Glamourising the nettle

Dissatisfaction with indigenous foodtuffs is a growing problem for those among us who believe that i

The question of food security seems to be very alive in the community at the moment. This is an area where I think it is fair to say that there has been a pretty high level of satisfaction with our efforts over the years.

Our Earthshare scheme was the UK’s first organic, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, providing weekly local, fresh veggies to the equivalent of 200 families every week of the year. (CSA is a now widespread model in which the subscribers divide the harvest between them, thus sharing the risk with the farmer.)

Moreover, the 2006 ecological footprint study of our community found that our food footprint is about one third of the national average due to the relatively high level of local, organic, seasonal and vegetarian food in our diet.

However, it has become clear in recent months that all is not as rosy in the garden as appears at first sight and that there remains much to be done.

An internal study found that while 32 per cent of the vegetables served in the community kitchens are organic and 27 per cent are locally-sourced, only 18 per cent are both. Most of us were surprised and a little shocked by how low these figures were.

They can be explained partly because of the large number of mouths that need to be fed – remember that we host in the region of 3,000 guests per year in addition to the resident community; partly because of the higher cost of local, organic food in a global market so heavily weighted towards large-scale, industrial production systems; and partly because of an appetite for foodstuffs that the local climate and soils cannot provide.

Photography by Adriana Sjan Bijman

Dissatisfaction with indigenous foodtuffs is a growing problem for those among us who believe that it is important to increase our local food security. Christopher, one of the mainstays of our gardening team over the years, notes: ‘for every cabbage that gets sold in the community shop, we sell 20 aubergines’. The Mediterranean diet is going global.

This is certainly a factor in the reduction over the years in the number of subscribers to Earthshare. It is currently around 20 families short of its optimal level.

Every so often I hear of a community in France or Italy boasting of the fact that it has decided to increase its consumption of local, seasonal food. They really want recognition for that, I think? Let them try it here!

So, in this context, we need to be clever in our efforts to increase production and consumption of food that truly nurtures us without depleting ecosystems on the other side of the world.

The main avenue we are exploring at the moment is the introduction of greater food storage and processing facilities – and the Climate Challenge Fund mentioned a couple of blogs ago may just be a useful source of funding for this.

Doesn’t root vegetable pâté with chives sound so much more appetizing than another plate of beetroot and parsnips? Doesn’t a good, local apple and blackberry pie can beat the pants off any fancy, Mediterranean fruit picked before it is ripe and squished by the journey?

Meanwhile, in the week’s Rainbow Bridge (our weekly community newsletter), I note that we are receiving a visit from Frank Cook from Schumacher College who has studied with ‘herbalists, shamans, vaidyas, sangomas, green witches, doctors, professors and medicine men’. Great stuff!

Frank will be giving a talk on ‘Community as Food and Medicine Security’ and leading afternoon workshops on identifying and eating wild weeds and food fermentation techniques. I will certainly be attending both. We need all the help we can get in our efforts to glamourise the nettle and the humble broad bean.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.