Monday, 20 January 2014

vegan for the love of food by Natalie Bradbury

photograph by Natalie Brabury

Veganism, and the practice of scrutinising the reasons behind individuals' choices for foregoing animal-based foods in their diets, has been in the media a lot lately. After Beyonce and Jay Z announced that they were to undertake the so-called 22Days Challenge and live on plant-based foodstuffs for a few weeks came a predictable slew of articles about how veganism was no longer 'weird' or 'niche', but a trendy and viable lifestyle choice, published alongside a parade of photographs of other vegan celebrities to back it up. Even my local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, surveyed readers and published a list of the best places to get a vegan meal in Manchester in time for Beyonce's concert in the city. The resulting list was long and varied, including both specialist vegetarian and vegan eateries as well as mainstream restaurants which make the effort to cater for all dietary tastes, challenging the assumption that vegetarians are awkward and make lives unnecessarily difficult for themselves. And this brings me to the main point of my article. Unlike many vegetarians and vegans, who have commonly adopted a meat or animal-free diet to highlight animal welfare, or increasingly because of concerns about the sustainability of an increased global appetite for meat and dairy and the impact of this on land use and the environment, Beyonce and Jay Z's foray into veganism appears to have been prompted by ideas around spirituality and physical and mental cleansing. My reason for adopting a vegan diet just over a year and a half ago is slightly different still, stemming partly from the fact that I just love food. 

For the first 22 years of my life, this love of food meant primarily a love of meat and traditional British cuisine: English breakfasts and bacon sandwiches, roast dinners, cottage pie, toad-in-the-hole, bangers and mash, meat and potato pie, followed by rice pudding, fruit pie or crumble and custard (I can count on both thumbs the number of times I have eaten a salad, and neither time was it out of choice; I have a fundamental problem with seeing a pile of leaves as 'food'!). I grew up in a family where meat was frequently eaten three meals a day and all butter and milk was very much of the full-fat kind. Although I knew vegetarians and and occasionally went to vegetarian cafes, eating meat was integrated in my background and my culture. Vegetarianism was seen by those around me as a high-maintenance lifestyle choice that required extensive knowledge and careful balancing of food groups in order to avoid wasting away with anaemia, and as a result I continued believing that I needed to eat meat every day in order to be healthy. When I first started cooking for myself as a student on a tight budget, therefore, shopping involved a trip to the supermarket, bulk-buying Tesco Value mince, pork, beef, chicken and bacon and freezing it in the minimum amounts I thought necessary to comprise a day's portion (I was always conscious that this was something that my more enlightened, ethically-attuned friends looked down on). Treats would involve going to restaurants where I could eat a big, juicy steak, and I can vividly remember the first time I ever encountered anything as exotic as hummus, at a house party at the age of 21.

I can't remember when this changed exactly, but eventually I realised that it's not necessary to eat meat in order to be healthy, or even to enjoy food. It was also linked to becoming more adventurous with cooking. As I became more accomplished, I began to experiment with other ways of making my favourite foods, for example replacing the mince in cottage pie with lentils, or the sausages in toad-in-the-hole with vegetables, and came to realise that these substitutions were not just healthier but more cost effective than buying the cheapest, nastiest meat I could find. But the temptation to buy and eat cheap meat was still there, and that's why I became vegetarian: I have no moral problem with killing animals for food as it seems like a perfectly logical thing to do, and I admire those who can eat a mainly vegetable-based diet and reserve good quality, ethically-produced meat for a rare treat. For me, though, becoming vegetarian, and removing the temptation to eat cheap meat, was simply the better choice once I realised that there were other foods that I enjoyed eating just as much as meat and that I did not require it so sustain me.

