Citizens Can

Anna Cura explains how thinking differently of ourselves can change the future of our food system to end its damaging influences on our world.

I’ve always had a passion for food. The growing, the foraging, the cooking, and definitively the eating – preferably with friends and family. Food plays centre-stage in our lives, nourishing us with stories, relationships, memories, love. It is our daily reminder of our connection to Nature, and yet the food systems that bring us this food have, over the decades, become increasingly damaging to our health, our fellow species and the planet. So how can we change those systems so they are fairer to all things earthly? By observing where changes are starting to emerge – and they are already emerging.

We are seeing a rise in public engagement on several social and environmental issues, although the ever-complex issue of plastics has dominated recently. That being said, the narrative around health, the environment, and our planet, is becoming part of general public discourse. With the likes of Extinction Rebellion and the teenage environmental campaigner, Greta Thunberg, our society is absorbing values that present a clear challenge to long-standing institutions. And the role and nature of food businesses are evolving in response.

“The narrative around health, the environment, and our planet, is becoming part of general public discourse.”

We are seeing a rise in purpose-driven models, illustrated by the sharp rise in recent years of B-corporations – for-profit businesses that have been certified as meeting social and environmental performance standards in the online B Impact Assessment.

B-Corporations feature the likes of Divine Chocolate and Rebel Kitchen but some global companies have B-Corporation subsidiaries. Food business models are becoming more diverse. Examples include:

  • members’ co-operatives – following the path of the Co-op – and community-owned partnerships such as Community Supported Agriculture;
  • employee-owned businesses such as organic delivery company, Riverford; and
  • crowdfunding, and shareholder-led operations like beer maker, Brewdog.

Organisations are increasingly acknowledging the role that employment has in giving us a sense of purpose in life, of belonging and of contributing to society.

And it’s not just business. New engagement platforms are popping up across the UK to nurture meaningful engagement with citizens, from the creation of Good Food Nation Bill Ambassadors in Scotland to Participatory City in London, or the coming together of over 150 organisations to develop the People’s Food Policy. They all illustrate what inclusive, bottom-up citizen consultations can do and look like. Something the UK government should learn from when developing a national food strategy.

What do these examples have in common? First, they challenge the notion that people don’t care. But more importantly, they bring a new idea of who we are. This idea tells us that we are not just consumers at the end of the food chain, but participants in the food system as a whole. It tells us that we have the power not just to choose, but to shape the choices on offer. We are starting to work together interdependently, seeking not just what’s best for ourselves as individuals, but as communities and societies. This is food citizenship.

Research shows how even identifying ourselves as consumers significantly decreases our sense of responsibility in shaping the world around us. It also decreases our trust in each other and our belief that we can be active participants in society. It is this consumer identity that shapes everyday decisions that culminate in the food systems that we have. And why do we think so small rather than think big? It is because we are bombarded with that consumer story.

Words lead to stories. Stories used over and over again lead to mindsets. While the consumer story is still prevalent in society, it is in decline and is slowly giving way to food citizenship. When people are best understood as citizens, we change the story. Food affects everyone so there is an opportunity for the food sector to remind us all of this power in citizenship. So, what story do we want to tell?

Poverty or disempowerment?

Shifting mindsets creates the desired conditions from which new ideas can emerge, rather than dictating what those ideas might be. If all ideas come from the same values and beliefs, they will help turn those values and beliefs into reality. So what would shifting from a consumer mindset to food citizenship do to our understanding and narrative of poverty?

The current consumer narrative focuses dangerously on how people cannot afford to eat. This inevitably leads to the question: how can we make food affordable for everyone? That leads to falls in food prices, often to the detriment of those working in food who include some of the people most vulnerable to poverty, paralleled with the dramatic rise of food banks in the UK.

Ever seeking the best deal, the consumer system is fast-paced, seeks convenience over purpose, thinks short-term, and relegates anyone falling short to a charity model that has little room for dignity or empowerment. This creates a societal split – those needing charity and those providing it. This narrative has been linked to increasing fear of being in need, disgust at such vulnerability, and anxiety of the impacts of such social need on society2.  But what happens if we look at the situation through a food citizenship lens?

As citizens, the problem we see emerge from current food systems is that many people can’t afford to be citizens. So the resulting question is: how can we support everyone to be able to shape our food systems?

This thinking leads to conversations about social justice, rather than simply charity. Instead of talking about reducing poverty, we talk of enhancing life. Instead of talking about tackling poverty, we talk of empowerment. Instead of talking about budgeting, we talk of power dynamics. Instead of arguing about what should or shouldn’t be done, we develop inclusive, democratised processes for people to decide for themselves.

“Shifting mindsets creates the desired conditions from which new ideas can emerge, rather than dictating what those ideas might be.”

The kind of initiatives that emerge from this thinking are those that help us shift the food system towards one that better reflects what we care for as a society. Such initiatives include the Rural Youth Project in Scotland which gives a platform for young people to share their experience of living in rural areas and understanding their current situation, aspirations, opportunities and challenges. They include social enterprises like Better Health Bakery, a non-profit organisation that brings the community together, promoting locally-produced food and providing three-month trainee placements for adults recovering from mental illness. And they encompass citywide initiatives like 91ways, which is designed to bridge the language barriers between communities in the city where there are 91 different languages spoken. It uses the unifying power of food to build a more integrated and sustainable city.

“What this growing number of initiatives have in common is that they all revolve around three key ingredients: community, purpose and agency.”

What this growing number of initiatives have in common is that they all revolve around three key ingredients: community, purpose and agency. They seek to bring people together, believing in cooperation, trusting their audiences, investing in team building and face-to-face meetings. They empower their audiences, whether it is through mentoring programmes, investing in their employee’s personal development, or by giving people a platform to share their views and experiences. And together, they nurture a sense of purpose towards a world that is fairer and more sustainable, by being clear about what they stand for and why3 they do what they do, and inviting others to join them.

Whether we are a business, a government body or an academic institution, we should ask what do we do to empower our audience? What values and beliefs do we nurture or reinforce? How would thinking of people as food citizens rather than consumers change our ability to create positive change around us? As individuals, all we need to do is create change in our immediate context. It is our power as a coordinated collective that will eventually change the food system. And that power is growing.

  • To find out more, join the conversation at foodcitizenship.info
  • Anna Cura has ten years’ experience in the forestry and agrifood sectors. She has found her home at the Food Ethics Council, nurturing her passion for philosophy, systems change and complexity applied to our food systems.

References

  1. New Citizenship Project (2014) This is the #Citizenshift: A guide to understanding & embracing the emerging era of the citizen.
  2. Unwin J. (2018) Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy, CarnegieUK Trust
  3. Simon Sinek (2019) The Golden Circle TEDx Talk

Anna Cura

Anna Cura is a zoologist with a Master’s degree in biodiversity conservation from the University of Oxford and 10 years’ experience in both the forestry and agrifood sectors. She has …

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