Despite the multiple threats to the UK’s food system and the 66 million food consumers who depend on it, there are currently very few outlets for genuinely democratic deliberation or opportunities for citizens to express their views on the food system. IKnowFood is now addressing this gap through the use of Citizen Food Assemblies. The first of these events, organised in collaboration with the York Environmental Sustainability Institute (YESI) and funded by the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC), was held in York as part of the Festival of Social Science. Discussions between the IKnowFood research team at the University of York, DEFRA (Systems Programme team in Chief Scientists Office) and the National Food Strategy team concluded that a collaboration to hold a Citizens Food Assembly in York on the 8th November 2019 would provide the opportunity to test out this method in a food system policy context.
The York Citizen Food Assembly was designed to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities facing the food system in York, and to collect people’s views on the future of the York, Yorkshire and UK food system. The York Citizen Food Assembly involved a series of short presentations from citizens, the University of York Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffery, researchers from the University of York, policy makers, food hubs e.g. Food Circle in York, cafes, Local Economic Partnership, charities and participants around their food system experiences, which were followed by detailed discussions on the challenges and potential future ‘solutions’ for the food system.
The assembly took place at the Priory St Community Centre in the heart of York. During the day (10am-3pm), approximately 100 people attended and people were grouped around 10 round tables. The participants were organised on a pre-selected table plan to ensure diverse representation across the food system. Each table had a facilitator briefed before the event to ensure all participants were able to express their different perspectives. In the first half of the assembly, citizens were provided with a series of short presentations to stimulate thinking, including an explanation of what a food system is (see figure 1). A copy of the food system diagram was also provided for each table. One of the participants commented about the diagram:
“Never seen this drawing before but found the food system diagram really useful to see the different connections and realise it’s much more than just consumption”
During the breakout discussions, participants were asked to discuss what is working in the York food system and what is not working coupled with how could we work together for change? Outputs were posted on white boards for further discussion (photos below):
A policy brief from the event has been produced for DEFRA and the National Food Strategy team. A number of conclusions can be drawn from the citizen assembly regarding the food system and how to approach organising citizen assemblies; particularly those focused on food. The assembly was an effective way of hearing about a range of local food initiatives in Yorkshire, whose aims are to both re-localise food supply and production and tackle food waste. These innovative community business models are increasing the diversity of food supply, particularly in disadvantaged communities. A number of these organizations incubated in their early start-up phase in the community interest company (legal form) called Spark York. It is clear these spaces for innovation and the lessons learnt are important in catalysing these York food initiatives. This is important for policy makers, at both regional and national level, looking to stimulate economic growth that delivers positive social and environmental change at the community level in the food system. The re-localising of food supply was also seen as a way of providing healthy produce at affordable prices into disadvantaged communities, which can suffer from deficiency in the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. The assembly also felt the York City Council (schools, hospitals etc.) coupled with other large institutions, e.g. the two universities, could use their public procurement to stimulate more sustainable sourcing of food provision in the region.
There was clear frustration at the assembly with the rise of food poverty in the city of York. The work of the York Food Justice Alliance and their Seeking Justice report shows the problems with hidden food poverty in York. In fact, a household survey of 612 families in York in 2019 reported that 26% of those families experiencing food insecurity had never visited a food bank due to the associated stigma. Several of the tables at the assembly also highlighted the lack of separate food waste collection in the city of York. People felt there was an opportunity for both composting of this food waste and for being more resource efficient in how any surplus from hotels and restaurants could be utilised. York Nurturing Community provide an innovative example of how waste food from this sector can be used in a social enterprise business model as a ‘pay as you feel’ interactive café, which also supplies homeless charities. UK Government could introduce regulation making all councils collect and compost food waste separately.
Those involved in the event were genuinely enthusiastic and appreciative of having the opportunity to express their views, and were encouraged by the presence of individuals in positions of ‘institutional authority’ (e.g. the University of York Vice Chancellor, members of local council) which they felt lent credibility. There was also enthusiasm for agency, with participants wanting to participate in the change, and a strong call that outcomes from the meeting should include the establishment of a solid platform for information exchange and ‘practical action’ on the issues highlighted.
Overall, it is clear that many things in the city are working effectively and there are numerous ‘good news stories’, but there are also many challenges related to food which remain to be addressed to increase the sustainability and resilience of the local food system and the benefits which citizens of York derive from it. As an affluent city, York represents a community which is well placed to respond and could therefore demonstrate leadership on the issues identified; but it is also important to note that problems in the food system are likely to be even more acute in other lower-income regions of the UK, and that there is a pressing need to make sure that initiatives – and any eventually successes – achieved in York over the coming years can be replicated across the UK.