Category Archives: health

Are city start-ups a help or hindrance to local food?

I am pleased to share with you my latest article, re-published with kind permission from Sustainable Food Trust, the global voice for sustainable food and health. I added images. 

Are city start-ups a help or hindrance to local food?

In the last few decades, there has been a quiet revolution in food as more farmers have increasingly sold their produce direct to the public. By circumventing the supermarket system, farmers are strengthening local food systems, rebuilding connections between people and the source of their food.

This direct sales home delivery model has long been the domain of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement. However, thanks mainly to online technology, this revolution is ratcheting up a notch with the arrival of a raft of new companies backed by city finance.

HelloFresh, founded in 2011 and now active in seven countries, was valued at around £2 billion in 2015; Gousto, founded in 2012 and backed by Unilever, recently drew an additional £28.5 million from backers; and Farmdrop, founded in 2012, attracted £7 million from investors in 2017 including Skype co-founder, Niklas Zennström.

The question that arises, is whether these new models enhance or weaken sustainable local food systems? On one hand, the idea of encouraging people to cook – from ‘scratch’ using recipe boxes for a fantastic array of meals, with exact ingredients and directions provided – is to be celebrated. On the other hand, could this very choice seduce the public away from supporting their local farmer?

Small-scale farmers are the foundation of a sustainable food system. Organic, biodynamic and other sustainable agriculture systems regenerate soil, support wildlife and produce a variety of fresh local food which increases local and national food security. Selling direct enables farmers to keep their small-scale values – and their profits. By buying directly from a farmer, a food citizen is supporting economic and environmental sustainability.

Entwined organic carrots with a label saying: I carrot leave without you!

Pioneered by small-scale organic farmers in the 1980s, the CSA model of direct sales and home delivery by-passes the supermarket system and its pulverising demand for industrial uniformity. The humble veg box has been crucial in establishing a direct connection between shopper and farmer – as well as reducing plastic waste and fuel miles.

The CSA reinforces this bond. Members support the farmer come rain or shine (literally) by paying up front for their share of the harvest. It is not a one-way relationship. A CSA member gets fresh local produce, knows exactly where their food comes from, and has opportunities to volunteer or socialise at the farm.

Adapt to survive

Wheelbarrow in foreground, members of the Community Farm working on the land, background

The idea that well-endowed home delivery companies could threaten CSAs is nothing new, according to Maresa Bossano of CSA UK Network.

“Small organic veg box schemes in the UK went through the same thing quite a few years ago when [box schemes] from Abel and Cole and Riverford first came on the scene, mainly because they offered customers more choice and better customer service; in many cases, smaller box schemes couldn’t compete and closed down. Others expanded and changed the way they operated by also providing imported fruit and giving customers the option to choose which produce, not just a set box, like some community-run schemes such as the Community Farm (pictured above).

Biodynamic farmer, Marina O’Connell, of Huxhams Cross Farm. Image: Biodynamic Land Trust

Marina O’Connell (pictured above) who grows and sells produce at 34-acre Huxhams Cross Farm, two miles down the road from big box company Riverford Organic Farmers, has also adapted their CSA offering.

“We offer a regular veg bag home delivery to customers in a 30-mile radius. We do top-up the fruit bag with produce, particularly citrus in the winter. We find that people choose to come to Huxhams Cross Farm because it is small, local, and our produce is really fresh. People come, look around the farm and meet the farmers. And, as a biodynamic farm, this makes a difference to those who want it.”

Marina O’Connell sees the so-called competition as positive: “I think all organic farms – big or small – are good. They all build the market for organic produce, and the more offers there are, the more people will take them up. I think that, as a whole, the large organisations have done a great service for the organic movement.”

National organic box schemes

It could, certainly, be argued that big national schemes encourage sustainable food production. Abel & Cole, founded in 1987 and now owned by William Jackson Food Group, may be a middleman but it sources 95% of its fruit and veg direct from organic growers.

