Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Farmer's Final Fight... Gareth Goes back to school for the cause.

In the third instalment of The Farmer and the Food Chain, my Farming Hero, Gareth Wyn Jones intends to tackle the top end of the chain, the folk who potentially have the power to change the way food is sourced within local government.

Seventy million pounds are spent by local authorities on food a year. This is food destined for the most vulnerable in society , children, the elderly and the sick and infirm and so Gareth argues these are the people the Welsh authorities should be sourcing the freshest produce from local folk, but it seems it does not work like that.

Gareth's master stroke is to connect, producer and consumer, in this case a primary school pupil sitting down to lunch, by sourcing a lovely roast dinner from local produce grown with a fifty mile radius of the school. Sounds simple, but Gareth finds that it might not be as simple as he first thought.

His experiment is being run in the midst of a Cardiff winter meaning seasonal produce is scarce. There is a reason why Brussels Sprouts and parsnips are a staple on Christmas dinner tables across the British Isles, because root veg and these kinds of Brassica are seasonal to the winter months. Gareth meets with a produce wholesaler who explains that whilst he would gladly stock more local Welsh Produce, they are not always able to supply the products consumers want exactly when they want them.

Local suppliers also have problems with yield. If a single supplier has a bad season due to environmental issues outside his control he will not be able to keep up with demand. Add to this the problem that farming has declined even in beautiful rural areas, like those in Wales. Farmers have just been priced out of the market and even forced to fold. There are less suppliers to actually source from and as Gareth finds getting the produce from within the fifty mile perimeter is going to be hard.

He meets with a local supplier who has a good attitude to local sourcing, but says the local authorities have to be flexible as to allowing seasonal veg onto plates and not sticking to strict ingredient lists and suppliers need to become more cognisant of what schools require so they can begin to satisfy demand.

Gareth meets with professor  at Cardiff university who makes a very important point, school meals are a commercial enterprise and  are  not a health and well being issue.  The school where Gareth is trialling his idea is normally sourced by a large London based company who supply nationwide and into Europe, all very nice and efficient but regimented structure and uniformity makes for a pretty dull menu in my opinion. The buzzword for school meals ( and those in hospitals and care homes too it must be added) is cost effectiveness. One of her statements should be shouted from the rooftops!

School Meals are not an expense, they are an investment !

Public health, local community  and society. The consumer and the producer working together with a degree of symbiosis will create stronger community links which can only be a good thing. Healthier more alert children learn better improving employment rates and increasing reinvestment in the local area meaning people stay in the local area and farming community's have more chance of maintaining themselves as their necessity in the cycle is assured.

On the Glamorgan coast,a school field trip to Slade Farm is a roaring success. Slade produces organic meat and this is  a good example of how children should be taught where their food comes from. Showing children that meat does not come in plastic packages and  that vegetables actually come from the earth is vital .The kids here are inner city children whose obvious awe at seeing a five minute old calf or piglets is lovely to see. Giving them a chance to be hands on by feeding sheep getting in touch with nature can only  be a good thing

The inevitable reticence of youngsters of this age to think of a baby sheep going to slaughter for lamb is normal and I myself have a pang to think of it, but I would rather a grass fed lamb with room to gambol and fighting fit right up until it's end than a sickly animal kept in cramped conditions bred or milked until it has no worth in a mass dairy. 

Gareth wants to go direct to the government in Cardiff Bay but had a definitive NO  From the Financial Minister for procurement  after asking to speak to them around the issues he had experienced. They do issue a statement however, which infuriates Gareth as he realises £37 million is leaving Wales from the total  budget spent on foods even if that is going into England, he feels it will be better spent in the ailing Welsh economy. The whole system is market led and at times is just plain mad, we import the exact amount of potatoes from the Netherlands that they import from us!  Neither country is winning any advantage there surely!

Penriw Farm is a small family property where Gareth is going to Source his School meals Beef. The difference between shop bought and this meat that is usually sold at Farmers Market is massive. It looks richer and heartier. The local authority demands Topside which is a more expensive cut , a cheaper cut from meat of this quality, cooked slightly longer would have been perfectly satisfactory.  Is this a bid from the LA to price the idea of local sourcing out of the realms of reality , I ask myself?

The cost of this exercise has doubled the usual budget and Gareth has had to push out beyond his fifty mile radius but he has sourced much from local Welsh suppliers. The preparation time has been longer for the school cooks, frozen sliced carrots are replaced by whole carrots that need to be peeled and diced by hand, but when asked the kids prefer the fresh ones. The food is scarfed down by pupil and staff alike and some kids are convinced to try the season greens on the plate.

When a school lunch is the only proper hot meal some children get( which in itself is a travesty!) it stands to reason that providing the most nutritionally rich, wholesome and fresh food possible makes sense and that getting that locally makes environmental sense too. Frozen food from London or fresh Welsh food , the decision is easy, invest in Wales so that Wales can invest in the consumers of the future.

Gareth ends his journey a little wiser about the uphill climb he faces if he wants local people to benefit from local food. He knows he must stand in the face of the government who puts cost above other considerations, the misconception that locally sourced from artisan producers will be more expensive and the food chain infrastructure perpetuated by the supermarkets. However I think if everyone who shopped at  "generic store" started demanding local produce from their own local branch and started looking for where they might be able to obtain local goods direct from the supplier and demanding local authorities provide adequate opportunity for farmers markets, gradually he can climb that mountain and together local  people can plant a flag atop it championing the Farm to Fork ideal !

1 comment:

  1. Really excellent overview of this episode! I truly hope the local food idea grows & grows, not only in Wales, but everywhere... Definitely an uphill climb... But worth it.