What a year we all had in 2020. It has certainly been challenging and has made many of us reassess how we approach our lives.
One thing that has stood out as important to me is how and where we get our food. This thought is not just related to Covid-19, but also to Brexit, climate change and the strange food system we have created for ourselves around the globe.
Our food supply creaked at the beginning of the first national lockdown, but seems to have held up quite well since then. Many experts think we had a close scrape, that it may not turn out the same in a future crisis. In the UK they have begun to analyse their food system and look at how best to feed everyone in the country; the government launched a National Food Strategy last year.
When looking at what it would take to make Ireland an island that can easily feed its population, we can see that we have plenty of access to meat and dairy but we lack enough vegetables, fruit and grains to keep us all healthy.
Growing food within communities, for communities, can provide a food source that is able to resist shocks better than supply chains that criss-cross the globe. Not everything will grow in our temperate climate and we will always import, but we can examine ways of being more self-sufficient.
SHARECITY is a research project, based in Trinity College Dublin, that is looking at ways cities can become more sustainable sources of their own food supply. They have already built a list of over one hundred projects from around the world that promote ways of creating and sharing food within a city.
When talking to Anna Davis, who heads the research, she said that the food projects they investigate may not feed an entire city but could provide a buffer in times of scarcity. In Cork, the Food Policy Council advocates for a more connected food system within the city.
Davis describes policy councils such as this as a confluence of champions coming together that helps to energise ideas and seek improvements.
SHARECITY and projects like it allow us to explore how we could make a transition to more resilient urban food system. Many of the initiatives that SHARECITY lists have positive approach of biodiversity, and inherently create social change by connecting people and communities, while advocating for more empathic forms of value.
It is easy to become nostalgic and wish for the past when things seemed more simple but we live when we live and today’s world involves technology and transit, but we can mould this in a way which leads to a more sustainable and nutritious food system.
The 'just in time' delivery systems that supermarkets currently use, where the lorry on the road has replaced the warehouse, may not be sustainable if another global crisis hits. In the UK for example their largest ports have been privatised which may have implications for future imports.
The current pandemic has been interwoven with many food stories both terrifying and heart-warming; the virus is thought to have originated in a food market, a harsh light has been thrown on the extent of food poverty, many migrant fruit and vegetable pickers have had to stop travelling and meat processing plants have been the source of many clusters around the world.
People are changing their lifestyles at this moment in time and it may be the perfect point to revisit food in Ireland and to focus on the positives. There are some really wonderful things happen around the country with people taking great care supplying food for those who need it most and others taking consideration of the land that allows us to produce the food.
A growing number of farmers are focusing on growing vegetables on smaller plots of land, and delivering their produce locally. Talamh Beo which is a member led organisation run by farmers and growers helps them come together to share ideas and advocate for support.
Fergal Anderson is one of the founders of Talamh Beo. When he and his partner Mano returned to Galway they were determined to use the knowledge they gained from working an International organisation called La Via Campesina which works to support small farms, to tend their plot of land and grow for the local community.
They set up a Community Support Agriculture (CSA) project called Leaf and Root Farm, they now supply restaurants in Galway city. A CSA scheme is one where local people pay upfront and get a weekly delivery of fresh produce throughout the growing season.
Anderson is one of a number of young farmers using similar methods to get started. As well as wanting to supply locally their aim is to do as little damage to the biodiversity of the area as possible.
This type of multi crop farming is done the world over and is quite shock resistant to largescale upsets. He and farmers like him would welcome government support for small holdings. In France a scheme has been introduced where people, new to farming, or people wanting to grow on a small scale have first choice when farm land is being resold. This stops the land being subsumed into surrounding, ever increasing farms.
As well as focusing on more localised food there has been an increased awareness that keeping our bodies well-nourished is important for health.
Joyce Timmons knows that people in hospital settings need good food to help them on the road to recovery, she transformed food service in the Rotunda and now cooks in a care home kitchen. In the Rotunda she began by first banishing all of the packet-soups and encouraging the team of chefs to make food from scratch with fresh ingredients.
Food in hospital settings is usually plated in a central kitchen and stored in mobile “hotboxes” that keep it warm, before being wheeled to the wards. This not only negatively affects the taste of the food it damages its nutritional value. Timmons started plating the food on each floor adjacent to the wards so it was delivered to patients immediately.
She talks about the joy she feels when she knows someone who is sick in bed gets pleasure and sustenance from the food she has created. "Patients should look forward to their meal; it is a break from being sick, from being old, from being tired." Now would be an interesting time to look at hospital food anew and start using the HSE's buying power to procure more fresh Irish produce.
This form of Social Procurement, procurement that can aid a community through employment and buying power, is already in place in other countries. Timmons would welcome the opportunity to get further involved with HSE nutritionists to create fresh vibrant menus across all HSE hospitals.
The restaurant industry has undoubtedly been hit very hard by the pandemic. Many of those who will survive are those who were quick to pivot their business models like Lock's on the canal in Dublin, who now serve takeaway fish and chips and restaurant quality take home boxes, to cafés up and down the country who now supply stay at home workers with takeaway coffee and treats.
John and Sally Wyer have been running Forest Avenue in Dublin since 2014 and overnight had to think on their feet and completely restructure their business. They, like many others turned their restaurant into a grocery store. It allowed them to keep the relationship with their suppliers, but now selling the basic ingredients rather than intricate plates of food. They are still employing 70% of their staff, who bake bread and make takeout meals. An added benefit is that the couple are enjoying the new pace of life, which they think might be a permanent change.