What comes to your mind when you think of British food?
Despite culinary stars like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, I continued to link it with all things unhealthy and unappetizing: Veggies boiled to mush. Spam. Marmite. Traditional dishes with names like Toad-in-the-Hole and Spotted Dick.
At least, those were my views until a few weeks ago, when I actually visited England to help my daughter settle in there for a year of university. Not only has British cuisine improved by leaps and bounds, so has public awareness of and support for local sustainable food. Whether we were in London or in smaller cities or villages, we enjoyed consistently good food in restaurants and pubs, and were blown away by the number of high-quality farmers’ markets, and farm and artisanal food shops.
To be sure, the UK has its share of the food system problems that afflict other Western countries, from rising obesity rates to food safety scandals. But lots of people and organizations are working to find solutions.
Here’s a snapshot of a few of them.
Producers, processors and retailers
• Laverstoke Park Farm: a 2500-acre biodynamic farm in Hampshire. In addition to fresh produce, Laverstoke raises wild boar, pigs, cows, sheep, chickens and water buffalo and maintains an onsite abattoir. It sells products through its own butcher shop, farm shop and website, as well as through the Waitrose supermarket chain and the Ocado online supermarket
• The Severn Project: This social enterprise produces the highest quality salad greens for customers in and around Bristol while also creating employment for people from socially excluded groups, such as those recovering from substance abuse, or mental health issues.
• Alara Dream Farm: Organic, fair trade muesli producer Alex Smith of Alara Wholefoods has overseen the transformation of derelict land in central London into a lush permaculture garden that produces a variety of fruit and vegetables. Over the years, he’s added a vineyard, an orchard and a community garden.
• hiSbe: how it Should be, or hiSbe, is an ethical grocery store in Brighton that specializes in local, sustainable and fair trade products. Launched last year as a pilot, hiSbe turns the old supermarket model on its head by putting people first, selling at a lower profit margin and paying staff more than minimum wage.
Food and farming policymakers
• The Soil Association: A favourite charity of Prince Charles, the Soil Association campaigns for healthy, humane, sustainable food, farming and land use. Its work centres on: supporting organic farming systems; finding viable ways to tackle climate change, enhance biodiversity, improve animal welfare and promote fair access to healthy food; providing technical support and advice to farmers and businesses, and; creating consumer trust through a certification program.
The association’s partnerships projects include its Food for Life Partnership to improve school food, and the Sustainable Food Cities Network, that brings together organizations in different regions and municipalities to share challenges, explore practical solutions and develop best practice in all aspects of sustainable food.
• Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming: Sustain represents about 100 national public interest organizations working at the international, national, regional and local levels to improve food and farming. It advises and negotiates with governments and other regulatory agencies to ensure that food/farming legislation and policies are publicly accountable and socially and environmentally responsible. It also encourages businesses to produce, process and market foods that are good for health and the environment, and to develop policies and practices that make it easier for people to choose sustainable foods.
• Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA): Regardless of the political party in power, DEFRA policies recognize the importance of local producers and a more environmentally sustainable food system. For example, a recent report encourages opportunities for British producers to supply food to public institutions such as government departments, hospitals and school boards. A report on sustainable consumption outlines key principles for healthy and sustainable eating including: eating less meat and more plant-based foods; choosing fish from sustainable stocks; and valuing food by finding out how it’s produced and by not wasting it.
Places to buy and eat good local food in the UK
• For the best farm shops and delis, check out The Independent’s list top 50.
• For top farmers’ markets, try these lists from The Ecologist, The Guardian, the Independent and the VisitBritain SuperBlog.
• Choose local food producers, markets and shops in the UK’s National Parks with this guide.
Have you traveled outside Canada recently? Is there an active local food scene in the place you visited?