Every time you go to the supermarket and buy something you are voting for the kind of food culture you want.
Michelin star chef JP McMahon quotes the line to illustrate how our food choices have a tangible effect on society: “If you buy ready-meals all the time, that is what you are asking for. You can’t do that on one hand and then, on the other, give out about the lack of organic farmers. We have to take more responsibility for ourselves.”
Every single one of us has a role to play in the future of food, says the man who has just brought a host of international speakers to Galway for the two-day Food on the Edge symposium.
When it was founded five years ago, the event was designed to promote Irish food to a global audience. Now, it has a deeper resonance. The internationally recognised speakers — chefs, industry leaders and social activists among them — are exploring the issues and questions of the day through food.
“It has turned into a very ecologically grounded conference,” says its chef, author and restaurateur founder.
While many of the speakers are high-profile, often it is the less well-known contributors who make a lasting impression. For instance, JP McMahon was particularly marked by the change brought about by Canadian chef and activist Joshna Maharaj who discovered there wasn’t even a knife when she first went into a hospital kitchen in Toronto.
Everything was pre-made — all the vegetables came chopped and packed in plastic bags — but by the time she left, the kitchen staff were going to a local farm to buy produce.
Closer to home, Mark Anderson, culinary director at Gather & Gather Ireland, is on a mission to reinvent workplace dining to show that great food at work is not simply about fuel but increasing productivity and motivating people.
Earlier this week, he had a chance to practise what he preached by feeding the symposium’s speakers and delegates.
“Food on the Edge has inspired us, motivated us, and changed how we think about the future of food,” he tells Feelgood.
If we are starting to see the value of good food in hospitals and the workplace, it’s not being given the same importance in the education system, says McMahon.
“There is so much talk about history being mandatory for the Junior Cert, but home economics should be mandatory too. We are creating people who leave school and have no idea about nutrition.”
Two years ago, when 450 signed letters went out from the symposium to the then-Education Minister Richard Bruton campaigning for a food subject, they were told it was the responsibility of parents to teach children about food and nutrition.
“Yet,” says JP McMahon, father of Heather (10) and Martha (seven), “we don’t leave it up to parents to teach our children about maths or Irish or history, so why is it the case with food?”
And McMahon can’t overstate the importance of putting good food at the centre of our lives. “It comes down to one’s sovereignty,” he says. “If you look at some of the deprived areas in cities here and in the UK, they are all dependent on buying processed food that is already cooked.”
That will never change when you can get a eurosaver meal for as little as a euro, but vegetables are expensive, he says.
One of the best ways to change that is to start supporting our own, from the local farmer and fish-monger to the local restaurant. He also thinks it is time to have a dedicated food minister and introduce food officers in all local councils. But adopting good food habits is about having balance too.
When his daughter Martha observed that wine was the adult ice cream and she that would give up her ice cream when her dad gave up his wine, he backed down. And this weekend, after the work involved in organising an international event, he confesses he will be having wine and ice cream.