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Interview

Feeding the eight million

Rosie Boycott interview

Rosie Boycott interview

As food advisor to the Mayor of London, few people are better placed to improve access to healthy, locally produced and affordable food in the capital than Rosie Boycott. She tells us where our food system has gone wrong, and the steps The London Food Board are taking to put it right.

System failure

What’s really important now is that people are coming back to understand the significance of food. It’s important not just in terms of health or farming and production, but also hugely from the point of view of community and how we live. The commercialisation of the food system and its impact on society has been immense, and on the whole, not very good. People aren’t eating much together anymore – that whole gluey socialisation that happens around a family meal has gone.

It started to evaporate at the end of the 1970s when food companies figured out how to sell us more food. One of the many things they did was, in a sense, to obliterate meals by saying, ‘actually you can eat all day’. They introduced the snack culture and it’s had some really bad social impacts. Our high streets, especially in the more deprived parts of London, are dominated by empty shops, fast food takeaways, charity shops and off licenses, with betting shops springing up everywhere and huge supermarkets sucking the life and the trade away.

Rosie Boycott

“Too many people don’t know anything about where their food comes from and therefore don’t have respect for it and understand that it’s amazing stuff, this fuel we give our bodies.”

Rosie Boycott

But nothing has been worse than the impact it has had on our health. Too many people don’t know anything about where their food comes from and therefore don’t have respect for it and understand that it’s amazing stuff, this fuel we give our bodies. Instead they’re prepared to put in all sorts of rubbish. Our diets are largely, almost wholly to blame for the obesity crisis, for the diabetes crisis, for many cancers and indeed for much heart disease in younger people.

At the same time we have a government that really doesn’t have a food policy as a government. Food exists in 19 different ministries. Nobody really owns this unbelievably important thing – and that’s very scary. Because food, from a government point of view, has always been handed to the private sector to run, manage, price, and control. At the Food Board we tackle these sorts of things in as many ways as we can.

Capital growth

In the run up to the London Olympics we set out to create 2012 community growing spaces. This was very ambitious but it took off like a rocket. At the beginning we thought the community gardens would end up in middle class areas, but quite the reverse happened. The majority are in housing estates, in the city’s most deprived boroughs. Within four years we had 100,000 volunteers, 150 acres of London and an extraordinary range of people in terms of ethnicity.

And we found that much more than just the food grew. On estates where people were afraid to come out, the gardens gave them the confidence to come down from six floors up and say ‘this is my space’, so they got cleaner and safer. Then a lot of the people running the gardens realised they were producing surpluses, and could start to sell it. This great enthusiasm was bubbling up from people of all ages to get back to making food real and to having food businesses.

“To reconnect people to food and all that we’ve lost is a very big step. But if you take enough small steps, it is possible to change the world one person at a time.”

Rosie Boycott

Fifty of our sites are now turning into small businesses. We wanted to go further, to get onto the high streets and into big regeneration – to help small social enterprises expand into larger profitable businesses, creating jobs and adding to the diversity of the capital’s food sector. This is where we joined up with Triodos and the Plunkett Foundation to do some of the great work they’ve done in the countryside with food projects in the city.

Four fantastic projects are taking part in the pilot – KERB, Unpackaged, Field to Fork and Cultivate London – receiving financial and business support. The aim is to learn from their experiences and share this knowledge to help more independent food businesses prosper. To reconnect people to food and all that we’ve lost is a very big step. But if you take enough small steps, it is possible to change the world one person at a time.

The London Food Board is an initiative of the Greater London Authority.
www.london.gov.uk

photography CHARLES GLOVER words WILL FERGUSON

CV
Rosie Boycott

Rosie Boycott is a journalist and author. In 1971 she cofounded the feminist magazine Spare Rib with Marsha Rowe. Two years later she and Rowe co-founded Virago Press, a publishing concern committed to women’s writing. She has worked on The Daily Mail, The Sunday Telegraph, Harpers and Queen and Esquire and
was Editor of The Independent on Sunday, The Independent, and The Express. Rosie has written several books including an autobiography, a novel and a non-fiction book about running a small-holding. In
2008 she was appointed as Chair of London Food as part of Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s commitment to help improve Londoners’ access to healthy, locally produced and affordable food.

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