Rebecca Annells and Victoria Topham explore how Wales gives the world a guiding light out of diet-related poor health.

Crises relating to food waste, poverty and diet-related ill-health are rife. Globally, we waste about one-third of all food produced. According to one peer-reviewed study in 2020, some four million people experience moderate to severe food insecurity every day and the financial cost of Type 2 diabetes is over £22bn.

There are many initiatives in play seeking to address the widespread breakdowns in our food systems and the costs they inflict for nature, community and climate. For example in Cadoxton near Barry in South Wales – just five kilometres from Cardiff – local primary school head, Janet Hayward teamed up with nearby supermarkets along with food charity, Fare Share and volunteers to address problems with the food system in the area.

They arranged for local families to access surplus food on a pay-as-you-feel basis. At first the project ran from the community centre in Cadoxton. Later, in response to the growing popularity of the project, it moved into a converted shipping container as a store for donated food where it became Big Bocs Bwyd – Welsh for Big Food Box.

This straightforward approach aims to tackle food poverty and waste in Wales.

Families at 15 schools are now able to collect food from Big Bocs stores within their school grounds. As part of the project, children also learn about where food comes from, how to cook nutritious meals and the impact food waste has on the environment.

This straightforward approach aims to tackle food poverty and waste in Wales, one school community at a time.

Direct solutions, like Big Bocs Bwyd, to the flaws in the food system are particularly important in this area of Wales because economic deprivation is significant and that correlates with poor long-term health outcomes. For example, overall life expectancy in the Valleys is six years lower for women and seven years lower for men, compared with nearby Cardiff.

But the value of Big Bocs Bwyd and other small community ventures like it scattered across Wales and beyond could be amplified by combining their efforts into something that has the scale to address the wider systemic problems in food and health.

This premise underpins the work of North Star Transition – a company incorporated in 2020 to create “collaborative initiatives designed to increase the impact of our response to humankind’s climate, biodiversity loss and social crises.” Its co-founder, Jyoti Banerjee, describes projects like Big Bocs Bwyd as “sparkles of innovation” but asks what he sees as the key question: “Can we level up such sparkles of community-based innovation to create nation-scale impact?”

Recent funding from the Welsh government and the Waterloo Foundation has enabled Big Bocs Bwyd to expand to ten schools in the valleys and Cardiff. But there are 1,400 schools in Wales. To assure food  for every child in Wales, Big Bocs Bwyd would need policy backing, as well as huge hikes in funding, volunteers and donations. This, says North Star Transition, demonstrates the need for “large-scale, joined-up thinking as well as combined effort and coherent action towards a common goal.” Without this, says Banerjee:“The sparkles alone are not enough for us to solve large systemic problems, such as those that exist in the food and health systems across Wales and beyond.”

But North Star Transition asserts that current approaches are not shifting the dial far or fast enough on humanity’s many crises. The climate emergency, biodiversity loss and social inequalities continue to worsen, it says, because we are not working together across our spheres of influence. As it stands, North Star Transition believes too many decisions are made in silos, and tend to focus too much on incremental change.

A single small star is far more effective in guiding the direction of travel when considered as part of a constellation.

It calls for greater collaboration “so that all our spheres of influence are rolling in the same direction.”

Banerjee extends his “sparkles” metaphor: “A single small star is far more effective in guiding the direction of travel when considered as part of a constellation.”

So North Star Transition says it aims to catalyse systems change, by connecting disconnected stakeholders and facilitating collaboration. For example, it set up Wales Transition Lab that brings together more than 30 organisations as a systemic, country-scale programme to reconnect food, health and nature in Wales. The Transition Lab aims to address the root causes of wellbeing decline in the country.

Wales’ ambition
Wales Transition Lab has four shared ambitions, which the 35 organisations participating in the lab developed together. Each ambition has a Welsh title that reflects the deep connection between nature, food and wellbeing.

Lechyd (health) – Healthy land, air and water across Wales, which support nature, community and carbon sequestration. To put this ambition in context using water as an example, today a mere 7% of Welsh waterways are “healthy”.

Hiraeth (longing)  – A Welsh food system optimised for the wellbeing of citizens, community and the environment. At present, much of the food system maximises yield at the lowest possible financial cost, regardless of impacts on health or the environment.

Llais (voice) – The hidden voices of nature and future generations present at the decision table, across government and business.

Llif (flow) – Community, food and nature woven into wellbeing solutions across Wales.

North Star Transition says stakeholders who are interested in food, health or the environment in Wales come together via the Transition Lab and, in partnership with University College London’s Climate Action Unit, learn to collaborate in a way that goes beyond traditional efforts. It is using techniques like deep listening – which encourages participants from very different backgrounds to hear, as well as be heard, without judgement, while also being encouraged constructively.

This approach, says North Star Transition, opens up space for innovative thinking and empowers participants to develop big ideas. Under the Wales Transition Lab, it believes participants can transcend the financial, legal, political or time boundaries of their day-to-day silos. “Successful systems-change requires people to feel part of a collective purpose, view broader horizons and aim higher.” This view is, the company says, reflected in the ambitions of the Wales Transition Lab (see box Wales’ Ambition.)  

North Star Transition holds up the work of NHS Wales finance leader, Chris Moreton, as an embodiment of those ambitions. Moreton says the conventional measure of success in his role is in meeting NHS operational requirements while ensuring value for money. This equates to securing standardised quality for the lowest cost.  But since participating in the Transition Lab, he has considered food procurement for NHS Wales beyond the bottom line. Instead he has identified a great opportunity to enact meaningful change on a large scale (see box Thought for food).

Thought for food
Through his participation in Wales Transition Lab, Chris Moreton met Welsh farmers very anxious about the viability of their farms. They have particular concern about the UK government’s proposed trade agreements with the likes of the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Farmers, in Wales, he says, are suffering from mental health illnesses at a higher rate than ever before.

And Moreton recounts meetings with doctors who railed at the £450m annual expenditure on diabetes in Wales, because two-thirds of it is avoidable. They argued that with healthier food choices and better farming and food production methods, the burden of diabetes would plummet.

Furthermore, Moreton analysed NHS Wales’ £20m annual spend on food for hospital in-patients and found very little produce comes from Wales, despite its availability. Given that the budget for NHS Wales food procurement will remain in place, Moreton has considered how it can be better spent from a wider perspective. He asks, can those existing funds be redirected more intentionally to improve the food system, in a way that benefits the health and wellbeing of people and planet?

Moreton is working with the Transition Lab on his ideas about food procurement for NHS Wales. His hope is to move from the current model towards a local, sustainable and health-focussed future. This will enable NHS Wales to deliver on its duties under the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

Inspired by new and diverse perspectives on the food system in Wales, Moreton has recognised that there is great potential for NHS Wales to reimagine its role in this area. He has seen how cultural, social and environmental value can be integrated into what is predominantly an economic and financial decision-making process.

Perhaps the most important learning, according to North Star Transition, is that systems- change is not the solution, in and of itself. It is the combination of collaboration, shared direction and scale that matters, says the organisation. It sees an imperative in the need to connect disconnected stakeholders to bring on creative diversity, deep listening and emergent thinking, while nurturing community practices to take their ideas forward, and then, to build scale.

Rebecca Annells

Rebecca is a biomedical scientist and PhD candidate at the University of Bath and she joins North Star Transition on a 3 month internship to provide a more academic and …

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Victoria Topham

Victoria worked for over 20 years as a finance professional, training with PwC and holding commercial and corporate finance roles with leading media industry businesses. With the urgency for sustainable …

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