Cumbria learns to eat up its greens

A drive to persuade people to eat better food, and to cajole producers into supplying it, is paying

In February last year, the Countryside Alliance, north Cumbria's Health Action Zone (HAZ), Allerdale Borough Council and Mitchell's, the Cumbrian livestock auctioneer, formed a partnership to tackle some of the worst health statistics in Europe centred on 21 wards in north Cumbria. Poor diet was identified as a cause of high rates of coronary heart disease and cancer. The suggested solution: increased consumption of low-cost, fresh, local produce. All the partners shared this objective, albeit with differing motives.

The Countryside Alliance was keen to promote the sale and consumption of local produce to maintain viable rural economies and communities. Mitchell's had a vested, private sector interest. The HAZ and Allerdale council had an interest in the well-being of north and west Cumbria's post-industrial communities.

The partners appointed Sharron Rourke, a down-to-earth former nurse and businesswoman from Broughton, west Cumbria, as a food development worker. Her task was to set up links with local producers and establish low "food mile" markets for their produce by developing a network of food co-operatives through community centres and local schools.

For this mechanism to work, people needed to regain a knowledge of where their food comes from and the skills to prepare and enjoy it. Such skills are being lost in an age of convenience, supermarkets and branded fast food. We soon found, however, that a background of widespread public concern for food safety, and more esoteric concerns for animal welfare, has created a widespread eagerness among people to know how, where and from whom their food comes.

To develop a market for local produce, a range of mutually re-inforcing education initiatives was targeted at different sections of the community - from schoolchildren and young mothers through to growing families and the elderly. Allerdale council's regeneration officers established a strong web of community groups to provide a solid foundation. School trips have been organised to local fish farms, where the lifecycle of trout is explained from the egg through to the smoking room. Farm visits have shown which meat comes from which animals. Patchwork gardens planted in school grounds and allotments provide children with hands-on experience of growing their own soft fruit and vegetables. And cookery courses have been arranged for young mothers, families and the elderly to explain the cost and health advantages of sourcing, preparing and consuming fresh, local produce.

Work on the supply side has been more problematic. Rourke has had to persuade producers she can find reliable local markets for their produce - a task not helped by the "arm lock" culture of supermarket buyers or the impact of foot-and-mouth disease. That said, the project has solved some problems. Tim Copsey, a local grower, has taken on two more staff and is investing in poly tunnels to lengthen his season. The local lamb and beef producer Tom Airey was able to employ family members, before his business was blighted by foot-and-mouth.

Marie Stockdale's involvement in the project enabled her to employ a butcher at her farm and processing business - another job lost to foot-and-mouth. But Stockdale's poultry business continues to thrive and she is exploring the sale and processing of wild game meat as a healthy, free-range product.

The Countryside Alliance is planning a series of initiatives to help local meat producers out of their current malaise. And it is looking for new produce suppliers for the project, possibly including Haverigg Prison.

Two years on from the project's launch, whole communities of residents in some of the most impoverished council estates in Europe are purchasing £2 weekly bags of seasonal vegetables: potatoes, onions, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli. Pensioners can buy half bags; large families two or three. Free-range eggs and freshly caught fish are also available. On Northside council estate, more than 109 families have signed up. Follow-up surveys among co-operative members show that their consumption of fresh vegetables has increased a hundredfold. And the HAZ is now funding two new food development workers.

The key to the project's success is the bringing together of a self-sustaining community of consumers and local producers. This involves recognising localisation as an alternative to globalisation and changing the cultural environment in which communities of producers and consumers interact.

For more information, contact Sharron Rourke, rural regeneration manager, the Countryside Alliance, Cockermouth, Cumbria, at: sharron-rourke@countryside-alliance.org or 01900 828870