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The Kindling Trust: Creating a virtuous food economy

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Fixing our broken food system has never been more important, for both sustainability and health outcomes. But challenging the industrial model is not easy, as Clare Goff found out

‘In Manchester there’s lots of talk about sustainability but it’s never embedded’, says Chris Walsh, a co-founder of The Kindling Trust. ‘The city is obsessed with inward investment and very traditional economic growth which eclipses all else.’

Eight years ago he and co-founder Helen Woodcock decided to challenge mainstream thinking with a project aimed at embedding food sustainability within the region. While many local food projects tackle one aspect of sustainability – creating more supply, or building demand – the Kindling Trust tries to impact all stages of the supply chain.

‘You can’t just intervene in one place as that just moves the problem along’, says Walsh. ‘If you tackle the issue of access to land, then the next problem is farmers not being paid enough. We try to intervene in as many places as possible along to try to create a perfectly formed supply chain.’

Thus it has increased supply by supporting local farmers – through a cooperative called Manchester Veg People – and training new growers – through the UK’s first organic farm business incubator, Farmstart. At the same time it has created demand for their local food products by working with universities, local schools and 40 cafes and restaurants. While it receives core funding for its operations, its focus is on creating enterprises and partnerships that can sustain themselves and create a virtuous local food economy.

Walsh says that the amount of local veg it produces is still ‘minuscule’ but it is by looking at the bigger picture and creating close partnerships with public sector organisations that it’s impact can be seen.

Through close links with local primary schools, for example, it has worked out how to provide good quality local organic food for the same price as the school’s less healthy menu without cutting corners on the amount farmers are paid. ‘If you cut meat consumption by a third and use only seasonal vegetables you can make all the ingredients organic. When we scale up we can provide that good food to them at the same price.’

It supplies the University of Manchester and has run a pilot with a local NHS hospital.

kindlingpic1Smaller contracts needed

To truly embed food sustainability within the city however requires a change in the types of public sector contracts currently offered to suppliers, and the Trust has so far not managed to convince procurement officers of the benefit.

‘Contracts need to be smaller but not too small’, says Walsh. ‘We don’t want to supply the whole of Greater Manchester but supplying five or six schools close to our farms would be great.’

The opportunity to use public sector procurement channels to impact on health outcomes is huge. One in four meals outside of the home are funded by the taxpayer, through schools, prisons, hospitals and other public sector organisations.

Most of these meals are currently supplied at the cheapest price; replacing them with organic local food would not only build a local food economy and increase sustainability, but would have a huge impact on health outcomes.

While the Kindling Trust has not made much headway with Manchester Council it is working closely with councils within the region including Stockport, Oldham and Bolton. In Bolton food is high on the agenda and the town has a thriving food growing community, primarily driven by health teams. Oldham has been awarded a Good Food for Life catering mark for its school meals, and Stockport is working towards gaining sustainable food city status.

kindlingpolytunnelBuilding the next generation of farmers

As it waits for more progressive local procurement of food, the Kindling Trust is quietly building up the next generation of growers ready to be ready to take the city’s local food to scale. It runs volunteer programmes, takes farmers into schools and universities and is around to set up its second incubator scheme – Farmstart – in Stockport.

Farmstart began in the States twenty years ago as a way to help migrant Mexican communities make a living from the land. It later took off in Canada and is now making waves in the UK. A farm training programme, it gives participants access to training and a small amount of land for them to try their hand at creating a food business.

The Kindling Trust set up the first Farmstart in the UK – in Abbey Leys Farm in Cheshire – and has seen 15 people go through the training so far. Participants are given a quarter of an acre on a local farm in their first year, which they can increase over time for a maximum of five years, after which they should be ready to set up on their own. The farmer helps with heavy machinery and the trainee farmers are linked to local restaurants and farmers markets. Three businesses have so far been created from the first cohort.

Fixing market failure
Walsh admits that Kindling’s work is a drop in the ocean but how big can the local food economy in Greater Manchester be? One academic study estimated that 20,000 jobs could be created in the region if half of the greenbelt land around the city was used for fruit and vegetable production. Walsh thinks that such jobs would be badly paid and insecure and says it’s unrealistic to think that the city can feed itself, and more important to fix market failure in the system.kindling4

‘Our food system is so screwed up and so under-rated’, he says. ‘We don’t pay enough for food but lots can’t afford it. There’s lots of money being made in the middle while many farmers are living below the poverty line.’

Through its Forgotten Fields history project the Kindling Trust has uncovered the parts of the city which were once dedicated to food growing, including a big piece of land in Ashton Moss that was a successful growing site until 15 years ago when it was bulldozed to create a – now unsuccessful – retail park.

While economic growth is valued more highly than healthy food supplies, local food will remain a marginal concern. But as our soil becomes ever more depleted the window of opportunity to fix our broken food systems and build sustainability into the supply chain is dwindling. The Kindling Trust has laid down the gauntlet and is challenging the industrial model of food. How many will take up the challenge?

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