Tastetastic North: Our food mandate vs the Real World

31st August 2012 by

Something every Otesha cycle tour team does at the outset of their tour is to agree its food mandate: what food we’ll buy with our shared budget and what our rotating cooking teams will prepare for the team.

It’s always an interesting discussion, but perhaps even more so on our first ever food-themed tours, because our teams had such a wealth of knowledge and experience on food sustainability.  We weren’t only trying to find common ground on people’s dietary needs and taste preferences, but also our various priorities around what makes a foodstuff sustainable or not. This is the story of Tastetastic North’s food mandate and how we managed – or failed – to abide by it.

Tastetastic North thrash out their food mandate

So here’s what we agreed on the day before we got in the saddle:

Food Mandate
(Northern Tour)

1. All grains are fine BUT prioritise buying local and organic over imported.
2. As varied as possible.
3. Go for local and organic when possible. Local over organic.
4. Packaging – Limit / avoid all plastics
5. Eggs – will use alternatives for binding. Eggs ok but separate them for those who want them
– only buy eggs when we are happy we have a close enough relationship to where they come from so we can be reasonably assured of welfare and sustainability (this could mean a farm shop or chatting to a local shopkeeper who knows the supplying farmer)
6. No meat or fish… except in waste food / donations, for those happy to eat it (but not cooking or preparing it with the group meal); no meat or fish bought from the group budget but ok from members’ personal budgets
7. Dairy – When donated, consumption is left to personal choice, as with meat or eggs; not bought with the group budget; goats’ milk / cheese treated like eggs
8. Honey – same as eggs
9. Avoid supermarkets where possible

So how did we do?

Well, we didn’t start too well, to be honest.  On our first (mammoth) cycle ride day, from Penicuik to Burntisland, the cycle team of Chloe, James and Gavin were still a good few miles from their destination, the hour was late and we had run out of trail mix (the amazing nuts and seeds concoctions that keep our legs turning on the road). We needed fuel for the miles ahead, so we headed for Inverkeithing’s Scot-Mid supermarket (a supermarket! failure number one) as it was the only shop open. This had no local fruit at all except Perthshire strawberries.  A success? Not quite – they were packaged in plastic and were “conventionally grown”, a weasly phrase that means agriculture using pesticides and oil-derived fertilisers (not at all ‘conventional’ in the history of agriculture). This felt pretty awful, but at this stage we had to prioritise the welfare of the cycling team arriving in one piece, so we bought them.  This was the first indication of the dilemmas and reality checks we’d be faced with pretty often.

Meanwhile, the day 1 cooking team – whose job it is to buy ingredients for dinner and the next day’s breakfast and lunch – were on the hunt for mandate-friendly food in Edinburgh, having been held up by 2 punctures, a broken spoke, an exploding lighter, a choking incident and a dog-chase. They weren’t quite prepared for the lack of local and organic food available from a health food shop and the local shops on Argyle Road. They had a lot of difficulty finding local produce that wasn’t plastic-packaged – and had to widen the definition of ‘local’ to mean ‘UK’. A lot of Scottish mushrooms were bought. Most of the UK-produced salad was packaged in plastic, so the team went for European-produced, unwrapped food. The most local dried good they could find was French cous cous.

Rolling in to Burntisland in Fife so late at night, the cooking team were on their last legs, so an emergency portion of chips saw them to bed and the ingredients went instead into a fantastic breakfast of garlic and parsley mushrooms the next day – our first sit-down meal together, tastebud-friendly if not mandate-friendly.

And, mandate-wise, things did start looking up in Burntisland.  Frank, one of the stalwarts working Broomhill Community Garden, presented us with an abundance of cabbage, potatoes and the biggest kohlrabi we’d ever seen – you can’t get more local or unpackaged than that.  Sarah Stuart, from the FairTrade ‘Food for Thought’ deli on the high street, also gave us some shortbread (made in Fife), tea and veggie burger mix that would be going out of date later in the month, which was incredibly kind of her – and made a little dent in our world’s huge food waste problem.

Broomhill Gardens

Food for Thought deli and cafe

In Burntisland we also enjoyed an amazing lunch of garlic soup and veggie burgers laid on by Lisa from the Fife Diet – almost entirely locally grown within Fife, and much of it plucked fresh from the ground.

Other fantastic gifts included food donations from Cheyne’s of Newburgh, who were big cycling fans and wouldn’t hear of taking our money (thank you!), the incredible Brian, whose Cupar house had a true garden of delights (peaches! justaberries! honey!) and some beautiful purple potatoes from the Busy Bees Nursery garden (thanks, Andrea). [And thanks to Sustainable Cupar for arranging that inspiring day.]

Moving on to the Pillars of Hercules organic farm in Falkland, also in Fife, we had the luxury of using the Pillars farm shop, so didn’t have to go far at all for our ingredients.  However, it’s not been a great harvest year in the UK due to the weather, so it was a bit disappointing to find a fairly large proportion of produce from overseas for sale.  It was, though, at least clearly labelled – and even on our till receipts items were marked ‘Food grown here’!  My cooking team, the Hitch Witches (“Turtle brain to banish rain! Porridge dregs to strengthen legs! Special pills to get up hills!  Cackle cackle…”) went even more local (and cheaper) by making a foraged salad of sorrel and linden leaves, with Pillars-grown cucumber and radish, to go with our spelt pancakes and beetroot’n’greens filling. Definitely a food mandate success.  On another day in Falkland we had even more fun foraging – following a path up to a local waterfall, we managed to fill a tupperware tub with wild raspberries – an amazing Scottish speciality.

