Food involves every aspect of our lives: our health, our families, our finances, the economy, the Government, the list goes on. Food is essential to our existence. It is not only crucial to our health, but it also gives us a sense of identity and culture. However, we know very little about the food we put in our plates: how is our food produced and distributed?
The reality is that there are many problems with the way we supply food today.
- First, it has a huge impact on our planet. The current Food System uses an enormous amount of natural resources and wastes 35% of all food produced (UN, 2020). It affects the ecosystem so badly that it may jeopardise its existence.
- Second, it could be better at providing us with the nutrients we need. “1 in 3 people suffer from at least one form of malnutrition” (UN, 2020). People have unhealthy diets because they don’t always have access to healthy food. Food production workers also get sick because working conditions are unhealthy (UN, 2020).
- Third, the system is unfair. In the UK, 4million children are too poor to access healthy food, leading them to higher risks of diet-related illness, such as diabetes and obesity (Butler, 2018).
The problems with our Food Systems extend to other areas of our society and require a whole system approach.
The focus of this project was to identify strategic opportunities to improve the food system in Glasgow. Here you can find a summary of my research, design processes and my solution to build an alternative food supply for Glasgow that is both scalable and applicable to other places.
This project can be divided into five stages Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test, as illustrated in the diagram above. However, in practice, my design process was mostly iterative and non-linear. I completed three rounds that included research, interviews, analysis and ideation before moving to Prototype. Reflections happened as the project went along.
- Public awareness is remarkably low. In research carried out by WWF across ten countries only 9% of interviewees identified Food Systems as the largest threat to nature.
How much of a threat is the food systems to nature?
N= 11,421 spread across Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, South Africa, The Netherlands, UK and the US. (WWF, 2018)
- According to the UN, globally our food systems are responsible for:
- 29% of Greenhouse gas emissions
- 70% of deforestation
- 80% of biodiversity loss
- 70% of all freshwater use
- Natural forests are being replaced with monocultures which are easier for growing and harvesting on a large scale. Production processes rely on the intensive use of heavy machinery and a combination of pesticides. This approach contributes even further to the loss of biodiversity and soil degradation. A senior UN official estimates that the soil may become infertile in as little as 60 years if current rates of degradation continue (Arsenault, 2014). We are looking at a fast-approaching future where we could all be struggling with food shortages.
CENTRALISATION OF POWER
In the past 20 years, the industry has seen an increased concentration of ownership as firms chase the advantages of scale. For example, Half of America’s poultry market, the largest in the world, is now controlled by 4 firms only. “Their size and global reach let them make a lot of money on quite narrow margins.” (Economist, 2020). This gives them big lobbying power. This control is also seen in the grocery market share as 97% of UK grocery spend goes to large businesses (Statista, 2020). This means that profits go elsewhere and are not invested back into the local community.
Political scenario (top-down)
Thankfully, we can start to see some improvement in the way public bodies and local authorities are positioning themselves. The Scottish Government plans to publish the Good Food Nation policy and Bill which aims to set a new standard of healthy living in Scotland. It uses a whole system approach to improve access to healthy food and social wellbeing programmes. The COVID crisis has caused the Bill to be dropped for now.
At the same time, the Glasgow Council has drafted a Glasgow Food Growing Strategy 2020-2025. The draft includes guidance on how to find land for growing, on getting permission to use a growing site and on access to funding and advice. This is an important initiative to give traction to a possible urban farm movement.
If the top-down solutions to our Food System sound complex, on an individual level, solutions with a bottom-up approach seem rather simple. “Eat food, not too much and mostly plants”, says Michael Pollan in his book In Defence of Food (2015). It is important to note that, in Pollan’s opinion, highly processed food should not be considered food and, instead are “edible-food-like-substances”. Others suggest growing your own food (Greenfield, 2020) and preserving the soil in our gardens (Johnson, 2019). Benefits mentioned amongst gardeners include saving on groceries (Financial Independence UK, 2020), improving overall health, community integration and connection with nature.
It seems that these simple solutions provide not only a healthier life but also a happier lifestyle as well.
After initial desk-research, I was interested in finding out how citizens perceive their relationship with food in practice and also how professionals in the area see the mentioned problems. I separated them into two groups, the first group of interviewees represent users of the Food System and gave me insights into how Glaswegians access food. The second group of interviewees were composed of professionals who inspire change in Food Systems and provide alternatives to the main food supply.
- Users. There are many market segments for food consumption, however, I concentrated on the two most representative ones.
- Mothers from social class AB
In my early research, I identified that mothers with higher levels of education and spare income are most likely to worry about nutritional principles (Beardsworth et all, 2002 and Childs, 1996). I interviewed three mothers who fitted this profile. With the insights from these interviews, I prepared storyboards to illustrate their relationship with food.
1. Mothers decide where to shop in terms of convenience of location and time.
2. They are able to prepare fresh meals at home.
3. Parents feel guilty if they can’t give their children fresh and healthy food due to their busy lifestyles.
4. However, occasional junk food is not seen as a bad thing. They enjoy eating out as a treat and a day out of the kitchen.