Like vegetarianism, I also came to realise that I didn't need dairy products in my diet to be healthy and to enjoy food. This realisation took place around the same time as I became concerned about mass-produced, processed food, industrial farming methods and the environmental impact of raising cattle for meat and dairy production, and I began to look to other culinary traditions with less emphasis on dairy and more emphasis on combinations of spices and ingredients to create flavour. Vegetarian and vegan food is often perceived as being bland, but I have found that the supposed restrictions of a vegan diet can make cooks more creative, as they have to find flavours and textures in different ways. I consider meat and cheese substitutes to be overly expensive and nutritionally lacking (plus what's the point of being vegetarian or vegan if you're just going to eat fake meat or cheese?!) so began instead to fill my kitchen with spices and herbs with which to experiment, finding that, to give just a few examples: apparently bland tofu provides a perfect base for bringing out the flavours of turmeric and smoked paprika; a sprinkling of chilli flakes enhances any dish, from pasta to a simple bean soup; a quick shake of a spice mix like ras el hanout adds a whole new level of flavour to potato wedges; the addition of cumin and rosemary enlivens simple roasted pumpkin and aubergine; and that lentils, a stereotypical vegan staple, really are incredibly versatile, lending themselves to everything from curries to pastry-fillings to vegetarian burgers and roasts. All this, and I still cook my favourites like crumble, pie (many shop-bought pastries are vegan, although it's just as easy to make your own) and rice pudding, simply using soya milk or margarine instead of milk or butter. I adopted a vegan diet incrementally, starting off with not buying animal projects myself and therefore not eating them at home, but accepting them if they were in food provided to me elsewhere (most notably work buffets, where the vegetarian option was always egg =or cheese sandwiches and I didn't want to stand out by requesting they buy me something different). When it came down to it, though, I didn't really need to worry: taking a home-made packed lunch (something like scrambled tofu with sesame bagels, or a hummus, sundried tomato and roasted beetroot sandwich) to work on those occasions when there is a work buffet really isn't too much of a hardship.

So for me vegetarianism and veganism hasn't been about going without certain things; it's been about expanding, rather than reducing, my diet. It's been about rethinking my relationship with food and trying to challenge assumptions about what food is, excluding meat and dairy simply because I have no need to eat them and there is so much more food out there to explore. Ask me to guess what I'd be given to eat in any mainstream restaurant outside major cities and I can almost guarantee that there will only be one vegetarian option and it will involve mushrooms, risotto or some kind of stuffed vegetables. But I think this is incredibly lazy and shows a lack of imagination: a vegetarian dish shouldn't just be a meat dish with the meat removed or replaced with a layer of cheese on top, and likewise there is no reason why a vegan dish should just a vegetarian dish minus the cheese, because there are a whole range of other ingredients, cooking styles and combinations out there to play with. In summary, then, far from taking the joy out of eating, being vegan has enabled me to explore my love of food and I hope to inspire others to do the same.

Natalie Bradbury is a Manchester-based writer, editor, curator and occasional musician. Her personal interests include art and design, architecture, cities and town planning, regeneration, public space, social history, film, canals, food and travel. Her professional interest encompass education and co-operatives. She is currently a PhD candidate researching 'Pictures for Schools: Art, Education and Reconstruction in Post-war Britain' in the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Food banks


I walked past a foodbank in November. In the morning sunshine outside St Pancras Parish Church I brushed aside the leaflets being handed out by two volunteers. Recently, I realised what I walk past every work day -   a place that provides food for people missing meals.

People are pointed in the direction of foodbanks when a care professional identifies them as having a priority need. They then get access to the donated food to tide them over and an opportunity to discuss longer-term solutions. Foodbanks tend to be funded by charities, such as the Trussell Trust and continue to grow in number. The safety net of the welfare state has loosened and the instability caused by illness, low wages, benefit delays and a myriad of other causes has brought more and more people to their doors.

Poverty is complicated and hard to define, but seeing people unable to feed themselves is a clear sign of something going wrong. 

Here's a report from BBC's Paul Mason from the busiest foodbank in the country 

Monday, 28 March 2011

food chain #2

food-chain#2 is ready! it will be on sale in May.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

food co-ops

A few months ago, we came across The People's Supermarket on Lambs Conduit St (near Great Ormond St Hostpital) in London. Now a great documentary about The People's Supermarket is being shown on Channel 4. It started on Sunday (6th of Feb) and will be shown in four parts over the coming weeks.

