Can a City Eat Sustainably?

Gwen Boyle
Wednesday, 2nd April 2014

In Cork, a new 'Feed the City' initiative is helping to change people's eating habits and opinions on food wastage, by giving out free curry.

On a bright, almost-summery March day in Cork, Ireland, a throng of people gather at a white tent in the shadow of the city library. Buoyed by the sunshine and the carnival atmosphere, people strike up friendly conversations in the queue while others mill around nearby stands.

They're queuing for a free bowl of vegetable curry - but this is neither a charitable food handout nor a marketing ploy for a local business. The curry is just one part of the newly-launched Cork Food Policy Council's Feed The City event: a day of talks, demonstrations, family activities and, yes, free food.

This curry is special. It's made from food that would probably have gone straight into landfill, or animal food at best - vegetables that are the wrong shape or size for supermarket shelves. Cork Food Policy Council are demonstrating that there is nothing wrong with the majority of food that is wasted daily, and plenty of people agree with them, if the crowds enjoying their curry on the river boardwalk are anything to go by.

Inside the tent, volunteers cheerfully ladle curry into recyclable bowls. Cooks in the tent behind, ferry food from a massive cooking pot that's been bubbling since early that morning. The pot is literally of biblical proportions: there's enough to feed 5,000 citizens of Cork, and it's all gone by the end of the day. The Lord Mayor of the city even takes her turn serving in the curry tent, before taking the podium to officially launch Cork Food Policy Council.

At 'Feed the City', there are stands selling seeds, demonstrating home composting and gardening, and handing out leaflets about a new food bank scheme and local community gardens. Free cookery demonstrations and talks throughout the day emphasise sustainability, healthy eating and reducing food waste in your home. There is a realistic, genuine and concerted effort to involve the ordinary citizens of this small city in thinking about and taking control of the food they buy, grow and eat.

Cork Food Policy Council's aims are ambitious, and reducing food waste is just one objective. Their vision is 'real food for all', which they intend to achieve by supporting policy changes, community food initiatives and partnerships that will improve access to good quality, nourishing food for every citizen of the city and surrounding areas. In the face of issues such as rising food prices, disconnection from local producers, and the availability of cheap, unhealthy food, the Council aims to achieve a "fairer, healthier, more secure and sustainable food system"  in a region that is renowned as the food capital of Ireland

Cork city has a population of 120,000, and the initiative aims to involve Cork county as well - a total population of almost 520,000. How can a project such as this reach out to and involve all the people of this region, from a variety of social backgrounds, occupations and economic circumstances? The key is in the Council's wide-ranging membership: it is a partnership that involves "representatives of the community, food retail, farming, fishing, restaurant/catering, education, environmental and health sectors and the local authority." 

By involving the consumers, buyers, sellers and producers of food, as well as policy-makers, campaigners and educators of the region, Cork Food Policy Council shows that the problems of food waste, unhealthy consumption and disconnection from food affect every person in the city and surrounding area. Their democratic approach is reflected in the nature of the Feed the City event, which took place in a public city centre space with no monetary barriers to the information and knowledge on offer.

Projects such as Cork Food Policy Council recognise that the economics of food production and consumption are linked to many facets of individual and community life. An initiative such as this aims to bring benefits to the community's health, resilience, access to good and affordable food, and food growing and cooking skills. By highlighting just one problematic element of our current food system (the enormous amount of food that is wasted on a daily basis), this type of project demonstrates that food is an issue that is entangled with many aspects of a community's economy, wellbeing and ability to withstand difficult circumstances.

The problem of food waste, in particular, is becoming more visible and is inspiring drives to get perfectly good wasted food to people who desperately need it. A shocking report from the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers, highlighted in the Guardian last year, concluded that almost half of the world's food is thrown away.

Projects aiming to reduce food waste are springing up around Ireland and the UK. In response to increased public knowledge about how much food ends up in rubbish dumps, UK non-profit franchise operations that aim to redistribute wasted food, such as Foodcycle and FareShare, are growing rapidly. In Ireland, Bia Foodbank, who were also represented at the Feed the City event, are working to redirect surplus food to those in need. The Irish Environmental Protection Agency is currently running a 'Stop Food Waste' campaign, which advises people how to avoid food waste at every step of buying, cooking and eating food.

However, food waste is just one aspect of a food production economy that often disconnects the consumer from the source of the food they buy and eat. An initiative such as Cork Food Policy Council works on a broader scale, aiming to get a whole city thinking about what goes in their shopping baskets and onto their dinner plates, where it comes from, whether it's good quality, and whether it's part of a sustainable system. As this remarkable project demonstrates, free curry is just the beginning! Sustainable eating involves shifts in policy and behaviour to benefit every person in a community, from small villages to entire cities. 

Gwen Boyle is a freelance writer, researcher and enthusiast of all things green from Cork, Ireland. She maintains a website with information about her work and interests.

Further resources

Food waste vs food scarcity in the UK 

Can we make our cities sustainable with permaculture? 

Food waste - you gotta be joking!

Why make food parks in urban spaces? 

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