Masala mandate

London's green food plan recognizes Indian restos bigger employer than steel industry

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The days when “english cuisine” was a contradiction in terms are past, and to make sure the proof’s in the pudding, London has launched a 10-year plan for Healthy And Sustainable Food.

The local food drive and its £3.7 million (about $8.4 million) budget were unveiled some months back by Mayor Ken Livingstone, affectionately known as Red Ken, and backed by the powerhouse citizen coalition Sustain.

The group’s coordinator, Jeanette Longfield, spoke to food localistas at the Royal Winter Fair November 9 and explained how the org’s galaxy of 100 citizen and independent business groups got to be key players in a new red-green multi-purpose collaboration.

This novel alignment pays as much attention to equal access to healthy foods and local jobs as it does to global warming emissions.

The rationale for civic action outlined in the Mayor’s Food Strategy isn’t much different from the litany of woes in other cities – the well-known negatives that governments everywhere ignore, as if by rote.

About one in five cases of cancer and one in three cases of heart disease in London are related to diet and income, and 40 per cent of the elderly who are admitted to London hospitals arrive malnourished.

About 40 per cent of London’s overall environmental impact and 22 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions come from food handling, much of it easily correctable with a little care and attention to “market failures.” For example, 22 per cent of food trucks run empty at any given time, while even those carrying a load are commonly running at 70 per cent capacity.

Some peculiarities of the British situation also led to London’s bold strategy. The unforgettable scares associated with mad cow disease and the foot-and-mouth contagion in livestock left the public with a “robust skepticism” about scientific cover-ups and a deep concern about how quickly mayhem spreads in a globalized food system, Longfield told the Royal Winter crowd.

“Developing food security in a volatile world,” she said, is one of five formal objectives of the London food plan.

“Local food is miles better,’ her colleague Ben Reynolds, Sustain’s coordinator of London Food Link liked to say when he and I toured South Korea last October. And Londoners increasingly appreciate the fresh taste, authentic culture and upscale ambience of historic and all-but-forgotten (and thereby obscure and exclusive) regional specialties.

The London strategy covers the whole food chain, from “grow it to throw it,” says Reynolds. The eight stages (grow, process, transport, sell, buy, eat, cook, toss) identified are comprehensive in a way that conventional food policy usually isn’t.

These processes are traditionally walled apart by a host of specialist professions (inspectors, nutritionists and ag researchers, for example), different economic sectors (retail and trucking) and distinct government departments (agriculture, health and waste management).

One of Longfield’s favourite speaking tricks is to ask audiences to guess the most commonly eaten meal in England. Is it fish and chips, bacon buttie, beer and boiled egg? No, it’s chicken tikka masala, from one of the 60 cuisines featured in London’s 12,000 eateries. England’s Indian restos now employ more people than the entire steel industry, just to get the economic importance of food in perspective.

Serving local foods from a nearby countryside that has limited space as well as cool, damp and dark winters to a city that’s only slightly less cosmopolitan than Toronto in its cultural mix is a big part of London’s challenge.

That’s probably why the Mayor’s Food Strategy is low on specific targets such as the 100-mile diet – though one effort tries to connect eateries along the subway maze to food producers with direct access to the tube.

Much of Sustain’s and London Food Link’s work is funnelled through an astounding network of neighbourhood and citizens’ groups, a reminder that a wealth of community engagement is a precondition of food security. This is in stark contrast to the conventional food system that fosters privatization and commercialization of all food-related functions.

Food Link’s mag, the Jellied Eel, revives the memory of an old favourite among London’s lower orders, and boosts regional cuisine with upbeat reports on allotment, school and community gardens, farmers markets, fish farms, outings of shellfish foragers, and BISTRO (the Biodiesel Initiative for Sustainable Transport from Recycled Oil, from leftover kitchen grease).

Another Sustain publication, A Greener Curry offers sustainability tips to a food sector called BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic).

Farmers who revive and raise the rare, hardy breeds pushed toward extinction by industrial food production models since the 1950s are encouraged to sell their meats at a premium.

Sustain also operates what Longfield calls a “dating service” that brings hospitals and other health institutions together to make bulk purchases, then links them to local and organic farmers. Instinctive to food projects and second nature for city governments, the method for driving progress in this area features lots of helpings rather than lots of regulations.

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