The one-day workshop was divided into two segments: the morning local and regional, the afternoon national, and we had some expert guides during both. Mark Winne and Pam Roy, who led much of the day, both have many years of experience in the politics and practice of food policy councils in North America, where the concept originated. Collaboration seems to be fundamental to these organisations and the sharing of knowledge throughout seemed to be an appropriate reflection of this.
Food is, of course, fundamental to all of our lives. The food magazine that carries the strapline “For people who eat” makes me laugh at its self-conscious joke every time I see it. Some of us may be more obsessive foodies than others, but, whether we regard food as fuel or as one of the great pleasures of life, we all have to eat to stay alive. Those of us living in developed countries are generally more privileged in our access to enough food, and in the vast choice available. And yet, there are still those who are not able, for whatever reason, to ensure they eat a healthy diet. Obesity is a major problem, particularly in deprived areas. We were told that in Newcastle nearly 15% of children entering school reception classes are obese. The statistics on poor health and early death mirror areas of poverty and deprivation. Is the loss of skills a major factor that leads families to rely on unhealthy processed food? Certainly many people seem unconfident about basic cooking. Many of us say we like to eat local food, particularly those of us who are more comfortably off and able to make choices. We like local produce because it’s fresh and it has a low carbon footprint. And yet 75% of the food we eat in the North East is imported, while we export 75% of what we produce here. Given that the Taste Club initiative that aims to promote local food has 7,500 members who profess an interest in local food, that seems to open up huge potential for new food and drink enterprises in the North East. But small producers need to be able to break through, and it is difficult for them to compete on price with large supermarkets. Faced with the goods on the shelf we still opt for cheapness over quality. Is this an inevitable consequence of the market economy? What about the huge buying power of the public sector? Healthy eating should be a paramount concern when we are feeding school children and patients, but purchasers are often forced into lowest price deals. These are all issues that concerned people attending the workshop. Many are already involved in projects and initiatives that tackle specifics: setting up community gardens and allotments to promote vegetable growing, providing education in budgeting and cooking cheap but healthy meals, running coops that buy in bulk and can afford to sell more cheaply in the community. These are all immensely worthy ideas. But a food policy council aims to take this kind of thinking to a different level, to influence the way in which local and national government exercises power. Drawing on the experience of our experts, it is obvious that there are some important principles that need to apply: justice, equity and sustainability are key. Partnerships are essential, and must be inclusive, looking beyond the purely urban to include rural food producers as well as consumers. If Newcastle University could be involved, this would be in line with our aspiration to be a civic university, rooted in the local community. Newcastle City Council is a key player and is already in the process of preparing its Food Charter, so perhaps we already have a step in the right direction.