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Food Nation: We are what we cook

Food is an intimate commodity. It is bought, sold, and controlled just like any other, but what makes it so personal is that it is wrapped up in deeply individual and cultural values.

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This fact is often side-lined or ignored in debates over ‘food sustainability’, but our personal and cultural relationship to food is so important that food policy experts such as Tim Lang and journalists like Michael Pollan consider it a primary reason for our unhealthy food culture.

As Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, ‘So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder? Certainly it would have never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.’

It is not simply a case of what we eat (or, what we should eat less of), but how we eat and why we have become so detached from the primal reasons for growing, cooking, eating and enjoying food. We need to go back to basics, and get wise about food.

As the saying goes: ‘Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.’ When it comes to food, wisdom can only be achieved through independent experimentation, home-cooked recipes, generations of culinary tradition and, most importantly, time eating at our dinner tables. As Ellen Gustafson states in her new book We, The Eaters (2014), ‘If we change dinner, we can change the world.’ photo 1 (1)

The aim of this blog is to show how this can be done, using my time at Food Nation in Newcastle as an example, providing four simple steps to follow. Food Nation is a social enterprise providing hands-on cooking and growing courses to schools, businesses and communities across the North-East of England. Their motto is ‘Inspiring people about good food,’ recognising that inspiration comes not only from providing knowledge about food and nutrition, but also by providing a comfortable, well-equipped environment in which to independently learn, grow confident, reconnect with and get wise about food.

So, how do they do it? I went to visit them for a week of volunteering, and this is what I found:

Step 1: provide time and an accessible, inviting space

‘Everyone in society should have access to healthy, affordable food and information helping make better food choices.’ (Food Nation)

Food access and the food choices that grow out of it are not simple issues. Both are impacted by a host of socio-economic conditions and personal factors. The perceived time and cost of growing and cooking your own food from scratch is key. Many people are willing to watch the Great British Bake Off for an hour, but they aren’t willing to cook a meal with fresh ingredients in that time. The difference is that everything you need to watch TV is already in front of you (the remote, a sofa, a cup of tea), whereas cooking a meal requires the right equipment and ingredients, along with the know how to cook – it’s a lot easier to watch cooking than to do it yourself.

This is where Food Nation comes in. They are geographically accessible to communities living in Newcastle, using portable stoves and minimal cooking equipment to take their cooking classes to wherever demand dictates, including primary schools, nursing homes and community centres. Time is what you make of it, and you’ll be spoilt for choice with the amount offered by Food Nation. They have courses in the day, evening and at weekends, including six week ‘Brunch and Lunch’ and ‘Dinner’ courses, eight week Ministry of Food courses, and regular Food Adventures allotment and Food Discovery farm visits. They are also well connected with the local farms, schools, universities, food entrepreneurs, and organisations such as the Country Trust, Jamie Oliver’s Good Food Foundation, and the Change 4 Life East Newcastle Programme. These links provide funding opportunities and volunteer hours, allowing them to run courses for as cheap as £5 a class. By being local, accessible and affordable, Food Nation gains the trust of those who need its services most.

Step 2: provide confidence

Another common issue that Food Nation tackles is a lack of confidence in choice that can, ultimately determine what someone cooks or whether they cook at all.

‘It has been shown that the most successful strategies in main-streaming healthy and sustainable eating habits are ones that empower and enable people to choose to make these healthy choices, not through scare tactics.’ (Amanda, Food Nation)

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At Food Nation, the class leader works alongside you in a comfortable, incredibly well-equipped and interactive environment, showing you step-by-step ways to cook your dish or grow your produce, and really engages you in the process. Keeping it simple, but applicable, is incredibly important. I learned some really interesting things. For example, did you know that you can plant dried peas from the supermarket? Or that the pith on the chilli is the spiciest bit, rather than the seeds? I certainly didn’t. It just shows, it’s a learning process not only for the kids and adults attending, but also for the volunteers.

