I chose the lusty month of May to visit Great Britain and my first granddaughter, the 10-week old Zoe. Something of a life-long Anglophile, my daughter had married a fine young British gentleman, and together they’ve feathered a nest for themselves in a lovely little village not far from Oxford. Like most American visitors to England, she was smitten with the sheep dotted countryside whose rolling hills were elegantly threaded with centuries-old hedgerows. But as a practical woman contemplating motherhood she simply couldn’t resist the charms of Britain’s National Health Service. Not only was everything-natal ably provided absolutely free, my daughter and son-in-law were handed a check for 190 British pounds sterling upon leaving the hospital with their precious new bundle. This “bonus,” designed to cover any accessories from nappies to nursing bras, was soon followed by another 250 pounds from the British government to start little Zoe’s very own trust fund. As everyone knows, attending Oxford isn’t getting any cheaper.

I had predicted that being a doting grandpa would have its limits, so I decided to also use this trip to catch up on the British food system. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing more exciting than holding your grandchild in your arms for the first time, it’s just that I knew that the UK’s local food movement had advanced considerably beyond fish ‘n chips, and I needed a fresh look. So wrangling invitations to speak to groups in Oxford, Cardiff, and London, I carved out a few days in between diaper changing to catch a glimpse of their progress.

Wow – Oxford!

Amidst the most ancient of scholastic buildings and Oxford’s venerable grounds, I spoke to 60 local foodies in the equally sainted Vault and Garden Café (local, organic, and the site of Oxfam’s founding). A range of community food activists, farmers, gardeners, and whip-smart college students, loosely led by the wife-husband team of Ruth West and Colin Trudge, are trying to form a local food hub. To my surprise, the occasion of my speaking also turned out to be the initial meeting of this group.

Their food system challenges and opportunities are not unlike those in U.S. communities: interest in local food is zooming, farmers’ markets (UK’s first wasn’t opened until 1998), “box schemes” (similar to CSAs) are exploding, and institutional demand for healthy food (schools a la Jamie Oliver) is strong. The supply and distribution networks, however, aren’t up to snuff. A food hub that aggregates supply and facilitates distribution may be just the ticket.

But social justice concerns were also on the table. While Oxford’s pub life may be vigorous, the city also has food deserts, and participation at farmers’ markets by the area’s lower income families is weak. Long waiting lists for allotments (community garden plots) mean that it could be years, if ever, before some people would have access to land. At another level, farmers voiced concern about European Union rules that placed limits on their ability to grow a wider variety of crops. And in what might be the greatest affront to British pride, I learned that over 30 percent of the grass that is used to make England’s iconic thatched roofs comes from China!

Pounding my usual drum for a more focused form of public food policy, I offered community food stories and ideas from the States. The most appealing ones seemed to be incentive-style programs like farmers’ market coupons and even electronic systems (EBT) like those that allow food stamp recipients to use their benefits at farmers’ markets. The coupon idea was endorsed by everyone, but since Britain doesn’t have the mish mash of USDA-type nutrition assistance programs like food stamps, choosing to opt for a more rational and comprehensive approach to social welfare, EBT wasn’t an option.

The concept of food policy councils also resonated with the Oxford-istas. While several large cities like London and Brighton have developed local food strategies – strong and detailed statements about promoting a healthy food system for all – they rarely have citizen groups that are empowered to advocate for the strategies.  Our local and state food policy councils offered them a positive model for putting good policies into practice.

In less than 5 minutes the assembled crowd created a 12-point action plan (e.g. more allotments, research into coupon schemes, work on an aggregation strategy), three or four Oxford students volunteered their services, and a date for a next meeting was set. Local cheeses, beer, and accented chatter followed well into the evening. Things seem to be off to a good start in Oxford.

London Swings

Arriving in London in the aftermath of the national election, my wife and I carefully picked our way through the miles of TV cable and comely news anchors that surrounded the Houses of Parliament. Knowing that the Tories, Labor, and Liberal Democrats were trying to cobble together a new government only blocks away was nearly as exciting as watching the 2000 Florida recount. Regardless of your politics, the British process was entirely more satisfying.

I gave a talk to the London-based new economics foundation a day after the formation of the Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition. As a self-styled alternative think-tank that draws on the teachings of E.F. Schumacher, nef (it prefers the lower-case acronym, perhaps in deference to the notion that small is beautiful) puts forward a number of envelope pushing proposals such as one that advocates for a 21-hour work week (I don’t think I could get use to it).

