Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival: Eating well ‘is good for health and good for society’, conference hears
- Credit: Archant
Eating well can be good for society as well as good for our health, delegates at a Suffolk food conference heard.
Snape Maltings provided a thought-provoking hors d’oeuvre to this weekend’s Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival by hosting a pre-festival conference on Friday, September 28, looking at food and health, and why it should concern us all.
The conference, which returned to open the festival after a gap of a few years, examined issues ranging from why we should aim for short food supply chains, to why ‘value’ should not necessarily mean ‘cheap’ when it comes to food shopping.
Speakers and panellists at An Appetite for Change – Eating Wisely and Well, ranging from academics and authors to food retailers, farmers and producers, offered their insights.
With obesity and diet-related diseases on the rise, they examined the need to change our eating habits, and to look at structuring better supply chains.
Academic and farmer Martin Collison, director of Collison and Associates Ltd in Norfolk, which provides advice to non-governmental and other organisations and private businesses across the UK and Europe, explained his work in promoting short food supply chains and why it was important to have them.
Mr Collison is a partner in a European Union (EU) Thematic Network, which aims to identify and disseminate best practice in short food chains to farms and small food companies, to ensure that more of the value in the chain is returned to the primary producer.
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“Short food chains are beneficial because they ensure that consumers have a closer relationship with farmers and food producers – so consumers know more about how and where their food was produced,” he explained.
“Short food chains allow farmers and primary food producers to secure more of the value of their foods in the food chain, which in turn allows them to invest in product quality.”
He added that digital marketing was revolutionising the food chain, with online sales rising 15% a year, connecting food producers and consumers and facilitating the growth of short, regional food chains.
At the moment, retailers operated on sophisticated and very long chains. But with sometimes six or seven steps or more and each taking a cut, there were obvious disadvantages to farmers and producers. He looked at some examples of best practice in Austria, Belgium and the UK, and at how the ‘cool chain’ (when a product is kept cool), allowed for food to be transported without loss of quality.
Oliver Paul, co-founder of independent retailer Suffolk Food Hall at Wherstead, near Ipswich, tried to engage the audience in quantifying the value of a short supply chain, and some of its intangible benefits.
Doing so is a ‘Herculean task’, he admitted, as it was subjective, but he looked at issues such as provenance and tried to get delegates to put a monetary value on it. He pointed out that while a Red Poll rump in his butchery may cost more per kg than the equivalent in a major supermarket giant’s store, there were elements such as being able to cut to precise sizes to prevent food waste, and being able to explain where the meat comes from, which had a value.
Short supply chains also meant food could be collected and prepared in smaller batches, offering greater flexibility, he said.
He questioned why food shopping could not be viewed in the same pleasurable way as buying clothes or a car.
“The nutritional value is irrefutable. Where you have a short supply chain, there’s less risk from a biosecurity point of view.
“You are producing things in small batches so there’s a control on quality and it will be fresher,” he explained.
“From our point of view it gives us the perfect platform to trade on our points of difference and not just on price.”
Supermarkets defined ‘value’ as ‘cheap’ but this was wrong-headed, he argued.
Doug Field, joint chief executive of the East of England Co-op and New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership chair, explained how his business had successfully adapted to changing consumer habits over 150 years, including through its ‘Sourced Locally’ initiative, started 11 years ago and still going strong. Its ‘halo effect’ in attracting spend was difficult to quantify, he admitted, but overall it offered benefits to customers and producers.
Food writer Bee Wilson explained her belief that children’s food preferences were being adversely determined early on the favour high sugar, fat and salt dishes over others. She looked at how this could be overcome in relatively wealthy societies and how richer nations like Japan and South Korea had helped their societies to enjoy healthy foods.
North Essex farmer David Eagle, who grows sea buckthorn, explained the difficulties faced in getting health claims for botanicals backed up when the system tested individual nutrients rather than those potentially working in synergy with each other. A thousand years of traditional medical applications suggested that his crop had certain beneficial properties, but his problem was in working out a way to get these backed up with suitable ‘evidence’.
Natural health therapist Joannah Metcalfe, founder of community interest company Greener Growth, described the transformative effects of growing crops in prisons, schools and community spaces and her efforts in changing perceptions of ‘healthy’ eating.
There was a lively debate with the audience on a range of issues, including helping the poorest in UK society towards healthy eating.
Food poverty for families who were also time-poor meant it wasn’t possible to source good ingredients cheaply, and prepare them, an audience member pointed out. Panellists put forward a range of ideas on how some of the problems might be overcome, including through education, and potentially ‘vegetable vouchers’.
Festival president, Lady Caroline Cranbrook said the event was “absolutely brilliant” and called for cooking skills to be moved up the political agenda.