Spent a bit of time answering some questions for Anna de Jong, a food researcher at West Highland College UHI, who is promoting local food to enhance sustainability and retain cultural heritage in Scotland. Answered these questions from my Riverside Bakery apprentice-baker perspective!
It would be really helpful to gain a broader understanding of your background – how/why you arrived in Stirling from Canada, via England? Are there specific events/factors you feel have influenced your passion for food politics?
I ended up in the UK all because of a lovely Yorkshireman – we met on the west coast of Canada in 2009, fell in love, and his Canadian immigration visa ran out, so I came back to the UK with him. We lived in the Lake District in Cumbria, only meaning to stay in the UK for maybe a year, tops. For all sorts of reasons we ended up staying in Britain much longer. The Yorkshireman and I aren’t together any more, but I’m still in the UK, now living up in Scotland.
The reason I came to Stirling was very much linked to food politics and opportunities in that realm. I loved living in the Lake District – a great community of folks, fabulous access to wee mountains, and it’s really beautiful countryside. But, I was working in a cafe/pub the entire time I lived there and was desperate to contribute to a different food and farming system in a meaningful way. I felt limited in what I could achieve in the Lakes in this sense, as there isn’t a thriving alternative agriculture ‘scene’ there as of yet, and didn’t have the skills or confidence to forge new paths.
I applied for a job at Stirling University – the FEAST project (Food Education at Stirling uni), which was my dream job at the time. I was supporting the creation of a student-led permaculture garden, an organic/ethical food co-operative, and a series of sustainable food education sessions. To my delight and surprise, I got the job, and have been in Stirling ever since.
In terms of events or factors that influenced my passion for food politics….
I have always been a very activist-minded person, which I think stems from my parents being very counter-culture and environmentalist in their own way. I was very lucky to grow up around nature, in rural Canada, and my laid-back folks let me wander and explore in the fields, woodland, and river behind our house. This has probably shaped me and my awareness of how humans interact (often negatively) within their environment more then anything else.
One event that comes to mind, specifically to do with my passion for food activism, is when I went vegetarian when I was aged nine. I did so because my older sister did too – and it was about the same time Lisa from the Simpsons went veggie – so that probably was the actual influence for both of us! Also my school bus changed routes so that it went by a slaughter house everyday – that sealed the deal.
This idea – that I was creating avoidable harm for animals and the environment through how I ate – made me desire to educate myself and make better decisions in regard to how I ate. I was vegetarian for 20 years too, almost completely as a rejection of intensive and destructive factory-farming of livestock that is so ubiquitous in North America. Now, I eat small amounts of meat very selectively – I want to encourage and support the livestock farmers who are organic, grass-fed, using marginal lands. And in Scotland, animal protein is very much a local food, which is a priority to myself as well.
Why do you think bread has become a symbol (e.g. through the Real Bread campaign) for all that is wrong with contemporary, industrial food systems?
In what ways is bread a tool for change?
For me, bread is a fitting symbol for our dysfunctional and broken food system. Historically, we produced all of our food on a small, regional scale – using organic, ecological methods that relied on a high level of skill and knowledge. We have this notion of agricultural progress being higher yield per acre, and we’ve achieved that. But in this “progress” we’ve lost skills, biodiversity, nutritional density, and resilience – which is why our soils are devoid of life, and our ability to farm to nourish ourselves and society is in danger of being lost.
The same goes for bread. We’ve taken a staple food in Britain, one with the simple ingredients of flour, water, yeast, salt, and time – and moulded it into a ghost of its former self. We import a monoculture of chemically-dependent and nutritionally lacking grain, we mechanically mill it to within an inch of it’s life, stripping all the goodness out in the name of ‘shelf life’, and then add some back in, aka fortified flour. We take all of the skill and tradition out of baking – artificially hastening what should be a slow and deliberate process – through using high intensity mechanical kneading, too much commercial yeast, “improvers”, enzymes, and a whole host of chemical crap. All the while, not supporting local growers, not supporting meaningful livelihoods, not nourishing the population of bread eaters.
That being said, I think bread is a great tool to change the food system, one loaf at a time.
Why? It’s a staple in the British diet, or at least it has been until very recently – it’s embedded in our culture – so it’s accessible and relateable to most folks in this way. The main strength of real bread as a tool for change is it’s simplicity. The idea of trying to influence this monstrously complex food system that is unequal and unsustainable can be overwhelming. But real bread? The ingredients are simple, the process is simple, and the level of involvement as an individual can be quite simple. Of course, it can be complex – I’m still learning the intricacies of perfecting my sourdough loaf – but in it’s essence, it’s a stepping stone.
In a world where individuals can often feel like they have no control, the choices you make in regard to food – what you eat, where you source it, how you make it, who you eat it with – can be an opportunity to make your voice heard through your daily decisions. Even the act of making your own bread can be a political one, when you connect and learn about your food, you understand a little better the processes and work that goes into it, and have the satisfaction and gratification of tasting something you’ve created. Plus, it’s hard to be in a bad mood while your hands are working dough – always brings a smile to my face!
Are there specific segments of the community engaging with the bakery?