While the conversation with the audience led to similar comparisons between the British and U.S food systems, I was most intrigued by two women in the group who were community activists. Susan Steed works in Brixton, a hardscrabble working class section of London where she oversees the Brixton Pound project. Like our local currency projects in such places as Ithaca and the Berkshires that value local goods and services for barter and exchange purposes, the Brixton Pound supports local businesses, community connections, and a smaller carbon footprint. Unlike these rarefied U.S. communities, Brixton is a rough and tumble place with a reputation for sticking it to the man on occasion (think “The Guns of Brixton” by the Clash). The image on the Brixton Pound, set against a decidedly inner-city landscape, is of a bull-horn toting young black man rousting the community to action. Contrast this with the image on “Berkshares” – a 19th century bearded white man set against the gentle splendor of the Berkshire Mountains. Call it Brit Grit versus Mass Mellow.

The other woman was artist and bon vivant Clare Patey who’s made a name for herself as the creator of “Feast on the Bridge” which for the past three Septembers has turned the Thames Southwark Bridge into the site of Britain’s premiere food celebration. She showed me photos of the entire span, closed to traffic, and covered from end to end with white linen clothed tables and thousands of chairs. The food served by the country’s best chefs is the feature event, of course, but it’s nearly upstaged by thousands of children who parade across the bridge in beautiful and silly food costumes while showing off their own splendid forms of food art. You can bob for apples, stomp grapes, partake in the Sacred Mayonnaise Ritual (you gotta be British to get it), and help create a 20-feet long cake (also known as the Beast of the Bridge). This is a communal harvest supper of the highest order that draws 30,000 people and turns the nation’s spotlight on its best sustainable producers.

While in London, I noticed that like other nations, the British girth is expanding. Though the svelte, pin-striped suit crowd of London’s professional classes is as slim as ever, portly men and women, especially those whose attire identifies them as trade and service workers were the norm. But still, the Brits are going to have to consume a lot of chips smothered in gravy to catch up to America. During our tour of the Tower of London, my wife and I played a little game called “Spot the American.” While mingling on the grounds with hundreds of other tourists, we would sidle up to the most overweight people in sight and listen in on their conversation. Sure enough, the accents of nine out of ten of the beefiest (not to be confused with Beefeaters) gave themselves away as Yanks. My joy in being so clever was soon eclipsed by the depressing realization of what we Americans look like when placed along side the rest of the world.

Wales Awash in Innovation

As cosmopolitan and stimulating as London and Oxford were, Cardiff, the capitol of Wales, personified for me the progress that the British food system had made. Known as the place that fueled the industrial revolution, Cardiff was the port city that shipped the Welsh coal that stoked England’s factories. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, the coalfields are dead (and the communities that depended on them for their economic life are mired in poverty), but Cardiff reinvented itself as both the heart of Welsh culture – including its unpronounceable language – and its own form of new Euro-urbanism. Cardiff hustles with ancient castles and edgy modern architecture, a refurbished waterfront, a world class university, and streets alive with the sounds of 30 foreign languages.

I had the distinct privilege of spending the day with two fine Cardiff-men, Steven Garrett and Professor Kevin Morgan, both of whom stand tall in the growing world of Welsh food consciousness. Garrett – long-haired, black-bereted, and a self-described “child of the sixties” – is one of those special cats who can get away with starting trouble because he has so much charm and integrity.  He runs the Riverside Community Market Association which is responsible for operating several farmers’ markets, developing urban gardens including a brand new 10-acre city youth farm, and generally agitating for a healthy and sustainable Cardiff food system.

Just to show us the dark side of British cuisine Steven took us to the old Cardiff Market (Marchand Caerdydd) for lunch. The market hall dates back to the 19th century, and based on what I observed of its vendor mix, has seen better days. It was filled with knick knack shops and eateries whose menus alone will clog your arteries, and there was hardly a green vegetable in sight. But just to tweak our delicate foodie sensibilities, Steven guided us through a lunchtime order that included faggots (meatballs) and peas, Clark’s pie (a gooey meat concoction wrapped in barely cooked dough), and chips (nothing else!) smothered in gravy.

Noting our lack of gustatory enthusiasm, Steven proceeded to tell us that the city had given him permission to locate one of his farmers’ market on the public market’s main street which will then be closed permanently to traffic. This will raise the profile of local food even more and give shoppers access to some top-notch produce. When I asked Steven what he thought was behind the dramatic uptick in local food interest he noted that the mad cow disease outbreak of several years ago had wilted the stiff upper lip of most Englishpersons. “We had to pay attention to local food in ways that we hadn’t since World War Two. Food insecurity was no longer a distant memory,” he said. Later, Steven noted that a BBC series called Future of Food, the Jamie Oliver craze, and recent screenings of Food, Inc had all contributed to the interest in healthy food grown in the British Isles. “Food is the new sex,” is the way Steven put it, which in his opinion was less a commentary on the state of British sex lives as it was a statement on the depths to which the nation’s food scene had previously sunk.

