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20 Years of Food for Life: Early Years Awards

Chloe Smee, Senior Programme Manager, has a background in local government sustainability and first became involved in Food for Life as a Local Programme Manager in York. After that contract finished, she couldn’t shake the feeling of how essential and important Food for Life’s mission is, with an evidence-based programme which prioritises children as experts in what they want and need. Seven years later, Chloe leads on Food for Life’s work across local authorities and within early years settings. Below, find out more about how things have changed over those years.

Why is Food for Life’s mission so important?

What’s really unique to Food for Life is the citizenship, and making sure that across all our work everyone is an active participant in the food system. Even with our Early Years programme, tiny children are active participants. They’re not just consumers of the food marketed to them, they have a good grounding in what food is and why that matters so they can make informed decisions when feeding themselves, their families and their communities.

What was Food for Life like when you started?

We’ve been victims of our success in that we were so innovative when we first started – designed by a dinner lady, giving voice to people who were usually hidden from the food system – and we’ve really convinced people of the voices which need to be heard. Lots of voices have sprung up since, so it feels like a much more crowded space.

Do you have a Food for Life memory you’re particularly fond of?

I was working with Clifton Green Primary School in York who were serving very diverse communities, including children who weren’t guaranteed a good meal at home, but the school were convinced food was a vehicle for change. We led our first school farmers market there. Initially, there was a lot of resistance from leadership that it was a middle-class idea and wasn’t right for their audience, but we worked closely with local suppliers to ensure the price point was right and that what was on sale would be things the community really wanted. We had a local baker, butchers, and vegetable grower, as well as things on sale that the children had made. The farmers market was completely rammed, and everything sold out in twenty minutes! The art of the possible is key to Food for Life, and the market meant children were able to take home healthy food to their families which was also healthy for the local economy and the planet. The children felt really proud – it was a real moment where dots joined up and ideas came together.

The school went on to achieve their Food for Life Gold Award, showcasing how food is a vehicle for change, celebration, and community.

How do you feel about the food landscape then vs now?

I’m more excited and optimistic about the local work happening around food system, such as the number of Sustainable Food Places, nurseries, schools and community groups across the country working to better the food system. The policy environment still feels challenging, which can still change, and we have allies advocating for change in that space, but it is hard. We’re succeeding despite of it, not because of it.

What work is left to do?

Over the next three years, we need to see a shift around nurseries and early years provision. We need to make sure that, through the government’s new universal childcare provision, early years practitioners and cooks are supported to provide healthy and sustainable food. Children and parents should learn what good food is alongside their nurseries. It’s a universal way of building food citizenship from that first point children come into the world. That for me is top priority.

Why should people join the good food movement?

I’ve always felt that food connects people like nothing else does. It’s immediate, it’s right there in front of you three times a day and that act of eating can build community, support people’s health and the planet or detract from those things. For me, Pam Warhurst of Incredible Edible said it best: “if you eat, you’re in.” It’s so inclusive, everyone’s involved whether they want to be or not.

I could get so inspired and emotional thinking about all the incredible food leaders I’ve worked with. Both the passionate and hard-working people employed by Food for Life, and those food leaders we work with in the community like cooks, children, and teachers who are really going the extra mile to create positive food cultures in the places they learn and work.

Where would you like to see Food for Life in the next 20 years?

I would love to see us designing a wider portfolio of products and services for people and settings from all backgrounds to benefit from. I’d also love for us to find more routes to tangibly shift food supply chains, and to connect more local producers with children and settings. Really nice things happen when you do that, and it has a tangible knock-on effect on the supply chain when local producers are selling to schools and closing the loop on local food economies.