions, while also playing an important role in alleviating poverty.
In Birmingham Tabor House, the Tressell Trust and the Langar Seva Society offer food and respite to the homeless; fostering collaboration between local businesses and these organisations will ensure that even those who cannot afford good food receives it.
Even when food ends up as waste, it needn’t be lost. The waste can be reused as a raw material by encouraging composting and providing food waste collection that can taken to allotments around the city. Turning low value waste into high quality food is a necessity in a sustainable food city and can be achieved through the most inventive of means; used coffee grounds make the ideal environment to grow oyster mushrooms.
4. Encourage and promote food initiatives that create more added social value
A sustainable food plan must ensure that everyone has access to it and can get involved. Food should be an inherently social activity, eating lunch at your desk is a modern phenomenon that has been stripped of the joy of sharing a meal together. Food brings people together regardless of age, sex, background or income and as such can be an agent of social cohesion as well as a source of employment.
The development of sustainable food systems can help boost social employment by offering training and creating jobs at restaurants and with producers. Access to start-up support could enable new enterprises to develop and innovate, increasing the number of food-related jobs and training opportunities.
The Severn Project, a Community Interest Company founded in Bristol in 2010, produces 300kg of organic salad leaves a week to sell commercially and provides education training and employment for socially excluded individuals. It is one of the most productive urban growing projects in England. As well as employing several full time staff it has successfully provided therapeutic support for people with substance misuse issues, low-level mental health issues and those at risk of re-offending.
Miss Macaroon, founded by Rosie Ginday, not only produce beautiful macaroons but also provide opportunities for young people looking for a career in the food industry. MacsMAD (Macaroons that make a difference) offer training courses that enable long-term unemployed young people to build their confidence and skills to become work ready. Through their supportive and collaborative approach trainees, often care leavers experiencing difficulties, benefit from pastry chef training, work experience, confidence building and on-going mentoring. One to one mentoring provides support throughout the course, during follow on work experience and into employment for up to six months. MacsMAD trainees leave the course with their five year plan, up to date CV, extensive interview practice, industry contacts and experience of how to apply for jobs.
5. Promote and support community-led food trade such as co-operatives, urban and suburban markets and pop-ups.
70% of those involved in a community food projects say their quality of life has improved, and their cooking and eating habits have changed for the better.
The authors of the Bristol Good Food Policy believe that in the near future a connection with food growing could be the norm for the majority of the population. More community developed market gardens could supply increasing volumes of fruit and vegetables to city businesses and the potential to produce high cash-value products on rooftops in the city is significant.
Birmingham could be full of flourishing community-led food enterprises, covering all aspects of food production, processing, distribution, catering and waste. Enterprises related to food - like roof-top bee-keeping could be well supported and valued for their key contribution to a resilient food system. These community-led trade elements of the city’s food system would need to work closely with independent food businesses, local communities and public sector.
The Warehouse Cafe in Digbeth is a socially-minded business that already works with great food initiatives in and around the city. The co-operatively owned cafe regularly works with local growers, allotment holders, schools and community groups.
Moseley Farmers' Market takes place in the centre of Moseley on the last Saturday of every month and is staffed entirely by volunteers who just enjoy being part of the market and serving the local community.
Similar regular markets around Birmingham, both in the city centre areas of the Jewellery Quarter, Eastside and Centenary Square as well as urban centres like Kings Heath, Selly Oak, Longbridge, Sutton Coldfield, Stirchley, Northfield, Alum Rock and Erdington could be hugely successful at introducing residents to local producers and local producers to new customers. They can also help drive footfall to areas that typically go unvisited, benefitting local bricks and mortar businesses. You might even find a celebrity at one.
Since the UK’s first supermarket opened in 1951, the market has changed from diversity and competition to consolidation and monopoly. In 1990 the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets accounted for 50% of all British food shopping but by 2010 this had risen 75%. The impact on employment, from farm-workers to school cooks, is fewer jobs of low value and low status.
With the disappearance of small and medium sized farms, processors, wholesalers and retailers, more and more of the food sold in the region is imported from distant parts of the UK or abroad as part of the global supply chains of big supermarkets. The viability of many of these businesses is now threatened not only by Brexit but also more recently by widespread flooding. It has never been move vital that we support our local farmers and producers especially if a post-Brexit trade deal with the US opens up the UK market to chlorinated chicken and crops exposed to 85 different pesticides that are banned in the EU.
