The WI: an example of engaging with civil society to address food waste and poverty


Today I attended the 11th Annual Conference of BEACONS DEC in conjunction with the University of Worcester which focused on issues surrounding food insecurity in the 21st century. A range of speakers gave their different perspectives on issues in agriculture and with food security in developing and developed countries throughout the day with opportunities for questions and debate from the audience. NGOs and academics were, as expected, represented but it was the addition of a member of the Women’s Institute (WI) that stood out for me and their involvement in trying to tackle issues surrounding food inequality, I feel, would provide an interesting addition to any discussion with students on these issues; the WI’s interest in food is longstanding and their combination of grassroots action and national lobbying provides an example of how an organization plays a part in addressing a global issue like food insecurity.

Engaging with civil society: how can organisations like the WI drive change through campaign and policy work? (Marylyn Haines-Evans, The Women’s Institute)

Marylyn started with a brief outline of how the WI has had a longstanding interest in food; they have had strong links with rural and farming communities predating their well known wartime efforts to preserve fruit through jam making. This interest in food is evident in a number of resolutions (stated national commitments) by the WI from campaigning for bread to be wrapped during transport and calling for women and girls to be educated in food hygiene in the 1920s to a desire to cease the growing of GM crops in the early 2000s. Recent campaigns led by the WI include lobbying for food to be labeled with the country of origin and raising awareness of the SOS for Honey Bees campaign with the WI co-hosting a summit with Friends of the Earth as part of this in London next month. At a local level WI members are involved in programmes teaching mums how to cook healthy meals and supporting people to grow their own vegetables.

In 2013 the WI organized the Great Food Debate. Members had show an interest in the issues surrounding food security and sustainability and with the first Millennium Development Goal to eradiate hunger being missed, increasing population, increasing demand for meat, fish and dairy and rising food prices these issues were becoming more prominent. Through the Great Food Debate the WI sought to engage members and the public more constructively with the debate as, at the time, there was little general knowledge about the issues, no clear WI policy and no member or farming community consensus on what should be done. The WI created space for discussion to examine the roles of different groups in addressing the issue through establishing an evidence base of research in a discussion document and creating a toolkit to use for local debates. They combined these grassroots activities with national lobbying through holding 3 national debates, meeting with MPs, civil servants and other organisations working in this area.

By the end of the project over 150 local debates, reaching an estimated 12000 members of the public, had been held with high profile speakers attracted and local media coverage. Nationally, the WI had worked with Defra and the Fabian Society and this work and the debates received national media coverage. As a result, further actions were identified including the need for education to play a role in supporting individuals to be able to cook healthy and nutritious meals and reduce food waste, for supermarkets to reduce food waste and that this needed actions at an individual, national and international scale. This led to a resolution by the WI in 2016 on food waste and food poverty.

The 2016 WI resolution has two elements; food waste (a focus on supermarkets and how they transfer food waste up and down supply chain) and food poverty (a need to explore what the causes of this are further). As part of this the resolution specifically called for supermarkets to avoid food waste thus helping address the issue of food poverty. A report into the WI’s findings on food waste is forthcoming and a weekend of action (local lobbying of supermarkets) is taking place in May. In addition, a discussion document and toolkit for discussion on the causes of food poverty is forthcoming with plans for a series of debates around the country later in 2017; the intention being for the WI to formulate policy recommendations on how we should tackle food poverty for its members to share.

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