Here are some other comments from the team on how they coped with the food mandate vs real world problem:

One of the most exciting discoveries we’ve made over the past week was a greengrocer in Cupar, Fife. This shop was ridiculously well-stocked with fresh produce from England and Scotland. It helpfully stated where each of the different vegetables and fruits had been grown, the country of origin being proudly declared on an almost equal footing with the name of produce.  This kind of labelling is difficult to find in supermarkets and my local grocer.

Despite (or because of?) the restrictions of the food mandate, we ate incredibly well – and healthily

 

Such variety of British veg meant that we were able to create two tasty main meals from the choice. My favourite purchases were purple cauliflowers and tasty butternut squashes. It was great to realise that UK produce can be so varied and delicious.

On the other hand…

One aspect of our food mandate that we have consistently failed on is plastic packaging. It is nigh on impossible to buy a varied selection for a healthy and nutritional diet without accumulating ridiculous levels of plastic. In addition to the presumption that every purchase in a shop warrants a fresh plastic bag, often fresh produce will come compartmentalised in order to make it easier to pick up, to keep it ‘clean’ and to ‘preserve freshness’.   I thought mainly buying local produce might eliminate such needs, but it would appear that patterns and habits are hard to break.

In order to avoid all plastics in your food shopping habits, you need to ensure that you prepare and plan, and have easy enough access to shops that cater for people who have that agenda (such as ‘Unpackaged’ in London).  Is this easy for most people?  Certainly not!  How are we to overcome our misuse of plastic?

Here are some other reflections from the team as our tour was coming to an end:

  • The first day was the most difficult. But we were very inspired by the Fife Diet’s 80-20 ambition [some members try to have 80% of what they eat grown in Fife and 20% from elsewhere, allowing you to keep your luxuries like coffee and chocolate]. It was realistic and doable. I think we did really well on the food mandate, but talking at schools brought home how we’re in a bit of a bubble, particularly seeing some of the school dinners’ veggie options.  I’d like to have had more practice communicating our food mandate to people, as I feel it was miscommunicated sometimes. In shops I felt were looked at as naive idealists sometimes.

One of the cooking teams at work – this is how we cooked most days on tour, Pachamama was our ktichen…

  • I felt shock at the realisation of how you can assume that because you’re in a local grocer’s that the food is local. You need to be vigilant, reading labels and being picky and aware.  And we were faced with the reality of the supermarkets and the minimal options some places have. But there was such excitement when we did find a great shop with great produce – it could be out there and it is possible.  And we found that once we explained what we were doing, people were excited and got behind it.

  • It was difficult to have to make a choice between organic vs local sometimes. In Cupar there was a great selection of UK produce but it wasn’t organic. In Pillars it was organic but often not from the UK. Our mandate chose to prioritise local over organic, but if we did it again I might prioritise differently – isn’t freighting food by road as intensive as shipping? And isn’t it good to support organic farming wherever it is in the world because it’s not industrial farming? I don’t have the answers but I want to explore it further.  My gut says to go with organic European over non-organic UK produce. But then there is the labelling issue: some small farmers just can’t afford organic certification.

  • I felt we slipped on the food mandate and our priorities were warped over time. For example, we went to Morrison’s in Falkirk! I think we thought about it less as time went on. But it was a very valuable experience for putting principles to the test. It was good practice for returning home and for life afterwards in your own local area. I liked that we had flexibility for individuals, and that it caused me to try different grains I wasn’t even aware of.

The luxury of cooking in an ACTUAL KITCHEN when we reached Edinburgh

  • We were forced to cut out what we might once have treated as ‘necessities’, such as ginger. It was easier to stick to the mandate knowing that it was only for three weeks, of course.

So were we just head-in-the-clouds idealists who hadn’t been living in the real world?  Well, yes and no.  The mandate really is an ideal-world guide to be met as closely as possible, but not intended to be a whip to beat yourself with when you fail (my defence on Morrison’s is that our local host assured us there was not a single local veg shop in Falkirk, it was getting late, we didn’t know what shops lay ahead and there would be nine very hungry to people to feed within a few hours…).

We live in a world, and within a perverse food system, where you can find your efforts to do good for people and planet are scuppered at every turn. Ever tried to buy organic Fairtrade bananas?  You’ll generally find them plastic-wrapped.  Or, as we found, you set out to support your local producer but find their goods are not organic – but the Spanish equivalent are. What to do? The problem is multiplied when you’re on the road. At home it’s possible to spend time sourcing the shops that come close to ticking all the boxes, or to get a veg box, but it takes time, research and often relationship-building.  As a troupe of cyclists passing through, this is much harder.

All in all, personally I’m really proud of what we achieved under really unusual circumstances.  And most importantly, our failures were tremendous learning opportunities – as were the conversations the mandate sparked along the way – both amongst ourselves and the people we met.  I think we’d all recommend trying to agree a food mandate for yourself, your family or your household – it really makes for mindful consumption, and will reveal things about our food system that will both disappoint and inspire.  Let us know how you get on.

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