Eating Better’s new year began with a panel and screening event at The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) 2022, which was moved online due to Omicron cases rising steeply. Fortunately the virtual event retained all the dynamism and passion of previous in-person events, with a packed programme looking at all aspects of agroecology, regenerative agriculture and everything in between!
Our event “Producing, serving and buying better,” included screenings of our three latest films and a sterling panel: Helen Browning OBE, CEO of the Soil Association, Stephanie Slater, CEO and founder of School Food Matters and Nicole Pisani, executive chef and co-founder of Chefs in Schools. Moderated by Eating Better’s executive director, Simon Billing, the hour and a half long event examined ways to build demand for ‘better’ meat and dairy, establish better local connections between producers and the public sector and still found time to tackle some thorny issues, such as our overconsumption of chicken.
The first part of the event looked at producing better, specifically organic farming practices and the benefits of farming in this way; boosting soil health and biodiversity, giving grazing animals a better life, as well as creating more diverse and meaningful employment on farms.
Helen Browning said this way of farming is the future although there is a lot of work to be done to make the numbers stack up: “When we look to the future we need that shift to agroecology. I don’t think any farming system is without its challenges. Commercially, it’s not an easy way of life to make money in, but doing it right is what drives the organic community that we work with and many other farmers too. I think there’s a real desire to play the best role we can in tackling the challenges the world is facing now, through better farming.”
Stephanie Slater said the huge purchasing power of public procurement needs to get behind ‘better’ meat and dairy: “We spend £2 billion on public sector food, which can be spent more wisely and I’m sure many a taxpayer would get behind this knowing that their money is being invested in good farming, ‘better’ meat and dairy, better for health and better for the planet. We’re hearing lots about increases in food prices and we’ve got to get canny with the way we access high welfare, high quality food and we do that by eating less meat. There are clever ways of doing that within the school menu and school food standards.”
Nicole Pisani said Chefs in Schools work with sixty schools across the UK and with the volumes of meat they are buying, they can buy better: “We really want to look at purchasing better quality food, but purchasing less of it and the volumes we are dealing with are really high, so it does lead to a good angle on the purchasing power.”
(clockwise) Simon Billing, Stephanie Slater, Helen Browning OBE and Nicole Pisani.
Serving better local food
The panel agreed that the way to bring cost down and to make it easier for caterers to upgrade the quality of their food is by reducing the amount of meat on the menu, as that’s usually the most expensive part of the meal provision. Another key priority should be “relocalisation” as it was referred to in other events at ORFC - getting more locally grown, seasonal fruit and veg onto menus.
Helen Browning said the way forward needs to be the establishment of food hubs or processing facilities where public sector caterers can purchase from local producers: “As farmers we have got to make it easy for those people to purchase from us. We need some help in getting our act together around that with local processing facilities so that we can turn our food into something suitable to go into those kitchens. We also need the contracts to be viable so there is work to do on both sides there.”
Upskilling and staff training were identified as key priorities by the panel to help drive the shift to more plant-based menus and make them more appealing, particularly to schoolchildren. The panel agreed that food education needs to be an integral part of the classroom and that children should learn from an early age where food comes from and how it is grown. This is in line with the aims of our Eating Better roadmap which calls for “comprehensive food education from field to plate, to be embedded in the curriculum.”
Nicole Pisani said: “The dining hall is an extension of the classroom, because that’s how children learn about different vegetables and discover taste. Cooking really good food, made with love is the key to getting children to eat more vegetarian food.”
Stephanie Slater added that although food education has been mandatory on the curriculum since 2014 it doesn’t have the focus it needs: “The National Food Strategy has done a brilliant job at saying let’s make food education as important as maths and english. It needs the profile: children are at school 190 days a year and we have a lot of opportunities to influence their relationship with food and we have a duty to do that. We have appalling statistics on childhood obesity, we have a climate emergency - surely these are good reasons to talk about food in schools. We can make a difference and food is a really positive way of doing this.”
Buying “less and better” of all meat
Eating healthier and more sustainable diets, with more vegetables and ‘less and better’ meat means stimulating the horticultural sector to diversify and grow more plants for us to eat, while shifting away from intensive factory farming, particularly poultry production. In our “We need to talk about chicken” report we highlighted the miserable lives of the most intensively farmed animal in the UK and the deforestation of huge amounts of land and habitat loss, in precious environments such as the Cerrado in Brazil, where soy is grown as chicken feed.
Helen Browning said this is unsustainable and it’s time to end our obsession with chicken: “We hope that we have hit peak poultry and that we will start to come down the other side quite quickly…What we need to do is get rid of factory farming, where animals are not treated well and which has a huge impact on threatened environments. So it is about less, but better.“
Oxford Farming Conference
As well as taking part in ORFC 2022, Eating Better had a presence at the Oxford Farming Conference, submitting a film for the OFC’s on demand content, in line with its “Routes to Resilience” theme.
Simon Billing, Eating Better’s executive director acknowledged that our involvement at both the OFC and ORFC has been a really positive way to start the new year: “It’s been exciting and encouraging to see the demand-side for healthy and sustainable diets feature so prominently at both events. Building on this movement for change, we look to the Food Bill to set the direction of travel and hope that policymakers, recognising that the climate, nature and health crises need to be tackled as one, deliver an integrated food and farming policy.”