Riverford Organic Farmers, also founded in 1987, has similarly created outlets for organic produce. A family business growing 30% of its produce in Devon, it works with a farmer-owned cooperative of 16 small-to-medium organic farms. From June 2018, Riverford will operate as an employee-owned business, with its founder, Guy Watson retaining only 26% of it.

Organic farmer and campaigner, Guy is aware of the risk posed by Riverford’s wide offerings such as organic Spanish broad beans in spring. “We offer 70% of UK produce round the year but perhaps we should put more pressure on ourselves to offer a more edited content. I would love to sell only UK organic produce. But the mood is towards specifying what is in the box with a bespoke order.”

Millennial-driven

Technology is the driver in this current phase of online food offerings. It is, for instance, creating new ways of selling local food with initiatives such as the not-for-profit Open Food Network, an open source online food distribution system, and The Food Assembly, a cross between a buyer’s group and a farmers’ market.

At the driving wheel are tech-savvy millennials: “We’ve certainly seen all our fresh organic produce grow,” Adam Wakeley of Organic Farm Foods told the Smallholder. “One reason is down to an evolving consumer profile – millennials are now our biggest customer group, and they show a huge interest in food provenance and health. They understand that having food grown in an environmentally friendly way is a good thing. We believe their attitude is here to stay and will continue to drive growth in the future.”

Transparency and fair pay for farmers

Let’s hope the start-ups are listening to the millennials because HelloFresh has a disturbing lack of information on its website. “Our veggie box is bursting with tasty new ingredients and adventurous recipes that will make your taste buds sing.” This slogan makes no reference to provenance or seasonality and tells you nothing about where the produce comes from or how it is produced. Perhaps the real risk to sustainable food is the lack of transparency with marketing messages which may not live up to their promise?

In the online advert bidding wars, HelloFresh and Gousto are positioning themselves as alternatives to the established organic box schemes, Abel & Cole and Riverford. However, apart from featuring Yeo Valley Organic yogurt, I could see no other reference to organic produce on Gousto’s website.

I contacted Gousto, Hello Fresh and Farmdrop about their sourcing policies but only Farmdrop replied. Billed as the ‘ethical grocer’, with hubs in London, Bristol and Bath, there is a lot to like about Farmdrop: its search boxes for organic and pesticide-free; its mobile app (instead of a weekly subscription) which links farmers and customers; and its stated mission to “fix the broken food system”.

Farmdrop van and van driver with lettering: The food we are delivering came from a local farm this morning. Fresher food for you, a better deal for them."

Farmdrop also believes in a fair price to farmers. Its policy is to pay local suppliers “at least 70% of the final retail price. The exact amount will vary depending on the producer. Milk suppliers for example usually take a higher margin of around 75%,” says a spokesperson for Farmdrop. According to its website, farmers would be lucky to receive 50% from supermarkets.

A fair price could be the ballast for these city-financed companies, ensuring their financial growth is not at the expense of small-scale organic growers. “There is definitely interest in different ways of buying food, and we expect this trend to grow – online shopping, for example, could make up a quarter of all UK sales of organic products in the next five years,” says Soil Association, head of horticulture, Ben Raskin. “We welcome new models of delivery services – if they do things properly. There is potential for this to bolster the market, but the key is farmers and producers being paid a fair price.”

According to the Soil Association Organic Market Report 2018, alternative models of shopping for organic food are expanding: online shopping sales grew by 9.7% and home delivery (i.e. box schemes and recipe boxes) grew by 9.5%.

CSAs do not need to lose out, if cooperation can be encouraged: ”It would be good to see some of the platforms develop a section for CSAs, perhaps working with the CSA Network UK to help develop this,” says Ben.

CSAs build relationships

Community-supported Bennison Farm. Image: CSA Network UK

Although CSAs may not be able to compete on choice, they continue to flourish, with over 100 CSA farms listed on CSA Network UK and over 15 new ones in 2015-17.