The People's Supermarket combines low prices with fair payment for producers by working as a co-operative, giving discounts to members in exchange for a four hour shift in store each month and a small membership fee (£25 a year). On top of this, careful stock control is used to minimise wastage and a range of organic produce is also sourced localy.

The reason I'm talking about this now is that Sunday's documentary reminded me how good these things are but how impossible it is for those who don't have anything like it in their area. So I thought I'd list a few food-focussed co-ops around the UK, outside of London. My information comes mainly from Cooperatives UK, an online campainger and database of the UKs co-ops. It's only a little list. I will try to do more research later.

Brampton - Gilsland Spa Hotel

Bristol - Cafe Kino (Cafe Mono)

Burnley - Red Triangle Cafe (Red Triangle Co-operative Ltd, 160 St James St, Burnley, Lancaster)

Northampton - Kingsthorp Upper Crust Catering Service Limited (11 Cheyne Walk, Northampton)

Rochdale - Mokses Kitchen

Sale Moor - Citrus Tree Ltd (359 Norris Rd, Sale Moor, Cheshire)

Salford - The Star Inn (Starcliff Limited)

Friday, 14 May 2010

Big Mouths

Henry’s last post gave me lots of ideas but I’m only going to focus on one. The importance placed on government control of the scheme he outlined was crucial. The role of government versus society is something I've been thinking about a lot recently. What follows is a brief outline of some of my thoughts about community groups and food policy, with reference to the Conservative ‘Big Society’ vision.

In the past week we’ve had an election and a new Con-Lib government. David Cameron’s first address as Prime Minister gave us some clues about the direction of this coalition.

“I want to try and help build a more responsible society, here in Britain, where we don’t just ask ‘What are my entitlements?’ but ‘What are my responsibilities?’ and don’t just ask ‘What am I owed?’ but more ‘What can I give?’"

This reflects not only Kennedy’s famous speech of 1961, but also the pre-election Conservative plan for a “big society”. This vision is of a society where every adult is a member of a community group or civic organisation, allowing the government to devolve power to “the lowest possible level” for local issues. One issue that these groups could tackle is food access. In fact, many of these projects already exist and are becoming increasingly popular. Local food projects are a way for civil society to engage with food issues, whether its people growing their own food, learning how to cook it, or ordering it in a cooperative.

At face value this appears attractive. Lofty statements such as “empowering local people” and “using valuable local knowledge” are hard to argue against for those wanting a more responsive food sector. However, there are valid criticisms of food projects that also apply to the vision behind Conservative plans. So let’s use food to dissect the “big society”.

Academics see the danger of local food projects becoming quick fixes. The lack of long term funding and no real network linking their efforts makes them hard to sustain. Their reliance on volunteers means that without the necessary resources, networks or background it is hard to become a part of these groups. There’s been interesting work done on the alternative food movement in California, showing how the language and practices of local food groups can exclude ethnic minorities. Many of the aspirations of these groups are not shared by the majority of the population. Even if they are, those who could benefit the most from them (low income households) have other more pressing priorities. Those with the least opportunity to act cannot be expected to solve their own problems.

The factors that create injustice locally are often about structural factors (e.g. wages, trade laws, transport policy) that citizens can do little to affect. We may see our political system as lacking accountability, but placing our hopes of better food security on unelected and unrepresentative community groups is little better.

It’s important to be cautious about going too far in this criticism. There are some things community groups can achieve and there are examples where inclusive and effective projects have emerged. However, I still believe their role in delivering policy is small. These groups should be less about doing government’s work and more about arguing for what they want from politicians. After all, it is government that has the reach to affect more than just the local picture. Perhaps it’s time for big mouths instead of a big society.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

food in non-fiction #1

The following post is the product of a few things I have been thinking about. These things are: The last few pages of chapter 36 of Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (pages 222 and 223 in the Penguin Modern Classics edition); Eating Animals by Jonathan SafranFoer; Food 2030; and a fairly recent Panorama, dealing with the subject of child labour in cocoa farming.