By establishing more markets for local producers we can increase the market opportunities for local & regional suppliers as well as minimise the carbon footprint of the food we consume. Smaller scale producers, including allotment growers who have surplus, need easy access to markets in the city too and can work together as co-operatives to supply restaurants and cafes.
Markets facilitate relationships between producers and consumers, meaning consumers get a better idea of the real value of their food and the work that goes into producing it. It fosters more respect between producers and consumers and a closer relationship between the countryside and our towns and cities that depend on one another. One of the many political faults that has developed in recent years is that between the rural and urban population and markets can build relationships that may heal it.
Markets also give farmers an opportunity to reach a wider audience. Because consumers tend to buy most of their produce at supermarkets, providing greater visibility for local producers has a significant impact on people’s choices.
6. Foster shorter and more visible food supply chains
Establishing more farmers’ markets is a practical example of a more fundamental aim of shortening supply chains. Supporting local food producers is better for the environment as 42% of all lorries on the road are carrying food back and forth from distribution centres.
Gent en Garde has built a platform to help facilitate short food supply chains between various local stakeholders. In the short term, this shorter food supply chain is estimated to cut emissions by 35.8% compared with conventional food supply chains – while in the longer term, as more consumers begin to change where they purchase their produce, this figure is expected to rise to 79%.
Integral to ensuring that businesses as well as individuals buy more locally is retaining and strengthening links between local wholesale markets, abattoirs, dairies and farms. Any future development framework has to protect infrastructure essential to food supply, including retaining wholesale and retail market access to the city centre and beyond.
Moving the Birmingham Wholesale Markets to Witton has broadly been seen as a positive move by those who use it and a negative one by local media pundits whose opinions are less than worthless on the subject. The establishment of an accessible ‘hub’ enables the efficient and effective processing, distribution and storage of local and regional produce and provides better physical space for buying and selling. However, this does not diminish the need for a satellite market space in the city centre proper. How the Smithfield masterplan addresses this need remains to be seen but a new and enlarged retail market is vital to ensure that the growing city centre population can access high quality fresh local produce.
The new, larger market will make it easier for restaurants and catering companies to find local produce to champion in their menus too. Asking where what you’re eating comes from in a restaurant shouldn’t be considered pretentious, if anything it should be considered far stranger not to know or care where what you’re putting in your mouth has come from. Provenance is important and encouraging more people to care about it will ensure people can make better choices that are healthier, more sustainable and tastier. Being far more discerning in this regard will influence how restaurants not only source their produce, but advertise it to customers too.
Opus restaurant host regular ‘Source Dinners’ where they celebrate their producers with 5 course tasting menus. Representatives from the businesses are present to talk about their produce with some stunning dishes being created last year to showcase Aubrey Allen beef, fish from Channel Island Fisheries and a vegetarian menu with Worcester Produce. While many city centre chain restaurants, some associated with emphatically gesticulating chefs, will flog you dishes prepared and packaged off site, many of our home grown restaurants are serving fresh, local and high quality food. Sourcing more local and regional food produce in this way will help Birmingham food businesses to thrive.
7. Love local and champion independents to keep our high streets vibrant and diverse.
We need to support and grow the independent scene in the city. Each pound spent in local, independent shops supports at least twice as many local jobs compared with spending in chains.
Numerous initiatives already exist in the city that promote our growing scene of independent cafes, bars and restaurants. Independent Birmingham and My Bull are both dedicated to maintaining directories of Birmingham’s home grown businesses, increasing their visibility and offering discounts or special offers for patrons who are signed up to them.
Many independent food businesses are part of the Slow Food Birmingham campaign whose aim is to give people access to real food, grown locally and sustainably. By championing local food and connecting people to the food they eat through local food projects, educational events, and shared meals Slow Food Birmingham exemplify many of the objectives outlined above. They campaign for phasing out of single-use packaging and work closely with groups who redistribute surplus food.
Birmingham Food Policy Council
Both Bristol and Ghent established Food Councils from various sectors including local producers, consumers, and other stakeholders to act as a sounding board for the city’s policy on food. The Food Policy Council creates connections and facilitates the sharing of expertise. They develop new ideas and initiatives and work together to drive forward the strategic vision on sustainable food production and consumption.
Any food plan is incredibly ambitious in how it aims to completely change systems and practices that have developed over decades. However, it makes clear that the rewards and benefits are far-reaching and generational.
Reforming the food system is not something that local government can achieve from above, it requires the commitment and proactive participation from everyone – groups, organisations, businesses and individuals to clarify where their input and expertise lie and how they can contribute to change. Let's start a conversation.