Co-operation and a 21st-Century Food Strategy for Wales

At a time of declining wages of cotton and woollen workers failing to improve wages and conditions, the Co-operative Movement grew out of the efforts of early Owenite socialists and chartists and the need for pure, unadulterated goods, keen pricing and a member dividend on purchases. At first the shop only sold five basic items – butter, flour, sugar, oatmeal and candles – but after very many difficulties expanded very quickly. This is our co-operative contribution in developing a food strategy in Wales.

Food is the cornerstone of existence, tying into multiple other policy areas across the whole of devolved government (health and social care, education, anti-poverty, wellbeing, agriculture and environment, to name a few). It is therefore critical that we have a food strategy fit for purpose, one that is collaborative in its approach. However, the Welsh Government’s current food strategy is disconnected, with insufficient collaboration across the devolved policy spectrum. 

One way to support our vision of a food and farming, circular and foundational economy (key tenets of the current Labour administration) would be to ensure collaboration through the creation of a Wales Food Commission. This Commission would direct and monitor a new cross-departmental food system strategy which will deliver for our health, environment, economy and society. This new strategy would drive and reward sustainable Farm & Fishing to Fork supply chains, address food waste and promote healthy, sustainable diets and consumption for all. 

One key part of this strategy will be public sector procurement. Procurement will be a central driver in ensuring collaborative working, focussing on significant areas including: 

• Nutritious Food for all – A food strategy must ensure the 70,000 children in Wales that live in poverty currently not eligible for Free School Meals, receive them. This would help reduce long-term health inequalities, particularly in terms of preventable diseases, including diabetes (which costs the Welsh NHS approximately £500 million annually, 10% of its annual budget), strokes and coronary heart disease. This approach would also remove stigma and administration processes associated with means testing.

• Food for public health – School food standards should be aligned to the Eat Well guide and public procurement and increase sustainable production capability/potential of healthy food in Wales, with similar attention to be given to NHS catering. This alignment is already being considered. 

• Food Literacy – This would require schools to offer experiential food literacy education to equip pupils with essential life skills and the knowledge and confidence to grow, prepare and choose healthy food that will support positive health outcomes and help reduce health care costs.

• Net zero food system and farming for nature and the climate – Public sector procurement standards should be aligned to environmental standards/targets to drive much needed change.

• More sustainable seafood – Welsh seafood should be sustainably incorporated into school and NHS food standards.

• Sustainable food sector jobs and livelihoods – We need sustainable and fairly paid jobs in farming, fisheries, food manufacture and public sector catering, including the school meal service. Rural, valley and coastal communities have been suggested to be the hardest hit by Covid-19; jobs should be targeted to these areas. 

• Food Justice -. During Covid-19, councils, community initiatives and food operations demonstrated what benefits can be achieved when we work together and co-ordinate action in ensuring food access. To embed that extraordinary effort we support the appointment of local food champions and the development and co-ordination of locally based approaches to food access, including support for community food projects and social prescribing. Let us also highlight the importance of what use to be called ‘meals on wheels’ an essential service that works really well, for example, in Cardiff. 

• Co-operative solutions have much to offer. Government should support: food processing and distribution such as food hubs and worker co-ops to foster local economies; small and medium sized enterprises and co-op producers to reduce the environmental impact of transportation and enable better use of resources; further development of secondary co-ops in agriculture and tourism to promote economies of scale and joint marketing; and fresh food co-ops and co-operative community initiatives such as Incredible Edible, including making land available for community growing. 

• Healthy Start Scheme in Wales – Government should actively consider whether the scheme is the best vehicle for supporting low-income families with young children to access a healthy diet. Government should gather evidence to see how we can strengthen delivery and continue to work with the UK Government to increase the uptake of the scheme, including through digitalisation. 

In conclusion, food and farming are being overlooked as a way to drive economic recovery in Wales. We need to learn from the Covid-19 crisis to develop a resilient, fair, sustainable system of food, farming and fishing that works for everyone. A food system which provides everyone with healthy food and also fit to tackle food poverty, climate change and restore nature, whilst providing good and safe livelihoods. The creation of an independent, representative Wales Food Commission would direct and monitor a new cross-departmental food system strategy to bring about a food system fit for the 21st Century in Wales.

David Smith is a former Gwent Tertiary College Catering Lecturer, served on the Food Standards Agency (Wales) Advisory Committee and the Main Group Board Director at the Co-operative Group.

About David Smith

A lifelong co-operative activist. Former roles: Co-op Foundation Trustee; Co-op Group Main Board, Specialist Board & National Values & Principles Committee; Co-op Group Senate; Co-op Group Wales Regional Board, South Wales Area Committee. Public service includes Government Food Adviser; UK Healthcare Regulator. David directed the first EC funded Wales Anti-Poverty Programme; and pioneered co-operative & community initiatives: free legal services, community-based housing associations, care and repair, pre-school & adventure play, local Co-op Development Agencies, multipurpose Social Care Co-operatives. Founded: Cardiff Student Community Action, Welsh Food Alliance & Wales Progressive Co-operators. Board Member, Newport Credit Union; Robert Owen Memorial Museum Trustee. Former Lecturer, Gwent Tertiary College, Graduate Ruskin College, Oxford and UC Cardiff + PGCE, MA (European Human Resource Management) Keele; Professional Food & Management qualifications.
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