Our Food Plan in Staffordshire Moorlands
Agriculture remains an important industry in Staffordshire Moorlands, a predominantly rural area between Stoke on Trent and the Peak district where the principal market town is Leek.
Our work in the area had a delayed start as the organisation who had agreed to project manage the food plan, the Staffordshire Moorlands Community Voluntary Service (SMCVS), suddenly had significant cuts to its budget and had to re-structure, resulting in a greatly reduced capacity. After the dust had settled our initial stakeholder meeting took place in May, with a good cross section of representation including the local NFU, Transition Leek, Public Health, Tourism, and the wider community sector. We found that some positive local food initiatives were already happening in the area, (ranging from a Wildlife Trust ‘Living Landscapes’ project to a local food market organised and promoted by ‘Totally Locally Leek’ but that activities would benefit from being more joined up and cross fertilised to mutual benefit.
We agreed to form a steering group to share information and move the work forward. Steering group meetings occurred regularly throughout the year. A public meeting was proposed and went ahead in August. The public meeting was well attended and through facilitated sessions we identified some of the key issues for local food in the area. These were similar to what we’d expect to emerge in a rural area and we set these out according to their area of relevance e.g.
Health: Link between health inequalities and obesity; limited access to healthy food in rural areas; easy access to fast food – offers and marketing of unhealthy options; loss of food preparation and cooking skills.
Community: Access; community cohesion; rural issues; education and skills; political will; community growing; provenance; local food perceived as exclusive and expensive; accessing local goods ‘out of hours’;
Economy: Employment; business (and farm) viability; education and skills; local food chain; adding value; affordability; tourism; attracting young people in to farming; culture of cheap food;
Environment: Packaging; waste (food and packaging); food miles (distribution); skills; wildlife; water; visual landscape; land ownership; short growing season; land quality determines type of produce grown in the area;
We went on to identify potential actions/initiatives that would address these issues, such as:
Food co-ops (focussed on accessibility; education programmes; whole school projects; public sector set best practice example; culture of cheap food;
Community growing; political influence; farmers markets as educational resource; local database; look at examples from other areas; use urban markets to promote rural produce; on-line selling; collective buying e.g. food co-ops;
Promotion of local (e.g. Totally Locally); promotion of food tourism (e.g. Taste of Staffs); food and drink festivals; community supported agriculture; farmers markets; selling direct to public; localised food chain; promoting local to accommodation providers; collective buying; free parking;
Better recycling; more recyclable packaging; reviewing sell by dates; taxing packaging; subsidies driven by environmental performance; better understanding of true cost/value of food;
Next, surveys and questionnaires were sent out to gather information and ‘map’ the current picture of local food in the area. This was then compared to the issues and potential solutions in order to prioritise actions for the area.
We were disappointed to have very few bookings for a public event in February, designed to consolidate the mapping and agree priority actions. The weather problems at the time didn’t help and we decided to cancel in favour of telephone conversations with stakeholders.
With this experience in mind we decided to launch the Food Plan at the Leek Food Festival on March 16th. Although this falls outside of our original timetable we felt that using an existing event where food producers, local businesses and the public are already converging was the best way to ensure a wide audience.
Although we didn’t follow the toolkit process to the letter we found it useful as a structure that gives guidance and helps to re-calibrate if the process starts to go off track. The branding and web site give an immediate sense of professionalism, although the web site was under-utilised by members; the process guide sets out a helpful framework; we used the questionnaires to gather information; and we also used the prompt cards in workshops. Overall the toolkit was very helpful.
There are some positive outcomes and development for food in the area. Some of these were in train already but have gained more support and traction as a result of the Food Plan process. For example, Totally Locally Leek are organising and promoting a Food and Drink Festival in Leek as well as a monthly local produce market; Public Health (now under the auspices of the Council) have developed a Staffordshire wide food poverty strategy and have made links with the community and local producers with the intention of developing food-co-ops; at least two Farmers are supplying produce directly in to schools; Tourism are promoting local produce among providers, with local food featuring strongly in their latest Staffordshire district mini guide; a local baker and local food advocate has been working with students at the university to create a series of documentary /promo films called ‘Farmers on Film’. Also, a recent development, Staffordshire County Council’s Rural Development Manager is taking an interest in the Food Plan and the Agricultural Group are discussing how they can develop local food across the whole of Staffordshire. They are now considering a methodology for mapping their existing local food initiatives.
We encountered challenges maintaining momentum, partly as result of the problems of the lead organisation mentioned earlier, with no-one else coming forward to pick up the lead role. The importance of the involvement of people on the ground cannot be underestimated, but also a lead body/person who is well connected and has resource behind them is a necessity if a project like this is to continue beyond the support we have been able to give to date. Working at a district level there were also some challenges finding the right political support (and therefore potential for resource), something which looks like it might be more forthcoming when taking the county as a whole. The County-wide Food Poverty strategy and work of the Agricultural Group may well be where any support for initiatives under the Food Plan come from in the future.