“The new online marketplaces may take business away from some box schemes but,” says Maresa Bossano, “they generally appeal to busy working people who aren’t so confident with cooking. Whereas generally CSA members love cooking and experimenting with vegetables, and to be a member of a CSA, they have enough time to participate in some way.”

As well as appealing to these different kinds of shoppers, the CSA subscription model also protects the farmer, as Danny Steele of Bennison Farm (pictured above. Image: Bennison Farm) in Thorrington near Colchester explains:

“We pack around 115 veg shares per week with produce harvested the same day. The difference for me, is that our members can only get a regular share of our harvest by subscribing; I think I feel less threatened by the big box schemes precisely because we are a CSA.”

Kill the cling-film with eco-wrap


Cling-film, how I shun you.

You are pervasive (enough bought every year in UK to circle the planet 30 times), unnecessary and costly to purse and planet.

A single-use plastic, chemically-treated with god-knows-what to be pliable, and – unless disposed-of in an ever-growing landfill – likely to end up in the belly of a sentient being with fatal consequences.

Enter our new hero: eco-wrap.

Made from cotton covered with beeswax or soy wax, eco-wrap performs all the same tricks as cling-film (air-tight and malleable) but grace.

Made from natural materials, it can be re-used, and cut-up and composted at the end of its life (a year or more).

With cotton designs (vintage and recycled, natch), prettiness adds to its charms.

Where can you get these darling things?

I first came across eco-wrap as a gift from Australia (bought in Apollo Bay to be precise), Eco-wrap Byron Bay.

How come I have never come across eco-wraps before, I exclaim?

Following which, I spotted eco-wraps (below) from Cotswold-based, Beeswax Wraps, in  local natural and organic food shop, Better Food Company right here in Bristol. Fancy! 

It turns out that Bristol also has an eco wrap business, Eco Bee Wrap, which uses Fair Trade material and trades on Etsy.  

Eco wrap zeitgeist!

Etsy has a great choice including vegan eco-wrap made from soy wax. 

You can make your own. Top tutorial from Newcastle-based, Phoenix Green Store, which also sells eco wraps, and videos galore on YouTube such as this one from Aannsha Jones.

Happy eco-wrapping!

Eco wrap hanging out

Eco wrap in my kitchen (must post a better pic!) Note: people do not use eco-wrap to wrap fresh meat or fish. Use a good old bowl and plate to cover instead.

Christmas gift idea – invest in a farm

Farm school in crocodile formation on sunny fields of Huxhams Cross Farm
Confound Christmas consumerism with a gift for the world! 

Huxhams Cross Farm (above) needs investment and here’s why. In the UK and Europe, small farms are getting swallowed up by big ones – 3% of farms own 52% of EU land.

Ecological farms such as 34-acre Huxhams Cross Farm in Dartington, Devon benefit the bigger picture.

Unlike industrial farms, they practice farming in a virtuous cycle. Every good thing leads to the next.

For instance, the farmers at Huxhams Cross Farm are alleviating climate change by capturing carbon in the soil. Carbon-rich soil is fertile soil full of too-tiny-to-see-with-naked-eye microbial creatures which break down nutrients to feed it to the crops, and build fertility year-on-year.

Fresh biodynamic veg and local food for local delivery near Totnes

As well as alleviating climate change and healing the land with biodynamic farming methods, the farmers (below) are producing healthy nutritious local food. Talk about a win-win-win solution.

Farmers, Marina O'Connell, Bob Mehew and Dave Wright on the land at Huxhams Cross Farm

Apricot Centre co-directors and farmers Marina O’Connell and Bob Mehew (centre), joined by their grower, Dave Wright. [IMAGE: Beccy Strong]. 

Tenanted by sustainability experts (above), the Apricot Centre, Huxhams Cross Farm has two cows, Damson and Daffodil, and a mobile flock of 100 White Leghorn chickens (below) whose biodynamic eggs are much in demand.