His court jester persona aside, Steven is a thoughtful and committed person who resides in one of Cardiff’s lower income immigrant neighborhoods (based on his own independent assessment, he’s the only white guy who lives there). He’s working on all manner of local food projects – he waxed enthusiastic about the poly-tunnels they were installing on their new urban farm, and was proud of the one staff person he had doing cooking classes – but he’s looking for ways to take all this work to a higher level. Like the folks in Oxford, Steven noted that it’s hard to attract low-income people to the farmers’ markets (he loved the Farmers Market Nutrition Program idea), and while the City of Cardiff has a food strategy on the books, there’s no one advocating for it (he immediately latched on to the food policy council idea). He’s proud to have played a part in a unique Welsh initiative that developed as many as 200 food coops in some of the poorest areas of Wales where economic opportunity is weak and healthy food options are nearly non-existent. This initiative saw the Welsh government fund four rural development staff (much like our cooperative extension agents) who organized these independent, community-based buying units.

What’s next for Steven? He was just accepted into a PhD program at the University of Cardiff and according to one reliable source, he’s on the short-list to be named “Welsh Man of the Year.”

After speaking to a University audience that evening, my wife and I got a chance to spend some time with Kevin Morgan, a gregarious Welshman whose deep, resonant voice sounds like its about to break into a Dylan Thomas poem. He is Professor of Governance and Development in the School of City and Regional Planning at Cardiff, and with his co-author, Roberta Sonnino, wrote The School Food Revolution. Over the best lamb shank dish I’ve ever eaten (related no doubt to those fleeced darlings I saw leaping gaily across Welsh hillsides), I asked him about the book’s central theme: using the purchasing power of government – the “power of the public plate” as Kevin calls it – to leverage a wide range of economic, social, and environmental benefits.

Kevin’s academic sheen does little to conceal the fact that he’s the son of a coal miner and grew up in Welsh valleys that were in their economic death throes. Like many people of his generation, Kevin is not shy about expressing his disdain for the laissez-faire market policies of conservative economic theorists and politicians. He feels passionately that government must intervene aggressively when the market place fails, which it most certainly did in the valleys of his youth. Hence, why not use the power of the public purse to stimulate economic growth, healthy eating, and lower carbon emissions?  As he says in his book which argues for the re-localization of the food chain, “the power of purchase is one of the most influential means through which the state can effect behavioral change in economy and society…The story of public procurement [however] is largely a tale of untapped potential.”

Kevin told me about school district in places like Carmarthenshire (south Wales), East Ayrshire (Scotland), and Gloucestershire (England) where purchasing officials decided to wring as much good as they could out of every public pound. What distinguishes these strategies from say the rapidly expanding farm-to-school movement in the U.S. is that it doesn’t just focus on getting more locally produced food into the school cafeterias; it asks, and in many cases demands, that the food be produced sustainably if not organically, that fair wages be paid to everyone in the food chain, that packaging be reduced and recycling promoted, that job training programs are available to unskilled and disadvantaged people, and that the distance between the source and the user be shortened as much as possible.

In his East Ayrshire example, Kevin notes that school lunches must not only meet nutritional standards but that 75 percent of the food must be from unprocessed food, 50 percent must be locally sourced, and 30 percent should be from organic ingredients. The school district awards bonus points to those bidders with shorter delivery distances, higher use of traditional, seasonal and Fair Trade food, training opportunities for staff, contribution to biodiversity, and use of composting. In this district of 120,000 people, food miles were reduced from 330 miles, on average, to 99 miles, and the economic multiplier effect contributed an additional $260,000 to the local economy.  And, oh yes, student satisfaction with the meals was significantly higher when compared to the previous regime.

We would have preferred to tarry a bit longer in Cardiff, but I had to hold little Zoe one more time before our mad dash to Heathrow airport (two days after we left, the Icelandic ash cloud grounded the airport’s flights). At least I know that my granddaughter’s food future is relatively bright, especially if people like the ones I met in Oxford, London, and Cardiff continue along the dynamic path they have set for themselves. And perhaps a little cross-fertilization across the Pond will help as well.