Mark Lygo: Our food strategy strengthens accessibility and sustainability

Up to 14% of people in Oxfordshire are food insecure and the county is working with districts to support them, writes Oxfordshire CC Public Health Cabinet Member Mark Lygo (Lab).

Most of us have recently seen posters in our local stores and supermarkets warning us of a shortage of sunflower oil due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Ukraine is one of the largest exporters of sunflower oil in the world and a country we depend on for our supplies – interestingly, alongside Russia. So it’s no surprise to see reports of recipes needing to change, empty shelves and fluctuating prices. But this is just one example of the fragility of our current food system due to our over-reliance on imports.

However, sunflower oil can be easily grown in Oxfordshire, and our local farmers are already responding to this.

Local grain producer Henry Astor at Bruern Farm has planted 20 acres of sunflowers and invested in an oil press, mill and cleaner. Henry saw the local need and recognized that local farmers could do something to help – to support our local economy and our communities to access the food they need at affordable prices and at the same time grow a crop that grows in harmony with our local landscapes. Sunflower is a great solution, and he has also set up a Cotswold grain network to supply local bakers and brewers with grain and flour.

This is just one example of why we are focusing our efforts in Oxfordshire on a county-wide food strategy to transform our food systems. We are one of the first local authorities in England to do so.

The National Food Strategy, published in 2021, made policy recommendations which highlighted the need for local areas to develop their own food strategies to tackle the current fragility of UK food systems, affordability, as well as the environmental and health impacts of the food we eat. We are now awaiting the government’s response which we hope will be published soon.

Food production plays a vital role in our local economy. Our food economy represents one in 10 jobs and is responsible for 10% of our local economy as a whole. Money spent on local food shops, cafes and production also supports three times more jobs than the same equivalent spent on national chains.

Around 9-14% of our population in Oxfordshire are food insecure. The current cost of living crisis means households are facing an average £1,200 drop in income this year alone. This disproportionately affects lower-income homes, with some of the biggest price increases seen in value ranges and basic items.

Meanwhile, food systems contribute about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. In Oxford in particular, only 1% of food comes directly from local sources, while 51% comes from elsewhere in the UK and 48% from overseas.

A local food strategy will help us create a more localized and resilient food system. This will allow us to address health and social inequalities in the county by improving access to affordable, local, good quality food and will help us achieve our climate and sustainability goals.

Since last May, the Oxfordshire CC cabinet has been focused on improving our county’s environmental footprint through the food we eat. We have already opted for plant-based meals at council meetings where appropriate, and the council promotes a ‘less meat is better’ approach, which reduces our environmental footprint and also supports our local sustainable farmers.

We are now focused on working with district and city councils, local groups, businesses and farmers to implement our food strategy across the county over the months and years to come.

Past food and climate workshops in Oxfordshire involving community groups across the county have already helped us to identify common themes and links that we need to focus on in the areas of health, supply, waste and poverty.

Interestingly, almost a third of the waste sent to landfill is food waste. Much of this food could have been reused with proper storage, saving individuals a significant portion of food costs. Food waste that goes to landfills can be responsible for surprisingly high levels of methane production.

However, enabling people to increase their recycling of food waste through curbside collection and home composting will help us reduce this figure and the resulting emissions.

We will also look at how we can reduce food waste in its entirety, which can be achieved through meal planning and improved storage.

We also know that sustainable diets can reduce food costs by up to 34%, which could be vital in helping people facing rising food costs. As a council, we are committed to ensuring people can access healthy, sustainable food and we work hard on signage and awareness. For example, our local community food services map has over 80 locations, including food pantries and refrigerators, where they can access subsidized surplus food that would otherwise go to waste.

By creating a more resilient food system in Oxfordshire, we want to see more locally produced fruit and vegetables in our shops and homes. We are dependent on imports from overseas and other parts of the UK, which puts us at risk of inflated prices and even possible shortages. We will need to work closely with local farmers to ensure better access to land and means of production to grow produce. It will also mean working with landowners to change their aspirations for how they seek to use their land – to encourage them to use the land for agricultural purposes.

Not only would that mean a smaller carbon footprint, but the less fruit and veg travel, the more affordable they can be and the better they taste.

Food systems are an integral part of our communities. It has an impact on our health, our environment, our economy and our social life. A vibrant and sustainable food system will help us address the challenges of health and social inequality, climate change and biodiversity, and create a fairer society for all.

We are proud to be leading the way to become one of the first local authorities in England to implement a local food strategy, which is central to our key priority of tackling inequality across the county. We couldn’t have done this without a partnership, so I’m really proud that this strategy has been developed with Good Food Oxfordshire and the town/district partners

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