White leghorn chickens at biodynamic Huxhams Cross Farm

Human-scale farms do more than produce good food. Along with a band of volunteers, Huxhams Cross Farm has raised a barn, and planted over 3,000 trees and over 2,000 soft fruits plants using permaculture design methods, building community with purposeful activity. 

The farm grows wheat for local flour and trees for Dartington’s agroforestry  project which is pioneering ways to make farming viable. Not to mention the  farm’s weekly farm clubs and local food delivery service. 

Huxhams Cross Farm has got this far thanks to community investment through  Biodynamic Land Trust not-for-profit community shares. (Am the charity’s communications manager, she says, declaring an interest).

Now the developing farm needs further investment to build an on-farm centre for many worthwhile purposes. 

Preserves made by the Apricot Centre

The low-carbon centre will offer a kitchen for farm-to-fork cookery activities for children and adults, as well as jams, juices and chutneys production. It will be a training space for permaculture and biodynamic farming methods and a base for the Apricot Centre’s well-being service for vulnerable families.

Invest in Biodynamic Land Trust community shares for Huxhams Cross Farm to build this centre.

Do you know you can also invest in community shares on behalf of others, including children? Once you have invested, the Biodynamic Land Trust will send your recipient a card, followed by a share certificate in the name of the shareholder to be transferred to the recipient’s name when they reach 16. If they are interested they may also receive quarterly updates from the farms by email or post.

Together we can change the world for the better, one farm at a time.

Migrateful – sharing food makes us human

“Some anthropologists say that sharing food is what makes us human.”

So says Jess Thompson, co-founder of Migrateful, where asylum seekers, refugees and migrants teach their traditional cuisines to the public.

Personally, I bless migration for transforming modern British eating. Can you imagine a world without pasta, curry or houmous?

Jess has spent the last two years supporting migrants and refugees in Morocco, Dunkirk refugee camp and Tower Hamlets. 

She points out that the word “companion” is derived from the Spanish “con pan” meaning “with bread” – a companion is someone with whom you share your bread.

Jules and Jess, co-founders of Migrateful
Above is a pic of the co-founders, Jess Thompson (left) and Jules Mazza-Coates whom I have known since she was little. Jules was brought up to believe the act of sharing a meal helps build human relations, and that preparing home-cooked, fresh food can be simple and cost-effective. After working with refugees in Calais refugee camp, Jules supported their integration 
in the UK. 

Every Wednesday at the Migrateful chef training in London, the chefs – from Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ecuador, Cuba and Pakistan – take it in turns to teach the group how to prepare their cuisine.

Majeda shares Syrian cuisine with Migrateful

Majeda (above) leads a Syrian cookery class for the group. A mother of two, she arrived in the UK a few months ago. “I wish I were in Syria now, I know my country needs me and I miss my two boys and husband so much”.

What is her story? Majeda was working as a children’s therapist in the capital when war broke out in Syria. Thousands of Syrians fled to Damascus after their homes were bombed by the Syrian government. Majeda organised an initiative to feed her displaced countryfolk. The Syrian government imprisoned her for four months for feeding Syrians from areas under occupation. 

After her release, she continued her support for the displaced Syrians. Eventually, threats from the state became too much. For the sake of her family’s safety, Majeda had to leave Syria. 

At Migrateful, Majeda cooked a Syrian meal. She said: 

“I believe there is a relationship between cooking and love and that preparing a meal for the one you love, combining your skills and your feelings to create something, can convey a lot to the person. I have a real passion for cooking and I think that passion is one of the things that makes me a good wife, mum and friend”.

Migrateful’s next class is a vegan Ethiopian cookery class in Brixton, London, on Monday 30 October. 

Ethiopian vegan cooking in action with Migrateful

Migrateful comes to Bristol on Monday 6 November to teach Argentinian cooking with José (see pic below).

