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Feature - issue #3

Rethinking Food Provision

Words by Clara Widdison

Combining food retail with education and community outreach, multifunctional food hubs aim to bring us together and make us active participants in the food system rather than just consumers.

This is an extract from Food For Thought. To read the full article click here.

At Fico Eataly World, a food-centric theme park outside the city of Bologna, Italy, a whole food system is squeezed under one very large roof. Fico looks, at first glance, like an indoor shopping centre with food outlets and stores running down each side of a bike path, which winds its way around the former wholesale market. Each unit showcases a different aspect of Italian food, some of which is made in front of visitors in the glass production kitchens onsite.

As well as watching the production process take place, visitors can walk among rows of grapevines growing outside, watch a cow being milked or see new forms of agritech being demonstrated. According to Sara Liparesi, the managing director of the site, the intention is to make visible the main food chains, such as cheese and meat, with visitors able to become part of the chain via interactive experiences, like bread-making workshops. By compressing the food chain Fico aims to increase understanding of food production in Italy among both Italians and foreign tourists, as well as help artisan producers reach consumers by closing the gap between them.

Fico Eataly World includes 40 farming factories, where visitors can discover all the steps of food production, recovering the direct and physical contact with what we eat.

Tamar Grow Local’s beginners beekeeping course.

Tamar Grow Local, based in Cornwall, UK, also aims to balance its business model between driving a sustainable retail offer and providing opportunities for local residents to grow their own food, access local food education, and socialise using food as a convener. The company runs several community food projects, including The Pig Society (a scheme for cooperative pig ownership) and a honey cooperative. Its director, Simon Platten, says: “For us it is about making a contribution at a system level. This means weaving multiple businesses, community projects and services together so that they can be mutually supportive.” Tamar Grow Local also commits a portion of its profits to developing and resourcing new growers in the area. FoodShare, based in Toronto, Canada, has developed a food retail model in which increasing access to affordable, fresh and culturally appropriate food is paramount.

Aiming to reach as many people across the city as possible, its 46 Good Food Markets sell produce that is grown locally, including in school farms.They also supply produce to over 250 student nutrition programs in Toronto that provide breakfast, snacks and lunch for 200,000 youths every day. However, its philosophy is that access should not be thought about in a narrow way, limited only to consumerism and consumption. Instead, it must also incorporate access to activities and relationships that allow us to meet a broader spectrum of needs, changing the way that people see their relationship to food through changing the world around them. It aims to do this by bringing good food into schools, adding growing spaces to playing fields and training teachers to deliver first-class food education, delivering business support to smaller organisations who share in their mission, and training parents to start community kitchens.

‘Food citizenship is about redesigning our roles and relationships with the food system. It tells us, and others, that we are not just consumers at the end of the food chain, but participants in the food system as a whole.’

What Fico Eataly World, Tamar Grow Local, and FoodShare all have in common is that they are multifunctional food hubs. The term “multifunctional” refers to their delivery of community activities beyond supplying food for retail. Agreed definitions and the understanding of these models are still developing as the sector is in its infancy, but many hubs have a retail offer that is built on a values-based supply chain, which can incorporate locally-grown produce, organic products or fair trade ethics. Taking their cue from American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, multifunctional food hubs were created with the understanding that we need a secure food supply to keep us alive, but beyond that we also have deeper needs: to have a sense of belonging, to build relationships and community, to become confident and knowledgeable, and to realise our full potential.

Activities at multifunctional food hubs stretch across nutrition knowledge and cookery-skill development, community meal clubs, and resource-sharing through, for example, a community fridge, and this approach to food hubs is on the rise: a 2019 survey conducted by UK academics Christian Reynolds and Paola Guzman found that many of the existing models for emerging food hubs in the UK were multifunctional food hubs, building non-commercial functions into their core offer. Likewise, in the US, nearly half of food hubs surveyed in the 2017 National Food Hub Survey reported delivering community services. Multifunctional food hubs seek to redefine our relationship with food: a richer, more fulfilling relationship, based on people acting as interdependent participants.

The UK-based Food Ethics Council has deemed this relationship “food citizenship”, and Anna Cura, the council’s programme manager, sees multifunctional food hubs as a key part of the movement. “Food citizenship is about redesigning our roles and relationships with the food system. It tells us, and others, that we are not just consumers at the end of the food chain, but participants in the food system as a whole,” she says. “Food hubs offer communities the ability to act as empowered food citizens and shape a foodscape adapted to their needs.” Across the world, multifunctional food hubs are playing an increasingly important role in bringing us closer to nature, and to each other.

Mill Lane Acres - Tamar Grow Local’s Farm Start initiative to support new growers.

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