Citizen Andrea Bampton reflects on her experience of the National Conversation About Food.
25th September 2023
The National Conversation About Food is the UK’s biggest ever discussion about food, bringing together people from across the country to ask, what do we really want from food?
In summer 2023, citizens from Birmingham and Cambridgeshire came together to look at the science of what we eat and how we eat it, as well as some of the major challenges within food – from the influence of big corporations to the impact of food on the environment. They also considered some of the policies proposed over the years that could tackle these challenges.
They came from all walks of life, representing the diversity of the nation’s population, and offered many important perspectives on food. The conversation continues into 2024, with citizens from across all four UK nations.
We caught up with National Conversation participant Andrea Bampton about her experience of the process, the role food plays in her life, and the changes she’d like to see when it comes to food.
Andrea and another National Conversation participant writing their postcard to the future.
Andrea is a mum of three and has always been interested in food. She’s also in the process of relocating from Cambridge to Yorkshire to move into farming with her husband. “I wanted to get involved because food is something I’m fairly passionate about. It’s how we come together as a family, and how we spend time together, and we also have connections to farming through my husband’s family.”
Was there anything she found particularly surprising throughout the process? “Yeah, there were quite a few things that surprised me. Because we’ve got connections in farming, I thought I knew quite a bit about food – but halfway through the process I thought, I really don’t know much at all!”
Andrea was particularly struck by how cross-cutting food is when it comes to policymaking. “I had never thought about it from a decision-making perspective, like how many government departments are involved in making decisions about food. It had never crossed my mind.”
Research shows food policy in England involves 16 different government departments, but that much of this policymaking is disconnected and made in silos – which could explain some of the gaps in food policy that cause harm to our health and the environment, that Andrea was most surprised by.
“I was very surprised by some of the trade stats around, for example, how much fish we export and import, and how industrial chicken farming is polluting our rivers. And then, of course, ultra-processed food was a big one. I initially thought that we didn’t eat many processed foods, but you start looking at the labels of everyday food products and it’s shocking. It’s a real minefield.”
Andrea was shocked at how many everyday food products fall into the category of ultra-processed.
During this first phase of the National Conversation About Food , citizens deliberated over a number of evidence-based policy solutions from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the National Food Strategy and other organisations working in this area.
So, what does Andrea think needs to happen to build a better food system? “The right kind of food has to be more affordable. My son used to tell me that at school, a slice of pizza was 50p and a piece of fruit was £1.00. That’s just upside down, isn’t it?”
While Andrea and her family usually eat healthy meals cooked from scratch, she understands the pressure that cost can put on diet. “There have been short periods when things were a bit tight, and it affected what we ate – I would look at what we had in the freezer, rather than go out and buy fresh food.”
Affordability of healthy food is a huge issue, especially in the current cost-of-living crisis. The Food Foundation’s 2023 Broken Plate report found that healthier foods are over twice as expensive per calorie as less healthy foods – and that a low-income family would have to spend 50% of their disposable income on groceries to eat the Government’s recommended diet.
For everyone to have access to healthy, sustainable food, Andrea thinks action needs to come from a number of different areas. “Change has to start with government. Not only government, but they’re certainly at the top of the list. And then I think the supermarkets and the big food companies have a big part to play, because they’re the ones that are making profit from the system.”
“During one of the sessions, we were shown who profits from a food item – in this case cheese. And the retailer was making all the profit, and the farmer got crumbs. It was shocking to see how the profit was divided up.”
Andrea is referring to research published by Sustain last year which found that, after the intermediaries and retailers take their cut, farmers are sometimes left with far less that 1% of the profit.
“It seems fair that those who are profiting the most from food should take responsibility for the changes that need to happen. But then again, if big companies make those changes, they might not make as much profit. It all comes back to money.”
Andrea thinks education has a role to play, too. “Education is also important. We need everyone, from people to farmers to supermarkets, to change their habits and behaviours. And for people to make informed decisions around health and sustainability, there needs to be more transparency from business – especially on things like labels.”
As a soon-to-be-farmer, she was also particularly interested in some of the regenerative solutions proposed for farming. “I was really drawn to the idea of agroforestry, but that isn’t going to happen overnight. So there needs to be more government funding to reward farmers for doing the right thing and discourage them from doing the wrong thing.”
Through deliberative discussions, citizens created a manifesto for the future of food in groups.
Was there agreement in the room between the citizens involved? “At the start, people definitely had different opinions, but once you start talking it over, you realise that there are lots of similarities and crossovers. And by the end, we found several solutions that everyone was happy with. It was all about teamwork really, and listening to what other people had to say.”
As Andrea says, “it’s a very, very complex system,” and real change will involve multiple actions from individuals, businesses and policymakers alike – there’s no silver bullet. But she is hopeful that we can make the changes we need to protect our environment and people’s health.
What gives her hope for the future? “The next generation. My son wants to become a farmer, and he wants to do things differently. And that gives me hope.”