José teaches Argentine cookery class to interested group at Migrateful

When we break bread together, we become companions.

Viva companionship! 

Good food needs land

I love working with the Biodynamic Land Trust. Then the dream thing happened and I went to Brussels for a few days for work. I am grateful to the Access to Land EU conference organisers for supporting my travel.

[Brexit rant: It took two hours by train from Kings Cross, London to Brussels – of course, am in Europe. I apologise for Brexit. In a loo in Brussels, graffiti proclaimed “I voted Remain” to which several had added, “me too” including me (always have felt tip for such occasions).]

Back to the conference: it was held during June heatwave in the peaceful and collegiate setting of the Franciscan centre, Notre Dame Chant d’Oiseau.


We held some of the workshop sessions outside under the comforting shade of a beautiful tree.


If you care about real food, you have to care about the land. 

But land is not valued as a place to grow food. Land is seen as an investment – a place to lock in-money. The EU subsidy system distorts the market further, favouring rich landowners over small ecological farmers delivering healthy local food, and protection of soil and wildlife. (The EU is not perfect. Obvs. It needs reform.).

Brexit is a messy, expensive pain but it is also an opportunity to reshape UK farming, and many organisations are seizing the day.

26 June 2017: Brexit negotiations began, and 80 food and farming organisations released their food policy plan for agriculture, A People’s Food Policy.


The Biodynamic Land Trust was one of the 80 organisations supporting the People’s Food Policy.

The Biodynamic Land Trust’s current community share offer is for Huxhams Cross Farm in Dartington, south Devon (near Totnes). Below, is a picture of the farm’s magical wooded area where local children come to learn about land and farming, and be outdoors in nature. They love it.


I invite you to look at the Huxhams Cross Farm community share offer and hope you will be inspired to support this grassroots investment in community-owned farms for our sustainable future.

Kefir soft cheese 

White soft cheese with olive oil and a sprig of rosemary
Kefir cheese is a mind-blowing taste-tastic discovery.

The freshest cheese I have ever tasted. And I brought it into being! 

I am in awe I can make cheese. And such a digestible and delicious one at that.

A soft cheese, it is dreamily delicious with olive oil, chopped fresh garlic and a tiny sprinkle of salt. Or try Annie’s recipe with pureed herbs. (Thank you, I will).

Kefir grains in strainer
Here is the daily kefir milk and kefir cheese routine:

  • Strain the fermented milk in a non-metallic sieve or muslin cloth
  • Keep grains* for the next batch, and, if plentiful, for cheese**
  • Drink the fermented milk (or use in a smoothie)
  • Place the strained grains in a clean jar and, leaving room at the top for expansion, cover with fresh, room-temperature whole milk (preferably organic for added nutrients and taste plus care for dairy cows, wildlife and the soil)
  • Cover with breathable cover or do kefir the anaerobic way  ***
  • Let jar sit at room temperature (or airing cupboard) away from direct sunlight for 24 hours approx. Non-cold is key to encouraging those kefir grains to do their fermentation thing
  • Repeat!

**Strain the grains for cheese through a muslin. My casual method: Let the grains sit a few hours in the strainer – plastic/non-metallic it has to be.

** *Oxygen in or out (anaerobic) for fermentation? Following my previous blog on milk kefir, I had a big discussion with friends on Facebook as to which method was best. It turns out both methods get results.

I sling a tea-towel over the fermenting milk. Am no longer obsessed with the perfect cover/elastic band although it was that detail that gave me confidence when I began kefir-making.

*By the way, kefir grains are not actually grains. They are SCOBYs or Symbiotic Communities of Bacteria and Yeast.

“Ayyyy, my scobys.” Like the Fonz

The SCOBYs, my new best friends, feed on the fresh milk, thus fermenting it, making it digestible and delicious.  Check out the beneficial health effects of kefir and buy grains here too. Or ask a kefir-making friend for grains.

