Reflecting on how I got into sustainable food…
You could say it pulls together many elements of my life to date, bringing me as close to balance as I have ever been. I got obsessed by food in my early twenties. On an expense account outing at a flash Japanese restaurant, as a grey suited management graduate. Octopus sushi put me on a taste journey that still endures. I’d not made the link then, as I tried very hard to be linear, that an operation to remove nasal cartilage at 17 had created a newfound sense of smell – and taste. I played out the corporate sales career for another decade, though now it was to save up to open my own restaurant serving local, seasonal food. I finally got to spread that arguably democratic happiness in 2004. Initially a cheffy, cuisine driven thing to do unusual food, sourcing ingredients was a shock.
I’d grown up on the edges of the world’s first fully industrial city. Knocking on farmer’s doors to buy the closest possible ingredients. I saw that the fields were stripped to dead soil or stood empty, that imported food was re-bagged as local. Researching old recipes to reconstruct local menus, I couldn’t find or had to import pears, plums or fish that’d grown and lived in abundance two centuries before – my ‘impoverished’ pre-industrial neighbours had eaten a vastly more diverse diet than me. We were living off the images on the tins and packets. None of them ‘organic’. Which was how we helped nature provide us with food for most of recent human history which was now a brand. I wasn’t just an entrepreneur, but low-carbon one, and environmental campaigner too it turned out.
Having a business background in catering soon led to me to giving ad hoc coaching advice, on setting up farm shops, or making pesto from wilting leaf. Sales dipped in the recession, chiming in with exhaustion from running a food business with three young kids at home (and sometimes bribed with ice cream while I finished a shift). I was offered a day job as a food consultant by a government agency. I was now pulling in longer hours but could see a way out of wrap-around physical hard work. And it offered the flexibility to tailor clients to my skills. Before long I’d supported micro-businesses right along the supply chain, specialising in sustainable food projects like cooperative grocers, growers, waste recyclers. Always hooked into a less than corporate crowd through catering, I was also developing urban farming systems that became my main focus when I transferred out of the restaurant in 2011. Those closed-loop growing systems could form my research area, especially taking urban farms into developing countries.
Possibly influenced by reading those 1970’s self-sufficiency manuals when I grew up, or by being inclined to neat, natural and low waste solutions by a slight moral bent, I signed up for a 72 hour permaculture design course. Held in a yurt in a ten day intentional community, this intense experience connected up my lose strands of knowledge. Opening up to more holistic, nature-based spiritual practices such as reiki linked me closer to the seasons and earth around me. I continued and grew friendships from the course back in my own area, becoming a member of design teams for schools or an ex-serviceman charity. This month I’m in a team that’s worked permaculture – or its less value threatening name sake agroecology – into a plan map outing and suggest better planting for ten prisons. And a scheme to get ex drug-taking offenders set up in their own micro-farms: growing salad not cannabis.
A few years of helping to root Manchester Metropolitan University‘s food faculty into the local community ended up with me writing a unit called ‘food culture from field to fork’ – as part of a degree in sustainable food business. Community and localism can be seen as the excuse for not being successful enough to go global by some. My main drive is making sure everyone understands that everything is local.
Don't forget to Leave A Comment and Subscribe for Email Updates from The Community