In early June, I was lucky enough to curate the first of the V&A Connects with Fox & Squirrel series. My topic? Food and the City. Of course, we all know this is a vast subject. London and food, specifically, falls under a spectrum that ranges from the smallest cheese producers to the ubiquity mini-supermarket, so it was clear that this wasn’t going to be an easy discussion to focus down.
Initially, I thought about keeping it light. Perhaps I could have speakers come down and discuss how food is becoming the new ‘rock n roll’ and maybe we could have had a lengthy discussion about food trends: what was the latest, what was on its way out, and what was here to stay. And yet the more I thought about it, the more I realised how trivial these topics really were. As a food writer and thinker, I am far more interested in how we feed ourselves. In this global world we now live in, our attitudes towards food have greatly shifted. On one hand we have parts of the world that are starving, and on the other we have an epidemic of obesity, abundance by not wholly ethical means and subsequently, an overarching attitude of glaring wastefulness. The truth is, how the city interacts with food has direct repercussions on the rest of the country; and it is the city’s responsibility to change first so that the rest of the nation can follow. V&A Connects with Fox & Squirrel was an opportunity to finally ask the ignored question: “How does London feed itself?”
Three speakers came to tackle this topic head-on: Kate Hofman, co-founder of Grow Up; Fabio Diu, Slow Food Alumni and manager for Real Food Festival and Markets; and Tristram Stuart, founder of food waste campaign Feeding the 5000 and author of Waste and we at Fox & Squirrel were delighted that these three innovative thinkers and doers of the food industry would be speaking to a packed house. For Kate, Fabio and Tristram, food isn’t solely about trends or knowing the latest darling of the restaurant scene. It is about understanding how we interact with it on a daily basis and how our current behaviours are shaping not only our cities, but also our world.
Kate kicked off the talk, explaining how Grow Up specialises in growing local and sustainable food using a low impact technology called aquaponics. In simple terms, aquaponics is a recirculating system that combines Hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil) and Aquaculture (fish farming), creating a cyclical process of fertilising and filtering. Grow Up sees London as their farm, and shipping containers, greenhouses and abandoned spaces as their tools to grow food. Their aim is to re-think how urban centres can be used to grow food that can feed people in high-density areas, subsequently making pockets of the city less reliant on outside food sources and more self-sustained.
Real Food Festival uses weekly markets, annual food festivals and street food as a platform to promote foods that are ethical, sustainable and crucially, delicious. Fabio described how the market was an opportunity to re-educate people about locality, sustainability and seasonality. Real Food wants to aide the public with access to producers that share their ethics, which, in a society that is dominated by supermarket convenience, is not an easy goal, but an achievable one.
Tristram’s book, Waste, should be essential reading for everyone. The book confronts the controversial issue of food waste in the modern world. It is an eye-opening read and I found Tristram’s descriptions of the vast amounts of discarded yet perfectly edible food compelling and utterly shocking. What was clear from his engaging talk is that he is a tireless and passionate food waste campaigner. He and his organisation are demanding more transparency and understanding of how the supermarkets manage their stock levels and supply chains. Championing our ability to question how we, as a nation, treat food that is imperfect but edible, and giving practical instruction on ways to change our behaviour and understanding, his work is making grounds and slowly but surely is gaining impact.
Following the speakers, the floor was opened for the audience to ask questions. What started out as relaxed Q&A quickly escalated into a passionate debate, mostly around food wastage and sustainability, and one that lasted well past our expected finish time of 8pm. For me, what was most exciting was seeing how invested and considered the audience was about food. Questions about seasonality were posed: How are we to know when certain foods are in season or not? Discussions about food standards and understanding labelling were tabled. Markets, Supermarkets, and Urban Farming became intertwined as the speakers fielded questions. A notable question came from F&S Founder, Penelope, as to whether or not education was really where a change in societal thinking towards food would begin. The final question brought up the issue of Food as Fashion, with Fabio taking a stand in opposition to such food trends. Tristram, in a stirring point that closed the evening, stated quite rightly that if all fashion designers stopped working, few would notice. If all the farmers did, the entire world would.
And on that note, the evening ended. As a whole, I felt the talks and the lively discussion that followed were a great way to kick of the V&A Connects with Fox & Squirrel series. It was my first time hosting an event like that so nerves aside, I was incredibly pleased and looking forward to hopefully doing more with the V&A in the future.