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20 Years of Food for Life: Networks and Partnerships

As part of our 20th year anniversary celebrations, we’ve been taking the time to speak to key members of the team about the many areas of programmatic work that Food for Life covers. In this interview we sit down with Ruth Galpine, our inspirational Associate Director of Healthy and Sustainable Diets, to talk all things Food for Life and to delve a bit deeper into the many networks and partnerships that connect the ever-growing Food for Life vision.

What was Food for Life like when you started?

When I joined the communications team in 2019, we had just launched Food for Life Get Togethers which was our new programme all about bringing people together to share and enjoy good food. It was originally intended to bring different generations together and bridge some of the generational divides we see in society, helping to alleviate isolation and loneliness within communities. Covid changed all that, with in-person events no longer possible, and older and more vulnerable people in particular shielding for prolonged periods of time. The team had to quickly adapt to reflect the new normal, whilst simultaneously meeting an even greater need for connections within communities.

What is it like now?

It’s now safe to go back into schools and community spaces, but the cost-of-living crisis is hitting everyone very hard. Food inflation is putting huge pressure on household food budgets and it’s often food that is ultra-processed food which is the most discounted and readily available. Caterers that we work with are struggling to make the school meals budget stretch even further whilst maintaining the highest standards of quality to give our children the best food possible. It’s really tough right now.

What work is left to do?

We need food to be recognised for the vital role it plays, both in terms of nutrition and health, but also environmentally and socially. We need Government support to make healthy and sustainable food more affordable, available and accessible to everyone. We need the school meals service to be properly funded, and for free school meals to be available to everyone, and we need Government support to stem the tide of ultra processed food. We have the worst record in Europe for ultra-processed food in our diets. We can do better than this!

Where does Food for Life’s work fit in with networks and partnerships?

Food for Life’s mission is broad but also really straight forward. It’s about Food for Life – food that’s good for you, good for our health, and good for our planet and all living things on it. It’s also about establishing good food habits, behaviours and preferences that will last a lifetime and give somebody a healthy relationship with food, for life. Its mission is for everybody, no matter who they are, their background, their income or location, to have access to healthy and sustainable food.

Networks and partnerships are a big part of how Soil Association works, where we’ve recognised the crucial role we can play. We know that there are local food partnerships up and down the country doing amazing, pioneering, and innovative things on the ground, working with local growers, farmers, communities, businesses, and local authorities to change their food system at a local level, but so often they’re doing it on their own. The role of Sustainable Food Places is to connect these partnerships and join the dots, acting as a sort of facilitator: sharing best practice, offering support, and enabling local food system change to be greater than the sum of its parts. Together we can be a national voice to policy makers and get the story of what is working at a local level up on the national policy agenda. We provide a lot of value by connecting and amplifying the people already doing brilliant work on the ground, and it’s something we want to do more of.

How can we connect the work that Food for Life does with the work of SFP?  

Within each of these Sustainable Food Places – 94 local partnerships are now members – schools and caterers play a vital role. They’re a crucial part of the local food system. There’s an opportunity for us to facilitate those connections and create opportunities to join up.

What does place-based work mean and why is it so powerful / what is the potential?

Place-based means that it’s happening at a local level. There are different definitions of place: community, town, city, county. The place itself could be applied to different scales, but essentially it means at a local level, involving things that are specific to that area like the people who work there and the businesses operating there.

It’s powerful because we’re all pretty disappointed with our national governments, particularly in England, and there’s been real recognition at a local level that we’re not going to get what we need from them. We’re waiting for additional funding for school meals and environmental pledges, and there’s been a constant set of disappointments from national government, so we’re taking it back into our own sphere of control from the ground up. Changemakers are on the ground and making it happen, amazing people who see there’s a problem and say: ‘I’m going to do something about it.’ Things like Sustainable Food Places link this movement of local activism and amass evidence to take to policy makers as a blueprint. We don’t need to come up with something new, we have the answers – now we just need the support.

How does Sustainable Food Places link to the broader Food for Life mission?

Our broadest mission is healthy and sustainable diets for everyone. If you’re able to establish healthy eating habits from a young age, it sets children up for life. Childrens’ food is a part of Sustainable Food Places but is not the sole focus – it looks at good food for everybody.

Sustainable Food Places speaks really well to our broader mission as it looks at all aspects of the food system: producers, growers, farmers and citizens. It cuts through all levels of the local area food system; we try to look at things as a whole, as in our whole setting approach for schools and early years settings. It’s a full 360° holistic approach at a place-based level.

Find out more about our work with networks, partnerships and communities.