Mara Galeano Carraro in conversation with Country Durham Food Partnership Coordinator, Jill Essam
I recently had a fascinating conversation with Food Partnership Coordinator for County Durham, Jill Essam. Having only started the role two months ago, Jill told me about the magnitude of challenges surrounding her work that she is still very much trying to grapple with. How do we go about changing people’s psyches when it comes to food in the UK? How do we ensure a continual process of positive change through community development and education? “To change a whole system, well that’s huge”, she said.
She told me that being new to the role, she is still getting accustomed to the work and the ways of working of the Sustainable Food Place Partnership in County Durham, and that as she learns more about how to go about things, she is asking herself, “what solutions do we have to the very complicated business that is trying to bring healthy and sustainable food to a place?” She told me that in her experience so far, local authorities could really benefit from harnessing what communities are already doing, as they have really stepped up and are delivering for their communities. “We would all do well to allow the pieces of the puzzle to come together to facilitate the work that is already happening on the ground”, she told me.
I asked her what sort of work she had already come across in her local area, and she told me that in the context of the Cost-of-Living crisis, Country Durham had really seen a proliferation of food banks, pantries, and larders. Many of whom are working with local food waste charity REfUSE to mitigate food waste as well as provide food for those in need. Furthermore, since her partnership is hosted by environmental education charity OASES, they work a lot with climate-friendly schools and community centres, both of whom have a big interest in growing and supplying freshly produced food, whether that be through having a school garden, or encouraging local allotment growers to share their surpluses with foodbanks and food hubs.
What has really struck her so far, is that the willingness to eat locally and seasonally, is not always matched with the practical and pragmatic know-how that it takes to do so. She told me of one instance in which a very enthusiastic project worker wanted to grow a year-round supply of tomatoes for their recipe bags in a bed just two by three meters wide. Jill found herself explaining that growing tomatoes year-round wasn’t possible in our climate, and that they were going to need a lot more space, and a greenhouse or polytunnel of some sort to even attempt a prolonged growing season. We reflected on the point that the grand ideas that a food activist might have may be of little consequence without the collective physical skills and tools to make them happen. This, we agreed, was perhaps the defining characteristic of what makes this work so challenging in the UK – whether it be through lack of infrastructure, lack of know-how, lack of access to land, or any other re-learnings of this sort. Jill commented that; “we need a lot of education and re-education to have a truly healthy food system”.
We agreed that food education is of paramount importance in the creation of sustainable food systems and healthy diets, and that we are missing generations of food knowledge here. Furthermore, Jill reflected on the fact that the messaging of food work used to be simpler ten or 15 years ago, back when the messaging was, eat local and in-season. “The message gets lost with the added complicated messages. Nowadays we are bombarded with so many different trends to keep on top of; eat-gluten free, is veganism the better option? Stay away from ultra-processed foods. You almost need a degree to decipher what is right and what is just noise”, she said. On top of that, Jill reckons that we are all suffering from a kind of “Nature-deficit disorder”, and that there is “more of a gulf than ever between yourself and where your food comes from”. She told me that, “post-Pandemic, there has been a massive growth of people coming to live in the countryside who just have no idea about how to be in the countryside. They know that being in Nature is good for them, but they don’t necessarily know why or how”.
We reflected further on the practical challenges of trying to meaningfully connect with the land through food. “Even if the aim is to eat a localised diet”, she said, “it’s also not so simple to gather ingredients together”. Jill told me that for the first advisory group meeting for County Durham food partnership, she tried to bring together a lunch of exclusively seasonal, foraged and locally produced ingredients, and that she found it, “very, very difficult to gather these together”. We talked about how shopping with such intention takes a considerable amount of time, and that most people can’t afford to take that much time and spend that much money on gathering the products of their land. That it's not made convenient enough, and that good retailers often don’t survive because of the overhead costs. Jill told me that she had been thinking a lot about this problem, and had concluded that, “it is fundamentally beyond individual people needing to want to do something good”, and “How can you be expected to engage people when even the likes of Henry Dimbleby abandon their post?”.
We agreed that what is achingly needed is to have real conversation and debate, beyond the sphere of those already interested and invested in a better food system, about what needs to change. We spoke about how in other European countries people delight in the topic of food and what they are eating around their dinner tables, and that this is starkly missing here. We are missing a central conversation about the actual substance of food, and that it might be most effective to speak about the politics and wider ramifications of the topic whilst eating and partaking in eating together, rather than only pushing dialogues of inequalities and climatic catastrophes through the topic of food. So, perhaps a starting point would be to turn our current thinking on its head and have more discussions around a dinner table about the food that we are sharing together; here’s to eating at the dinner table.
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