A guest blog from Anna Cura, formerly Lead Systems Strategist at Food Ethics Council, now Senior Food & Health Researcher at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. While at the Food Ethics Council, Anna was heavily involved in our work in this area, which culminated in the publication of our report on Building Community Food Resilience.
A friendly face, a warm fire and a cup of tea. Simple pleasures in life that bring comfort, trust and joy, that make us feel connected, that make us feel welcome.
And yet in a world that is becoming increasingly disconnected even as the digital age supposedly brings us closer together, it is a privilege to find those pockets of true belonging. The invisible yet fundamental social web that shapes our lives, that makes us feel whole, that gives us purpose, has slowly been crumbling. But there is hope.
We intuitively know that human connection, and connection with Nature, bring us an infinite source of joy, ideas, energy, motivation, inspiration, action. We have tasted the bitterness of isolation more than ever in recent months, and with it, our determination to retain and revive our connection to one another and our planet have flourished.
Why is this important?
It is no longer possible to ignore the huge socio-environmental challenges that lie ahead. If we are to meet these challenges with a fighting chance, we need to strengthen our innate capacity to survive, rebuild and flourish in the face of shocks.
Over the past 2 years, I have seen how this capacity was called upon in the face of hunger and hardship. Food is central to our lives and through it we can find our way back to one another. Whether a community was able to respond quickly and efficiently to the food crisis was dependent on multiple factors, including how well-established local networks were and how much agency people had to take charge. Resilience, a word that means many things to many people, must include our collective social and emotional capacities too. Physical and economic resources are important, but our capacity to trust, to feel we belong, to share with one another, is what holds a community together around those resources.
How can we intentionally design a society that encourages this connectivity and capacity to adapt at its core? What would this resulting framework look like? And how would this approach help us create a world that is good for people, animals, and the planet?
These are some of the questions many of us are already asking (and finding answers to).
While still working at the Food Ethics Council, I explored what the key ingredients needed to build this framework. I looked at how treating people as citizens rather than consumers can create change at the individual level, through food citizenship. I understood very early on that the environment in which people find themselves has tremendous impact on whether they can connect and feel empowered to create positive change. Subsequently, the work with community food organisations is showing me just how important the social spaces these organisations create are to building resilience, and how their role already goes beyond food charity, into rebuilding the social networks so foundational to our wellbeing. And finally, I learned what those shifting roles can look like within the food business world, from simply donating food to reinvesting in this social web that shapes our capacity to transition to a fairer world.
And I am not alone exploring this new world. New Local challenges the role of the public sector in supporting local communities through their Community Paradigm. Participatory City is co-designing social infrastructures that enhance a community’s ability to connect and for people to participate in shaping it. Nudge Community Builders have tried and tested practical ways to invest in the social capital of a community through spaces on the high street. Food Works redefines who is a food producer by calling all growers in Sheffield to come together and provide food for the community. The Larder finds opportunities to boost the local economy by inviting local producers to be part of the local solution to food demands.
Having moved to the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission last autumn, I am even further exposed to the incredible role growing spaces play in connecting and empowering local communities. CoFarm shows us how to co-design spaces with their community-led farm in Cambridge, while Woodoaks Farm is piloting how to stack enterprises on one farm to create more diverse food and livelihoods for the community.
These are just a few of thousands of local initiatives creating a new world. What is emerging from all these are the building blocks of a Community Hearth: A network of resilient places that allows a community of food citizens to identify, connect with, utilise and enhance their local resources.
How do we strengthen these initiatives and enable them to happen more frequently? How can we reach the tipping point needed for them to become the norm? How do we build this Community Hearth where individuals within local communities feel connected and empowered to shape a world fairer to animals, people and planet?
It begins with redefining what each of our role in society is, from consumers to citizens, from service providers to community catalyst, from command-and-control approaches to platforming wellbeing.
It then looks at how we support one another: empowered and interconnected individuals within local communities being supported by their local community (food) organisation, who are in turn supported by a network of social enterprises and local business, which are in turn supported by local authorities that are given freedom to adapt to local context by central government.
The work has begun. Watch this space!
 Food Farming and Countryside Commission. Food Builds Community: From Crisis to Transformation; 2021. https://ffcc.co.uk/library/foodbuildscommunity