Sustainable Food Cities 2017 Conference

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By Beth McAllister, CAG Project Officer

I recently returned from an inspiring time at the 2017 Sustainable Food Cities conference in Edinburgh. The conference is an opportunity for members of the network (of which Oxford is one through Good Food Oxford) to get together, share experiences and learning, attend workshops and discuss how to fundamentally change the food systems that are key part of our lives.

The day began with a plenary debate which looked at the obstacles and opportunities that could be provided by our ever-increasing turbulent political landscape. How can cities take back some control over their food? How do we get in front of the policy makers with our projects and ideas? It was pointed out that “cities are where it’s at” – as they are gaining increasing levels of powers to make their own choices (potentially through the newly formed ‘Metro Mayors’ looking after combined local authorities in certain areas of the UK).

Participants in the debate ranged from members of the Scottish government to the CEO of think tank, The Food Foundation.

Sustainable Cities Debate

A big question of the day was how to keep food issues on the agenda of government, local and national? Certain key issues are there already, with childhood obesity and child poverty featuring in the 2017 election manifestos. It can only be a positive sign that these things are on the radar, but how do they stay there? This was brought up a few times without really receiving an answer, apart from suggestions of ‘keep going!’.

Other issues and questions raised include: how can we help small food retailers survive when business rates in cities can be so large?  Can we plan for ‘food belts’ for growing spaces around our cities?



There were many workshops on offer for the day, but I had to choose just a couple to attend. The first was called ‘Bringing it all Together – exploring models of multi-functional food hubs’.  These hubs can be vital ways of supporting new forms of food retail and distribution as well as providing training and creating a space for community education and action. The session presented three projects in different cities who had either already established hubs or were in throes of planning them. The projects were Farm City in Lambeth, Cambridge Sustainable Food and Stirling Food Hub.

Sustainable Cities Workshop

This was an exciting whistle stop tour of what people are doing to alter the food system and add something more meaningful to the way we experience food in our communities.  Farm City stood out for me as having a strong model to really change how people experienced food through the retail side but also through skill sharing within the community. They had established Community Kitchens, running cooking workshops for adults and children, foraging walks, and were attempting to encourage more diversity through their ‘Melting Pot’ events, where people worked together from lots of different backgrounds to plan and execute a menu.

The second workshop I attended was ‘Growing your own leaders: identifying, motivating and supporting local food activists’ which looked at how to develop people in our communities who could be champions and activists for change. The workshop delved into questions of value and addressed the fact that our society doesn’t really encourage people to value themselves, which is of course detrimental, especially when you want to build up community action and empowerment! So, by addressing this, by valuing those around you and communicating that, you can give people the confidence and support to thrive.

A representative of Lambeth Food Partnership was there to talk about something called the ‘U.Lab’ model, developed from the MIT Research Centre, this is a programme that helps participants understand how they can build capacity to address the root causes of many of today’s social and environmental challenges. In Lambeth, they had used this model to develop their own ‘Grow Your Own Leaders’ course addressing how to challenge the current food systems. (You can read more about the theory here.)

What next

The conference prompted some questions for me in thinking about how some of these projects, ideas, and initiatives could be brought to use in the CAG Project:

  • We could work towards establishing our own multifunctional hub in Oxford. One that provides a ‘base’ for all the community action we take part in, forms an educational and activist space and can challenge the current systems, for example in our relationships to food.
  • We can raise awareness of what we do at a government level, both nationally and locally.
  • We can tell our ‘story’ better to people who aren’t yet as familiar with the climate challenges we face. We can help people to have those conversations.
  • We can do more to support people in the network, to talk more about value and help motivate our members. We can also talk more about burnout and help prevent this throughout the network.

In short, a bit to do! And these are things that we can perhaps address as a network over time.

In the final get-together of the day, one of the organisers pointed out that this year’s conference felt ‘different’ compared to previous ones, it felt as though the tide was turning and as a network we have momentum. The crowd seemed to agree that despite uncertain political times, there was potential for change in the air.

Sustainable Cities Image Poster