In the aforementioned pages of Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell is addressing the issue of homelessness as it was in the UK in the 1930s. His main issue is that while people remained homeless and hungry, the law prevented them from doing anything productive, as they were forced to keep moving by laws on vagrancy. They were, therefore, homeless, hungry, and idle by law. This, Orwell asserted, broke their spirits, wasting their lives away. His suggestion was allowing homeless people to grow their own food in allotments in shelters. 'For the question is, what to do with men who are underfed and idle; and the answer - to make them grow their own food - imposes itself automatically.'

This made me think about unemployment in general, as well as current forecasts, which suggest that agriculture will need to become vastly more efficient in order to feed the growing population. Agriculture is, surprisingly, an industry that suffers from industrialization (surprisingly because we now rely in the west almost entirely upon factory farmed food). Safran Foer's Eating Animals highlights the enormous wastefulness of factory farming of animals and industrial slaughterhouses; the huge percentage of animals killed in transit; the unimaginable cross contamination and spread of diseases, including the 'Spanish Flu', 'Avian' Flu and 'Swine' Flu. The only way that this method can feed so many is that such a huge volume is produced. Efficiency in farming can only come from farming on a small scale, by individuals who will eat what they grow. I can intellectualise a lot of terrible things, but one thing that makes me truly sick is seeing human beings growing food that they will never eat. By this, I mean poor adults and children, who the western world employ to produce vast amounts of food, but who are, themselves starving. This includes children, who are forced, for their low labour costs to work on cocoa farms. These children will probably never taste a piece of chocolate.

The solution is simple, and yet difficult to implement. Food production could be enormously efficient. It requires food to be grown locally, communally, and carefully, making use of all available land. The drawbacks are as follows: seed production is monopolized; land rights are monopolised; all nations would have to comply with this idea, or the poorer countries would lose trade and starve; industrial agriculture would have to be
dismantled ; nomadic lifestyles must be taken into account; the initiative would have to be government controlled, regulated and inspected, rather than being locally regulated, to prevent regionalism and social exclusion (In a way, that makes this an argument against transition towns). Jobs all over the world would be lost. They would, theoretically, be made up for by the creation of possibly twice the number of jobs. Practically everyone could be employed. The only problem is, who is willing to take the risk? Attainment of anything, even just survival, comes at the cost of great discomfort. Those with money are able to trade off this discomfort to those without money. It is unlikely that everyone in a comfortable position would be willing to share in this discomfort, just in order to reduce the discomfort of others. I would like to add that I am willing, but I don't think that counts for much.

I really hope Olly will write some more on this subject because he knows way more about it than I do.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Ration yourself

“The best way you can help is by rationing yourselves”

In the UK, rationing began in earnest in 1940. It relied on Britons handing over a limited number of coupons from a ration book to regulate a dwindling wartime food supply. Occasionally, nostalgia for this time surfaces due to the perceived health benefits and notion of mucking in it encapsulates. This time isn’t as far away as it appears.

I think what’s fascinating about this video is that it contains two major thrusts of current food policy discourse. I’m not saying we’re being asked to use ration coupons, but that an emphasis on consumers and waste are fundamental to what people tell us about food.

Despite a vastly different context, our approach to food security hasn’t changed that much. Faced with potential food shortages due to rising oil prices, biodiversity loss and climate change, eating better is the dish of the day. Buying healthier and more ethical food is the rationing of today. The belief that ethical consumers can change food systems to be more sustainable is prevalent in government policy documents and in supermarket rhetoric.

Reducing waste is another responsibility shoppers are charged with. The phrase from this video “find a box and put them in, it’ll only take a min”, wouldn’t be out of place in the recycling campaigns of today. The love food, hate waste campaign is an example of how we need to not only buy better but waste less.

Strategies such as these are useful. They help people feel part of the solution and will have some impact. However, focusing heavily on consumers and waste misses crucial factors. Being able to act ‘ethically’ relies on having money and time. The decisions that food retailers and caterers make are often behind the scene and out of our control.Consumer power is qualified.

Although many other options must be taken, this video still has a message for us today. Taking “no more than our fair share” is crucial for all in the food chain. Whether that means me buying less or supermarkets engaging in better supply chain management, we do need to ration ourselves. This rationing must be approached with care, focusing on those that can afford to ration themselves.