Having generated sufficient kefir grains to eat as soft cheese feels like my reward for tending them.

Ayyyyy. Thanks, SCOBYs.

 

 

Kefir – the details that count

Jar of kefir milk with pretty floral cloth cover

This is my third attempt at making kefir. Worth the effort because although the shop-bought organic one is delectable (especially Riazhenka baked milk) I am less enamoured of its plastic container and price. (And availability since it was featured on BBC’s Trust Me, I’m A Doctor and everyone went mad for kefir).

Enter a blog post on kefir by Penny’s Plate, a Bristol-based nutrionist. My third kefir adventure had begun.

Penny kindly offered me some kefir grains, and dropped them off at our local healthy food shop.

A jar of kefir with floral cloth cover
It gets better. When I picked up the grains at Harvest Bristol Cooperative, I was delighted to find them in a jar with a darling fabric cover (see pic above) secured with an elastic band (the metal lid was while it was being transported).

This has made everything possible. I have hitherto never achieved such a natty arrangement.

The other good thing was the size of the jar. Up-to-now, I had made a pint  and got overwhelmed by the amount.

If you don’t like the tangy taste of kefir, add it to a banana smoothie.

Why kefir? This fermented food certainly feels soothing. Apparently it helps line the gut – and a healthy gut lining enables the absorption of nutrients. According to kefir enthusiasts, it is better than yogurt because its healthy probiotic bacteria actually colonise the gut.

Kefir milk in a jar and plastic strainer over a second and clean jar. Cover and elastic band beside on kitchen worktop

Newbie kefir tips 

Find someone making kefir and beg them for grains. When they arrive, put in a clean jar and top with fresh milk. Don’t fill to the top. Cover with a breathable lid and leave to ferment for 24 hours away from direct sunlight.

milk kefir grains in plastic tea strainer

Strain through a plastic (not metal) sieve and drink (or store in the fridge). Start again with the strained kefir, a clean jar and fresh milk. Store unused kefir grains in the fridge covered in a little milk. The cold slows down activity.

It is good to have a kefir buddy. Tasting Penny’s kefir gave me an idea what I was aiming for. I asked questions, was reassured by her replies. I felt like a new breastfeeding mother unsure of this natural yet unknown activity.

Start small with less than half a pint of milk in a jar. Don’t fill it to the top but leave room in the jar for kefir to breathe.

Get a fabric lid cover cut in a circle to fit generously over a jar with an elastic band to secure it. The cover needs to be breathable and clean. You could use a paper towel. Don’t forget the runner band.

Successful kefir is down to the freshness and quality of the original ingredients – so choose organic milk if you can, and as fresh as possible.

As for all great achievements, you have to get a bit obsessed. You have to fuss over your kefir, check it, swirl it, send anxious texts to your kefir buddy, look up kefir sites (one of my favourites), and hurry back home to check it is not feeling abandoned.
From above inside of kefir milk jar

Kefir grains are not really grains. These grain lookalikes are actually clumps of good bacteria and yeast formed from feeding on the milk. And when recipes say “refresh” the grains, it means give them fresh milk (not water as I have mistakenly done!). 

A large jar of translucent ginger beer

Jane of World Jungle’s ginger kefir

You can make vegan kefir. Like kefir ginger beer. This is how ginger beer used to be made. The real thing.

Use room temperature milk. I had what the French call a mauvais quart d’heure when I thought I had murdered my grains with icy milk. I think they just slowed down. They seem to be recovering nicely now. Thank you for asking.

Young man with three cows

Kees Frederiks owner and farmer of Stroud Micro Dairy, Stroud News and Journal

The lucky people of Stroud can now get kefir made from raw milk. Check out the Stroud Micro Dairy which is situated on Oakbrook Farm, farmland secured by the Biodynamic Land Trust so it will be sustainable farmland for generations to come.

PS I am now communications manager for the Biodynamic Land Trust.

Do you make kefir? Any newbie tips?