Our Food Plan in Leicester

There’s a lot happening with food in Leicester. Traditionally it’s a centre for top quality agricultural produce, the fruit and veg. market is famous, there’s an important wholesale market, a diverse range of food cultures and a lot of food businesses including national market leaders. The farmers’ market has been established for nearly 15 years and there are a community supported agriculture scheme and a number of community food growing projects. But all is not well. Among other issues the incidence of obesity and diabetes is high and the number of people seeking help from food banks has increased alarmingly.

Our opportunity to work on a Food Plan for Leicester was very timely. The City Council’s Environment team had been meeting with local business, health, environment and other groups to draw up a Food Charter setting out ambitions for an inclusive and sustainable food economy for the city. This is pretty much the same as our ‘Vision’ stage and leads to the challenge of what to do next to make the vision and ambitions into a reality. There hadn’t been very much done towards ‘Mapping’, though, so we had an opportunity to do some catching up.

l2We started by continuing meetings of the charter group. The group included representatives of local food and drink businesses, universities, public health authorities, community gardens, a community supported agriculture project, environment and gardening groups, restaurants, Leicestershire Food Links (connecting producers and consumers and operating famers’ markets), Fare Share (distributing surplus produce from supermarkets), Transition Leicester and council officers from Environment, Economic Development, Markets, Parks and Catering departments. For our first event we introduced the ‘Our Food Plan’ process, with its website and toolkit, and ‘brainstormed’ ideas for activities. Some of the group agreed to continue meeting as a ‘core’ or steering group and plan further action.

l3‘Our Food Plan for Leicester’ was launched to the public at the Greenlight Festival in March 2013 and we held a workshop event on community food growing. Our stall had internet access so we started using the online survey tools for mapping the city’s food network. To encourage children to start growing their own food we invited them to sow a ‘salad in a cup’ which they could take home and grow on their windowsill.

In April 2013 the council took responsibility for Public Health in the city and this brought more urgency and energy into the work. An inaugural workshop of a Food and Health group in June brought together more than 20 groups, council departments and others, running food related projects and showed the potential for doing more by working together. The Deputy City Mayor, Cllr. Rory Palmer, took an active role in setting this up, showing important political support for the Food Plan.

In July Leicester joined 12 other cities including Bristol and Plymouth in the Sustainable Food Cities Network. As well as the chance to share and compare ideas and experiences with the other cities in the network we had mentoring support from Clare Devereux, of Food Matters, to help council departments and other stakeholders to work together for a more sustainable local food economy in the city. There was also the opportunity to bid for funding towards employing a full time Food Co-ordinator. Although Leicester was not selected for this there is still a chance that other funding can make this happen.

l1Over the summer a small ‘roadshow’ of displays, leaflets and survey questionnaires was taken to several events in the city including the Riverside Festival where we repeated the ‘Salad in a Cup’ activity.

On October 1st we had a very intensive workshop meeting to identify actions for the Food Plan. There were more than 80 participants representing a wide range of groups in the city including health, education, environment and consumer interests. We brought in an independent facilitator, Ben Messer of Food Matters, who ran a lively series of sessions which resulted in a comprehensive list of actions to be included in the plan. Since then a Food Plan Board has met regularly to finalise the Action Plan, ensure that it has the necessary political support and to start planning more activities.

The Leicester Food Plan was launched on March 25th 2014. It includes an updated Food and Drink Charter which “…promotes healthy, nutritious, affordable food, produced with care for the environment and natural resources in a thriving local food economy. It seeks to unite people in growing, cooking and sharing good food – celebrating the city’s diverse food cultures”, a list of 3 year commitments and a more detailed Action Plan for 2014. The main areas of activity are Health and Nutrition, Community Food Growing, Food Businesses and Food Procurement.

On the same day we held a ‘Meet the Buyer’ event to encourage smaller restaurants and cafes to source more local produce and this will lead to working with larger scale buyers in local authority and university catering. Plans are also being made to increase training on cooking skills, set up more community growing projects and increase support for new food businesses.

f3’s formal involvement finished at the end of February but the process has now developed unstoppable momentum and has solid political support. We have experienced the great difficulty of doing this work more quickly than the decades it has taken some of the pioneer communities but we can take some satisfaction that the Food Plan Toolkit has been helpful.

l4We have not followed the process outlined in the toolkit exactly but it has helped us to clarify and structure our thinking and planning about how to make things happen. We have not followed the event and meeting plans directly but have found them invaluable in planning our events and workshops, modifying and even combining different guides for our needs. The survey questionnaire templates have been very useful in establishing contact with a wide range of stakeholders particularly local residents who would not otherwise have got involved. The format allows us to do face-to-face interviews and enter the results directly or to give out links to allow the surveys to be done online. Compilation and analysis is very easy. The website has not been taken up and used as much as we would have hoped but we expect that some of the features and functionality will be useful for a new website to be set up for the Food Plan by the City Council.

An important lesson is that there needs to be someone responsible for moving the process forward – the role we have called the co-ordinator. The period between one responsible officer leaving the post and another taking up the role resulted in a noticeable loss of momentum. Some external facilitation is also essential – to bring greater perspective to the work and to share experience of successful initiatives elsewhere.