Brighton: How Britain’s most sustainable city for food is setting a thriving example for the rest of us

Exclusive: Brighton has won the first gold Sustainable Food City award – with its pay-as-you-feel cafes, cooking classes for teenagers and a zero-waste community pub on a working-class estate

Emily Clark
Sunday 29 November 2020 12:51
A stall offering pay-as-you-feel rescued pumpkin soup in Brighton
A stall offering pay-as-you-feel rescued pumpkin soup in Brighton

The key to being a sustainable city for food can be summed up with a tray of roasted butternut squash.

This particular squash was saved from a supermarket bin, then prepared by teenagers from a working-class estate during a six-week cooking course.

They were persuaded to join by the chef, who works at their school, and is using a community pub kitchen. The school flagged up which pupils would benefit most. The teenagers, who walked in head down and making no eye contact, were suddenly brandishing their roasted squash to anyone and everyone in the pub cafe, thrilled at seeing what they had achieved.

That night, they fed their surprised families a nutritious, zero-waste dinner at the Bevy pub in east Brighton.

This example is one of many hundreds in Brighton that demonstrates its inclusive web of food groups and projects, and the philosophy that change is achieved through positivity and encouragement – not finger wagging.

Thanks to this web, Brighton has now been named the UK’s capital of food sustainability, winning the first Gold Sustainable Food City award.

There are other reasons for the award. Brighton was the first to adopt a city-wide food strategy and the first to building food growing spaces into new housing developments.

It was also first to require the council to commit to a food sourcing policy that sees schools and care homes buying in sustainable, local, fresh produce. The policy involves the living wage, a ban on single-use plastics, and a focus on local suppliers.

Durham, Middlesbrough, Cardiff and Bristol are just some of the cities that now have similar policies.

A pre-Covid community lunch in Brighton. The city thrives on high levels of volunteering

Other eco-minded cities have similar food webs too. In Brighton, it’s called the Food Partnership. It was set up in 2003 and links up groups in sometimes unexpected ways, tailoring people and projects to exactly what locals like, need and want.

For example, the Real Junk Food Project, which operates around the country, runs a pay-as-you-feel cafe that pops up regularly in three Brighton sites. It has partnered up with a table tennis club – because that’s what works in Brighton.

“That’s the beauty of the approach that Brighton has taken, and the Food Partnership has taken,” says Iain Chambers, who runs the Bevy pub, where the teenagers roasted their squash.

“It’s that you work with as many organisations as possible, and you go up into the community, so that you can work closely with people that can handle the small things that really make a difference to your wellbeing.”

51 per cent of adults in the city volunteer at least once a year, giving 4.5 million hours

He says this network of contacts also meant that when Covid landed, the pub already knew exactly who was in need of a hot shepherd’s pie, and exactly how they liked it.

“It may well be that not only do you get a shepherd’s pie, but we know already that you’re a vegetarian, if you’re gluten free, or like more gravy – because we already knew those things,” Iain says.

“That’s the unique thing, that not only something like the Bevy can do, but any community neighbourhood organisation. They can handle the complexity and the nuance and the friendliness of providing that meal as well as looking after someone’s nutrition and keeping an eye on them. That personalised complexity can never really be done even by a local council and certainly not by government.”

Roof allotments like these at One Brighton apartments were included in housing development plans

The Bevy, the UK’s only zero-waste pub on a community estate, complete with kitchen garden, was running its meals on wheels service just three days after it was first forced to shut. It is still sending out 100 meals a week.

It also used its existing connection with schools to deliver food to families with children on free school meals, sometimes cooking and delivering 40 chilled and frozen meals per household.

And while saving supermarket waste is laudable, Iain is helping community food shops that are being set up by locals – which is happening across the country in response to Covid – to find local growers.

He says community shops then don’t have to rely on wholesalers, which are more expensive. This allows the shops to survive in the cut-throat world of supermarkets, which are known to squeeze producers on price.

And when local growers get paid, more money stays in the local economy, instead of slipping into supermarket profits.

So we’re beginning to see why Brighton is doing so well. All this community spirit thrives on a high level of volunteering – 51 per cent of adults in the city volunteer at least once a year, giving 4.5 million hours.

 Restaurant and cafe closures pushed shoppers into the arms of the supermarkets, damaging the prospects for catering producers, whose food was literally poured down the drain

School schemes also mean it has a lower level of childhood obesity than the national average and the Food Partnership’s food poverty action plan from 2015-18 means it has been putting low-income families front and centre for years.

The man behind the Sustainable Food Places programme, which is run by charities including the Soil Association, is Tom Andrews. He wants the government to pay attention to Brighton in its National Food Strategy, part two of which is coming out next year.

“As well as national food policy and strategy, it’s really important there is support for local action around this agenda,” Tom says. “If you really want to see the changes in the national food system and national food culture they’re pushing for, then the role of food partnerships like Brighton’s and the role of cities and other local authority areas are absolutely vital.”

Volunteers at the Bevy pub take a delivery of surplus veg for their meals on wheels service

He says Brighton is setting the bar for the rest of the world, pointing to the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact of 2015, with hundreds of signatories from cities all over the world in support of local action.

The king of food policy, Professor Tim Lang, has championed the local angle too. When lockdown began, he told The Guardian: “The British state is failing us by not decentralising.”

He later explained that all the cafes and restaurants should have been allowed to play their part as “centres for community feeding” (just like the Bevy did). “By closing down the entire sector, however, the government sidelined and dispersed catering’s massive pool of skills, facilities and local presence,” he said.

Instead, the closures pushed shoppers into the arms of the supermarkets, damaging the prospects for catering producers, whose food was literally poured down the drain.

Which all goes to say, the government should understand the complexity and importance of a tray of roast butternut squash, or indeed, a shepherd’s pie, served up at a pub in east Brighton.

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