Increasing knowledge and confidence is especially important when targeting those already very much impacted by diet-related disease or food poverty. They are also in the process of setting up classes for people dependent on food banks, so that they are able to independently make good food choices and play an active part in escaping food poverty.

Step 3: Get wise: grow and cook your food

It is not just a case of ‘we are what we eat’, but we are what we cook. Cooking is a primal human activity, with scientists at Harvard finding that the invention of cooking led to the rapid growth of the human brain and a shrinking of the stomach; we spent less of our energy digesting food and were able to do other things instead. In other words, our ability to cook with fire led to the evolution of the human race as we know it.

By cooking, I mean real cooking. Over time, the definition of ‘cooking’ has broadened from cooking raw ingredients from scratch to bunging a pack of pasta in a saucepan and stirring some Dolmio through it. Not only does this disengage us from our primal urge to cook, but it can dramatically reduce the diversity and sustainability of foods we consume. At Food Nation, both these issues are solved: you can make gnocchi and pesto by hand, conjure up English breakfasts or Moroccan feasts for brunch and make an Indian curry for supper. These are all meals we could buy at a supermarket ready-made, but home-made tastes better, and is better for us.

Cookery Class (1)

The same applies to growing our own food. As Joel Salatin says: ‘The average person is still under the aberrant delusion that food should be somebody else’s responsibility until I’m ready to eat it.’ If we want to make food truly personal, both for yourself and your local environment, growing and cooking it yourself is the number one way to do so. Food Nation’s ‘Food Adventures’ allotment course provides this opportunity to schools in the east of Newcastle, university students, new mothers and their babies. Whoever you are, you’re able to grow good food, exercise outdoors and get wise about where stuff comes from.

Step 4: enjoy eating and spread the word

To change our cultural and personal relationship with food, so that we maintain a healthy and sustainable diet, we must transfer our skills and enthusiasm for fresh food to others. All the food cooked at Food Nation is taken back to the homes of the attendees, allowing them to sit down and enjoy delicious meals with their families and friends at the dinner table. The recipe section on Food Nation’s website encourages people to cook and share these meals at home, adding their own personal innovations to the dish. They even encourage students to create their own healthy food initiatives – or ‘Smooth Enterprises’ – continuing to scale-up Food Nation’s efforts beyond the classroom and into the community.

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Scaling up and reflecting on the bigger picture is incredibly important, particularly in light of statistics that have emerged in the past year. We now have 2.1 billion people who are obese or overweight in the world, a more than two-fold increase from 875 million in 1980. Food-related disease has taken the number one spot as primary non-communicable cause of death worldwide. The choices we make in our food system are not only costing us our lives, but also our earth and our economies. For example, in the US alone, diet-related disease costs $150 billion per year, set to double in just ten years.

We are not alone in recognising that the benefits of inspiring people about good food often acts as a catalyst for positive change in a huge number of areas from health and well-being, community cohesion, environmental sustainability and benefits to the regional economy from buying locally available produce.’ (Ellie Dowding, Food Nation)

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We need collaboration between sectors to tackle this global challenge. Food Nation is doing just this. It is linked to Food Newcastle, one of six multi-sector food partnerships in the UK to receive funding from the Sustainable Food Cities initiative. Moving to the international level, the Sustainable Food Cities initiative is a supporter of the first ever EAT food forum, hosted in Stockholm in May 2014 to discuss ways to achieve healthy and sustainable diets via supportive legislation in schools, hospitals, public departments and the farm sector. Most importantly, Food Nation steps to achieving a wise, healthy and sustainable diet provide the anecdotes and personal support needed to challenge these disturbing statistics. Nobody mourns at the graveside of a statistic; so let’s go back to basics, wise up, and make the challenge of ‘good food for all’ a personal one.

Feature image by tmv_media

Food Nation images by Rebecca Roberts and Food Nation

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