Event Report: The Politics and Promise of Urban Food #Manchester #climate

Attention Conservation Notice: Detailed-ish account of who said what at last night’s Urban Forum event organised by the University of Manchester’s “Cities@Manchester“.
The tl;dr – some interesting things said, but to an unrepresentative audience, and with no attempt at galvanising people around some clear winnable goals.(1)

Andy Karvonen (2) of University of Manchester welcomed people and explained that the purpose of the Urban Forum is it to “have conversations” (3). Future forums are on Tues 30th April on Age-Friendly Cities and Tuesday 18th June on “Living Wages.” Both presumably at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Cambridge St. He handed over to the chair, Dr Carly McLachlan of the Tyndall Centre/Sustainable Consumption Institute, who moderated the discussion.

First up Debbie Ellen, an independent food researcher who works with Emerge.
She held up an onion and asked the audience if they knew what it was. Every hand went up. She then pointed out that participants on a “learn to cook” course hadn’t known. It was a useful reminder that the people in the room (about 45, all white, none in fuel poverty) were not representative of the wider population. Ms Ellen outlined some of the work that Fareshare is doing in partnership with other groups under the Real Food Wythenshawe project, around working with people in Wythenshawe around cooking, growing and eating food. She pointed out that Manchester is the fourth most deprived authority in the country (2010 indices of multiple levels of deprivation study), and offered horrifying statistics on childhood obesity in Baguley – 16.9% at reception, 28% by year 6.
For many people, she said, there’s a choice between staying warm and putting food on the table, a choice that will get harder after the benefits changes come into effect in April.
She found out that everyone in the room had a cooker, with many having a microwave. She pointed out that that many houses just have a microwave – and that many people (none in the audience) have prepayment electricity meters, compounding their limited choices.
The work that Real Food Wythenshawe will be doing over its five year life-cycle is to increase the amount of food grown, but also give people the skills to know what to do with the food that they grow.

Next up was Liz Postlethwaite. She pointed out that global population is soaring, and resources becoming scarcer. Meanwhile the three main political parties want do just keep growing (the economy), but more and more individuals and communities are thinking of innovating and (hopefully) avoiding a “Mad Max apocalypse”
Ms Postlethwaite’s main theme was on how growing food re-invigorates individuals and communities, “linking people to place and process, giving them a different understanding of time and space.” [See John Berger’s essay “Why Look at Animals” [pdf] for another example of this argument.]
She gave the example – perhaps not a popular one with the GMLEP and Chamber of Commerce – of Detroit, with its “abundant and connected spaces”.
She advocated that cities become “more circular, less linear” (in their conception of resource throughputs), Her hope was that policy makers could embrace the learning of community groups to support shared aspirations around food growing and community cohesion, and support them in what they are doing.

Graeme Sheriff of the University of Manchester asked if food was just another product, or something more. He referenced Professor Tim Lang‘s distinction between the “productionist” paradigm (domination of nature, genetic modification, the life sciences) and the “ecologically integrated” approach (paying attention to limits, citizens rather than consumers) and offered up four benefits from urban food growing

  • It offers the opportunity to rein in the global supply chain impacts
  • Improves access to food in “food deserts”
  • Reconnects and engages people and communities, increasing their willingness to engage in political processes (here he mentioned a successful effort by people in Brighton to get their council to produce a policy statement on Urban Food)
  • Improves the city.

He said that a national “Local Food Funding evaluation” had found that while the direct benefits around the first two of these were modest, the third and fourth [harder to measure?!] show wider impovements. He finished with a question – are we talking about feeding the city, or equipping the city to deal with food?

Lastly Chris Walsh of Kindling Trust (see MCFly’s passim). Kindling, which is mostly involved in “peri-urban growing” (within 25 miles of the city) has its fingers in many pies (ho ho), including the Big Dig, the Land Army, and a supporting role with Manchester Veg People.
He pointed out that there are many policy documents about city resilience that talk about solar panels and trams, but there’s rarely a mention of Cheshire (as a food-growing area) or even food production per se.
Mr Walsh said that there are indeed many good things about urban food growing, but there are better ways of growing food. Urban food growing faces many challenges – vandalism, apathy, politics, money, bureaucracy, polluted land to name but a few, with the carbon savings of window boxes and small growing sites being ambiguous at best. The barriers are formidable and “two years down the line the people are not there who started up.”
Mr Walsh said “We need an ambition and urgency that isn’t happening.” That’s for sure!

As ever, the Question and Answer session went to the people most confident in asking questions.  (Rather than getting an exhortation to overcome their fear, people could have been offered the chance to turn to someone else and have a minute to find out if the question they were thinking of asking was a good one, or could be refined or improved. ) Manfully overcoming crippling social anxiety and terror at public speaking, MCFly put to the panellists the question of – if they were the leader of AGMA for a day and could push through one change that would “stick” – what would it be?
Three panellists responded – Debbie Ellen said “an integrated approach to procurement across Greater Manchester. This would support the local food economy, increase jobs and increase resilience. We are supposed to have it already” [but it is piecemeal].

Graeme Sheriff said “A Greater Manchester strategy that joined up things, with education, the local food economy, transport (not just trams and buses, but the ability of older people to get across the street to the shops). And teeth when it came to relationships with supermarkets and takeaways.”

Chris Walsh agreed with these and advocated that public sector organisations buy local organic in-season food.

In response to a different question (on how to pay the workers growing the food in Manchester a living wage when consumers expect super-cheap food), Liz Postlethwaite made the important point that “we are living in a bubble that won’t last” – she cited an article she’d read about the “food tsunami” that is approaching (thanks to rising fuel prices, changing weather patterns etc etc.)

Other questions were on topics like the amount of contamination of brownfield sites (you wouldn’t want to eat veggies grown on land that used to be a car workshop, would you?), the opportunities that Manchester has – workforce, young people raring to go greenbelt land, the Food for Life partnership (a Good Thing), and whether there are follow-ups to see what skills have been retained after “learn to cook” classes. An excellent point, also, was made in passing – if you can get 2000 “empty” calories for 30p, then even if you know how to cook, you aren’t going to spend a pound on 300 calories of real food.

MCFly verdict: this was a significant improvement on the June 2012 Urban Forum on “sustainability”. True, the meeting was entirely white, seemingly entirely middle-class (I did a straw poll – only a couple of people in the room were living in fuel poverty. I didn’t ask about university education). That doesn’t mean it is invalid of course – many meetings hosted by MCFly (and the old “Manchester Climate Forum”) were/are just the same. But we shouldn’t ever kid ourselves that the “forums” we hold are going to hear from all voices, and you kind of hope that in future the event organisers ask people who are coming to perhaps bring someone who is directly and immediately affected by the issues being discussed. It’s a very tricky business though, for sure.


(1) I know, I know. I am asking a saw to drive a nail/complaining about the lack of car-chases in Proust novels.  This event was about (3).

(2) Mr Karvonen, whose book we reviewed here, did not mention he is a member of the Stakeholder Steering Group. But to be fair, other members of the panel made the same choice. Were I on the Steering Group, I would make that choice, on the basis that membership would be a reputational risk.

(3) A couple of years ago the way that academics are judged changed. It used to be simply down to which articles you could get published in which “high impact” (cough cough) journals. Now it’s about the “impact” you have on policy-makers and the “engagement” you do with “stakeholders.”


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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1 Response to Event Report: The Politics and Promise of Urban Food #Manchester #climate

  1. Some of those involved with the local farming initiative, may be interested at this survey from DEFRA, which is for young farmers: http://www.defra.gov.uk/consult/2013/03/07/future-farming-review-1303/

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