The development of the bakery has had a lot to do with who has engaged with the bakery. Theo, Tom and Nils started the bakery in a really informal way, as a home bakery in their flat. They would sell to friends at Stirling university, so we had a lot of students interested in the bakery. As we’ve moved the bakery around, and become more well known in Stirling, I think our community has changed. It’s more varied now – folks from a variety of backgrounds, ages, professions. The common thread is the bread – the people engaging with the bakery always are the people who appreciate a really good loaf of real bread!
I’m glad you think so! I think we’re ‘behind’ places like Glasgow and Edinburgh, who have a thriving alternative food scene in a lot of respects, but we’ve definitely been making strides. I think the rise in interest and commitment to local food and better food in Stirling is part of a wider trend in the UK – of wanting to protect and support local economies and pay fair prices to our farmers. Whether the love of this idea (eat local, buy local) actually matches up with individual action is another matter entirely though.
I really do think what’s happening in Stirling right now is enabled in part by the fact we’re in Scotland. My introduction to Scotland was working on a food project funded by the Climate Challenge Fund, which I was immediately impressed with. It’s not without its flaws, that’s for sure, but it is a dedicated fund that tries to limit climate change in Scotland through community-led initiatives that not only cut carbon, but make long lasting, embedded behaviour change. This applies to food – where many of their funded projects centre on community growing, food waste reduction, and cookery skills. I think CCF is one example of how the Scottish government is trying to make changes to systemic structures via community-led, grass-roots initiatives – which is ultimately how our food systems will change for the better.
This perspective is informed by my experiences in England – where the history, the political climate, and the political will – is so vastly different from Scotland. I feel that here, there is more political will and more support, we’re more progressive (compared to Westminster, I know a lot of English folks who would love to have more progressive government representation!).
We’ve also got some dynamic organisations and initiatives happening to do with food and farming, nationally (Whitmuir Organic Farm, Bread Matters, Nourish Scotland, Scotland the Bread, Common Good Food), and locally too (Grow Forth, the Green & Blue space at the university, emerging small-scale producers) – this definitely helps!
Are there examples of the ways the Community Supported Bakery structure has assisted in breaking down the producer/consumer divide?
Yes definitely! Community Supported Bakeries (CSB) are, at their root, a way for bakers and consumers of bread to share the risks, responsibilities and rewards of the bakery – which I think inherently breaks down this divide. Depending on how a CSB is structured, there are a multitude of ways that it can assist in breaking down the producer/consumer divide. Some CSBs are run by members of the community, others have some involvement by the community (baking, selling, subscription schemes, advice), others have regular volunteers and bread apprentices. All of these examples foster a better understanding on the consumers part of the processes and principles of the bakery, but also allows the baker to hear exactly what is important to the consumer/community, what are their values and how could these influence the bakery? It’s a transparent, important exchange that, I think, should be replicated in many areas of our food system.
I am a really good example of how the structure of a CSB can open lines of communication and understanding between baker and community. I wasn’t involved in the bakery in the beginning – I would buy their bread and really enjoy it, but I didn’t bake or know much about the processes. Theo, Tom and Nils were so enthusiastic and really open about the bread, their processes, and the bakery – it was an open invitation for others to come learn from them, and that really got me interested. My involvement and knowledge was a progression – from talking to the boys about their work, to attending an informal sourdough presentation, to trying to bake my own loaves, to attending a bread making workshop a little later. Now, a couple of years later, I’m one of the Directors of Riverside Bakery and am learning (slowly but surely!) as an apprentice baker-lady, and know so much more about sourdough, CSBs, and the role it can play in our food system.
What is the future of community supported enterprises? Could they replace industrial food systems or will they continue to exist as one alternative for particular individuals? Or perhaps you see/hope the future is somewhere in between?
The rise of community supported enterprises gives me enormous amounts of hope. From a consumer point of view, it’s nice to have food producers who want to listen to you, who are transparent about their practices, who want to involve the wider community. From a producer point of view, it’s fabulous to get real support and direction from those around you, the people you are producing food for. From a societal point of view, having a multitude of diverse, small-scale producers that run with community in mind is so beneficial, as it creates a vibrant food landscape, one that is participatory, rather than blindly top-down.
I would love to think that community-supported models will replace the industrial food system – after all, small-scale, local, resilient food production was what historically fed Europe (and in some areas still does). I think the industrial food system is inherently flawed, unsustainable in the most literal sense of the word. The structures that this model relies on – cheap oil, subsidies, unconscious consumption, distorted markets, finite natural capital – are crumbling and shifting. You can see that social enterprise, and community-supported enterprises are a quickly growing segment of the market. They are small, admittedly, but vibrant, thriving, and their success is contagious. Look at how much Community Supported Agriculture thrives in Canada or the US? One look at Young Agrarians and Greenhorns shows you that it’s not a fad, or a trend – it’s the future. Same with Community Supported Bakeries – they are becoming more numerous and more prosperous all across the UK, and are set for big things.
This model gives me hope as a consumer of food, as a producer of bread, and as an aspiring grower – one that offers accessibility, transparency, communication, engagement – and great food!