- Those who cannot afford to buy food
On the 24th July 2020, the Glasgow Food Discussion hosted by the Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector (GCVS) with food banks and charities across Glasgow. This event provided valuable insights into users’ experiences when accessing help.
1. Using Govan as an example, people can start at Unity Centre where they find information and get referrals. Asylum seekers can get food vouchers at Govan Community Project. Urban Roots’ website has a Free Food map.
2. Many people rely on food banks on a regular basis. Food banks usually don’t provide fresh food, because of storage limitations. People are not allowed to choose what they want.
3. A lot of food is wasted as people don’t know how to cook with the ingredients or simply don’t like what they are given.
4. Other options are going to community meals where people pay what they can.
5. When people receive vouchers they have more flexibility to choose food, however, sometimes people also need a bus pass to get to the grocery stores.
6. Unmet opportunity? Some charities mentioned they recognise that teaching how to grow food would provide many benefits, such as improving people’s health overall and offering more community engagement.
- Charities with strategic influence
Some charities are focusing on improving Food Systems by changing policies and looking for a whole systems recovery. Nourish Scotland aims to provide a platform for people to engage in political debate. It is an important space which tries to readdress the balance of a centralised Food System.
Forum for the Future is another charity which provides consultancy services to food professionals trying to make changes in Food Systems. Geraldine Gilbert’s biggest concern is that solutions have to be available to all.
- Local Businesses
Local businesses offer an important alternative to the big supply chain. Greencity Wholefoods, Locavore and Greenheart Growers are all located in Glasgow and are showing by example that it is possible to have successful businesses whilst supporting a local community.
Greencity Wholefoods is a cooperative empowering small holding farmers. It consciously takes part in a movement that wishes to dismantle the concentrated power in the hands of big corporations.
Locavore is a social enterprise grocery store. The business has expanded its operations and market share in the past two years allowing them to influence positive changes in the system. One of their recent examples is the conversion of Cadwell’s Vegetables into organic practices.
Greenheart Growers is a small urban farm located in the East side of Glasgow. They sell organic vegetables to their neighbourhood whilst teaching their community to grow their own food.
- Child Education
I was interested in understanding better how schools see gardening as an educational tool. After interviewing two professionals in children education (an assistant headteacher and a teacher), I’ve learned that there is a lot of potential in having a garden for educational purposes and that most schools have space and resources to hold gardening clubs. However, they are not a reality in all schools as it depends on having staff members who are both personally interested in the topic and also willing to work voluntarily.
After desk research, interviews, analysis, I arrived at 4 principles we have to have in a new Food System:
- Local of food production
- Build a network of small businesses
- Address social inequality issues
- Raise awareness around food production
With these principles, I propose the creation of a Social Enterprise Urban Farm with a kitchen that would produce Organic Ready Meals and a support structure for employees with childcare.
- Offer healthy and convenient cooked food for the wider public
- Provide an income stream from sales of ready meals
- Improve biodiversity from organic practices in the farm
- Increase the resilience of the local supply
- Support structure for employees
Menus would be seasonal, depending on what is coming from the garden. Partnerships with other local food suppliers would complement the source of ingredients.
Govan is an area with high rates of income deprivation (Understanding Glasgow, 2012), however, long term residents report a sense of community and belonging (Govan Thriving Places, 2017) and are open to initiatives that try to bring development to the area.
There are a lot of available spaces in the area. The Scottish Government has a website with Maps of vacant and derelict land in Glasgow. Here is the map around the area of Govan.
The area marked 577 is located between Broomloan Road, Vicarfield Street and Neptune Street. It is 5 minutes walk from the Broomloan Nursery and also the Govan Subway Station. The land is 2 acres in size with gates in good condition around its perimeter.
How would it work for customers?
Customers are looking for healthy solutions that save time.
They can order online, pay monthly and receive meals every one or two weeks.
The first order includes a deposit for the glass containers.
Meals would come in reusable glass containers
They could heat it up directly in the microwave or oven.
Or could be stored in the fridge or freezer.
If customers are happy they can leave positive feedback on the website and refer the service to friends in exchange for discounts on future orders.
How would it work for employees and family members?
Employees looking for a job that supports him and his family.
Employees receive training to become either a gardener or a chef.
They can grow their own food in an individual allotment provided on-site for free.
Access to childcare located in the same premises. Children can learn gardening skills and build a healthy diet.
- Govan Thriving Places. 2017. [online]. Available from: https://www.glasgowcpp.org.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=39186&p=
- Scottish Government. 2020. Vacant and derelict land: local authority maps. [Online]. Available from: https://www.gov.scot/collections/local-authority-maps-of-vacant-and-derelict-land-in-scotland/
- Understanding Glasgow. 2012. [online]. Available from: https://www.understandingglasgow.com/assets/0002/1254/Greater_Govan.pdf
- Butler, P. 2018. Four million UK children too poor to have a healthy diet, study finds. [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/05/four-million-uk-children-too-poor-to-have-a-healthy-diet-study-finds