Sustainable Huddersfield serves up food for thought

Local organisation Sustainable Huddersfield recently hosted a webinar titled ‘Hungry for Change’.  It will come as no great surprise that the overall theme of the event was food; food waste, food poverty, food availability and such.  

Sustainable Huddersfield’s Chris Shaw was at the head of the virtual table, serving up a menu of guest speakers from near and far on the subject of food and food sustainability.

But first, what is Sustainable Huddersfield, you ask?  A group put together by Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman, their aim is to make Huddersfield a sustainable town, which covers a number of areas such as transport, employment, environment, business, health, and food.  It’s a long-term endeavour, seeking to inform the way in which we will live, shop, work, and play for years, even decades into the future.  But why is it important?

MP Barry Sheerman has had an interest in sustainability for a long time.

Sustainable Huddersfield’s goals are aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development goals (of which there are 17), and in this way they are split into five ‘working groups’: Business and Manufacturing, Environment, Health and Wellbeing, Transport and Energy, and Comms and Culture.  Which brings us full circle to the topic at hand – food.

Chris Shaw opened with an overview of the aims and aspirations of Sustainable Huddersfield, and one thing stuck out as quite a basic explanation but an important one.  They want to “start a conversation between residents, activity coordinators, students, workers and policy makers”.  This is mention-worthy for the use of the word ‘conversation’.  It seems that in matters of local importance, many people feel that they don’t have the knowledge, understanding or confidence to get involved.  But everybody can take part in a conversation, and these conversations need to be happening at  every level of society.  This is how issues become everyone’s problem, and how everyone can be part of the solution.

Kate Auker, acting chief executive at The Welcome Centre on Lord Street, painted a realistic, stark picture of the issues faced by those who find themselves in need of their support.   First, she told us how her mission was to put herself out of a job, which is an interesting introduction, but makes perfect sense.  The closer we get to achieving truly sustainable food supplies, the less people will be needing them.

Kate Auker is acting chief executive of The Welcome Centre in Huddersfield.

The Welcome Centre has been running for over 20 years, helping to plug the gap whereby people find themselves in food poverty.  These people are in crisis, and need urgent help.  This can happen worryingly easily, especially with more people living wage to wage.  An unexpected bill, a broken down washing machine, health emergency, job loss, a delay in benefits.  All of these events and more can lead someone to not have any money for food at all, and long-term food access issues will likely have dwindled any meager store cupboard supplies.

The pandemic has brought more people than ever to the doors of The Welcome Centre.  In 2020, they handed out 10495 food packs, representing a whopping 200000 meals.  Each pack is a 7-day food pack, and there’s a big focus on ensuring the food isn’t just there, but that each pack contains a good variety of items that will enable the recipient to make healthy nutritious meals.  Sweeping redundancies and reduced incomes over the last year has seen a different demographic accessing food banks, so many visitors have never used them before. 

Kate and her team on Lord Street are well aware of the issues and challenges faced by food bank users, especially if somebody has been made unemployed;  their first payment from Universal Credit is likely to take 5 to 6 weeks to arrive.  The team are also well-versed in the types of support available for people experiencing all sorts of problems due to financial hardship and can signpost people to the appropriate services.

As well as more people in need, 2020 saw other increases; a huge increase in the number of people making cash donations, as well as increased public support and more corporate donors, enabling The Welcome Centre to secure good deals when purchasing food in bulk.

Whilst food banks such as The Welcome Centre work in food redistribution, there are those who believe in another method of improving food sustainability, and part of that involves addressing the staggering 6.7 million tonnes of food waste the UK generates each year.

One of them is Mark Game, CEO of charity The Bread and Butter Thing.  They aim at getting to excess food at the point in the chain before it becomes waste.  With a fleet of vans, they travel to warehouses, depots, farms, dairies and fisheries to pick up excess stock.  Taken to their 40+ locations across the North of England, items are packed into bags by volunteers.  People pre-order by text message, which ensures that no excess food is taken to any one location.  In return for 3 bags of food, users of the service pay a nominal fee.  In contrast to food banks, they aim at increasing wellbeing and trying to help make life affordable, in order to help prevent people getting to the point where they are in food crisis.  

As well as being a sort of fixed-price supermarket providing food for people to take home, the project also works with food clubs and community projects such as community kitchens, encouraging people to cook together, eat together, and get to know their neighbours.

The Bread and Butter Thing have over 40 locations across the North of England.

Cooking together brings us to the 3rd speaker, Dr Megan Blake of the Department of Geography at Sheffield University.  Food security is an issue close to her heart and her studies.  

The Bread and Butter Thing have over 40 locations across the North of England.

When we think of the word poverty, it has a direct link to the issue of money.  However, food poverty and food insecurity aren’t always solely linked to finances, and “throwing money at the problem doesn’t address all the issues about food insecurity”, said Dr Blake.

Yes, it does happen on a larger scale in areas of low income, but can have a knock on effect for much longer than it takes for the bank balance to recover.  Studies found that low income areas have high levels of obesity and low numbers of community activities and cohesion.  Food insecurity in these areas had the following longer-term impacts:

  • Loss of food literacy – people’s diets narrow, we eat the same things over and over.  Children then don’t learn what something is or how to use it, and so will avoid it.
  • Reliance on small local shops – shops without a lot of space will only stock what they know will sell.  If they start selling fresh fruit and nobody buys it, they won’t get it in again.
  • Social isolation – sometimes people have the money for food but don’t know anyone who can go get it for them if they are shielding or not able to go themselves.  People don’t cook together as much or share food with other households, which all adds to the above issues.

Dr Blake stressed how important a varied diet is to sustainability.  If we want to use food that is available rather than waste it, there may well be times when we have to try something new, or eat something we just don’t particularly fancy.

Cooking together and sharing food can increase our food literacy and improve our social life!

You might be sat at home thinking ‘well what has buying apples at the corner shop got to do with sustainability?’ – but the above illustrates that every way in which we interact with food impacts sustainability, or lack thereof.  It is a vast topic, and more of these conversations we mentioned earlier need to happen.  But they sound like the type of conversations we can have, don’t they?

To close, then.  Food sustainability, and therefore the sustainability of a town, needs us all to play  our  part.  As Dr Blake said, “We need to drive towards the idea that food inequality is not acceptable in our society”.  We can make small steps to help – try a different recipe (check out HuddersFoodie for ideas).  Use a new ingredient.  Talk to family, friends and colleagues about food and share ideas.  Share food, when it’s safe to.  Continue to donate to food banks, but ensure they are good quality donations that aren’t out of date.  Volunteer your time at a community food project, if you can.  Go to a community food project to meet your neighbours.  

Let’s keep having conversations that matter.

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