Birmingham Food Council: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this city were renown for being a place where children eat well?

I suspect that the origins of the Birmingham Food Council began with this unprepared, off-the-cuff remark I made at the end of my presentation on What it takes to feed the city made at the Birmingham Sustainability Forum a year ago in September 2012:

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this city were renown for being a place where children eat well?”

For it caught the imagination of co-presenter and Consultant Dietician Linda Hindle.

Linda and another public health colleague, nutritionist Eleanor McGee, commissioned a draft Food Charter (see left) by Roger Harmer of Garden Organics earlier this year.

I’m privileged to have been asked to be the first Chair of the Birmingham Food Council. Hence I’ve spent the summer picking the brains of various people — governance experts, a business strategy consultant, a couple of lawyers and a few folks from Growing Birmingham — plus of course, Linda and Eleanor.

So, a year after that off-the-cuff remark and Linda and I were both presenting again at the Birmingham Sustainability Forum on the progress that’s been made over the last year — along with Roger Harmer and Adrian Morley of Harper Adams University, lead on the UWM Food-Smart Cities project.

What follows is the substance of what I said to go along with the slides which we published on the night here.

I explained how we’d taken Roger’s draft Birmingham Food Charter as the foundation of it all. It does look a tad different from his draft; we’ve prettified it but done only a little more. What we have done, though, is focus the whole shebang under the notion of Birmingham being a city renown for its children eating well . . . and cluster the Charter priorities into four headings: 

  1. Our children
  2. The fitness, health and happiness of all citizens
  3. Food and the city’s economy
  4. Global food security

As for the Birmingham Food Council itself, its governance, structure and activities need to be underpinned by a few basic principles which I summarised through a slide replicated here (see right).

As I pointed out, the large image of a Lincolnshire field — as with the smaller images below it — can be the start of many a conflicting story about food.

The fertility of Lincolnshire’s arable lands, the abundance of East Anglian crops, the use of pesticides and fertilisers in this kind of agriculture, the erosion as well as the degradation of these fertile soils, the necessity of high yields to feed urban populations, the importance of pollinators, etc etc.

If we can’t see two or three . . . a dozen or so, a hundred or so conflicting stories on the issue of food and feeding a family, feeding a city, feeding a nation . . . feeding the seven billion of us on the planet now, going on nine billion in 2050, then we’re not thinking enough.

So, necessarily, the Birmingham Food Council will not be about certainty, about knowing absolutely what to do.

That’s the stuff, and rightly so, of politicians. Their remit, an awesome one, is to make decisions in the moment that could affect thee and me, perhaps millions – and not just now, perhaps influencing how things are way into the future.

But in so doing, they are choosing one path. And thereby many other possible paths disappear, other options close down. Therefore politicians, whether City Council or MPs and MEPs must not shape the Food Council or its decisions. Their role is to listen to it, yes, Be informed by it, yes, Ignore it from time to time, sure. Be enabled to make better decisions, sometimes uncomfortable but better decisions because of it, undoubtedly.

Hence the Food Council itself needs to be independent. Its value lies in being a servant to no-one.

The foundation of the Food Council will be evidence. Sometimes patchy and inadequate, sometimes mistaken, perhaps occasionally plain wrong . . . So the fuel upon which the Food Council will run is curiosity.

Curiosity: The Food Council will be seeking responses to . . . why is that like this? Is that really so? How do we know? How does evidence that fit with this?

And all of it needs to have an organisational structure and processes in place that ensures good governance.

So, what is the thinking so far on what it will look like?

We need legal advice as to its structure, but we’ve already come to the conclusion that it needs to be a legal entity, a not-for-profit one, perhaps a company limited by guarantee.

The suggestion is that it will have a Board of 12 invited Members who, collectively, provide insight and experience of the food chain, and will meet quarterly.  There will also be an AGM open to the public where an an Annual Report, reviewing the Council’s work over the previous year, will be presented. We’re thinking it’d be a Good Idea to combine the AGM with an Annual Lecture too.

Involving Birmingham’s interested citizens is a must, of course. Hence, we’re proposing an advisory group, similar to the one at Science Capital (another not-for-profit Birmingham-based company — this means local people, from community-based citizens with their ear to the ground to regional scientists informing national or even international bodies can inform the Food Council of issues.

There must also be the opportunity for sponsors and partners, too.

Roger’s orginal work recommended that the activities, the stuff that makes a difference, will be overseen, sometimes carried out, by “task groups”. Great stuff, the Board itself then can concentrate on strategy. Each “task group” (or “committee” or other such name) should be led by a Board Member who reports to the Council on projects and progress. Already, we can ‘see’ the value of having both community food growing and the public health initiative on childhood obesity as being two of these groups.

The governance of the Birmingham Food Council need be exemplary. So we’re proposing a governance expert from outside the region carries out a regular review of Council activities.

And finally and arguably most importantly, everyone involved from Board member to sponsor, from advisory group member to public health specialist, from partner to community food grower . . . anyone who makes a formal contribution, will take on board the priorities of the Birmingham Food Charter.






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