Gemma Bridge met with Sonja Woodcock, the current Food Coordinator in Leeds. Her post is funded by Sustainable Food Cities and the University of Leeds N8 Agrifood group and hosted by Zest Leeds.
Sonja is heavily involved in a number of important and interesting food-based activities in Leeds. We met at The Barn coffee shop, located in Meanwood Valley Urban Farm, to talk about all matters of food sustainability in Leeds.
The last time I spoke to Sonja, she and the rest of the Leeds Food Partnership team were busily working hard to achieve the nationally-recognised Bronze Sustainable Food Cities award. This award, Sonja explained, recognises and celebrates the success of cities taking a joined-up, holistic approach to a range of food issues. Leeds successfully achieved the Bronze Sustainable Food Cities award earlier this year, highlighting the significant and positive changes that City has achieved across the six areas that were highlighted in the Leeds Food Action Plan just a couple of years ago:
Promoting healthy and sustainable food to the public
Tackling food poverty, diet-related ill-health and access to affordable healthy food
Building community food knowledge, skills, resources and projects
Promoting a vibrant and diverse sustainable food economy
Transforming catering and food procurement
Reducing waste and the ecological footprint of the food system
Whilst sipping our tea, Sonja told me about some of the incredible work that has been conducted to achieve the title.
Reducing food waste
We first focussed on how food waste is being reduced in Leeds to help make the City a more sustainable place. An example of one of the food waste events being organised in Leeds is the Pumpkin Rescue. This event is held nationally in October and was developed as a way to talk about food waste since over 18,000 tonnes of edible pumpkin ends up in the bin every year (equivalent to over 1500 double-decker buses). Sonja explained the campaign across Leeds which explains what can be done with the inside of a pumpkin, how best to dispose of the skin after Halloween, and to encourage people to host pumpkin rescue events (e.g. pumpkin pie parties, or pumpkin soup lunches) to reduce the amount of pumpkin waste that we produce in Leeds.
Talk then turned to the importance of composting, something which Sonja and her team have been promoting throughout Leeds through community and school workshops. I was intrigued to hear about the ‘Wheelie good compost bins workshop’ which involved the repurposing of wheelie bins for composting in the community. Sonja explained that the wheelie bins are converted into compost bins by adding holes for drainage and ventilation, and a door for access and compost removal. It sounds like a great way of using old bins and reducing how much food we are putting on landfill.
I was also interested to hear about the work of Leeds Rotters, a community group working to encourage Leeds to compost. The website boasts loads of information about how to compost at home and gives links to local composting events. Sonja also told me about a website called sharewaste.com, which in Sonja’s own words, is ‘a bit like a dating site for compost’. She explained that people can sign up via the website and find composting facilities in their local community, so that even if they don’t have the space to compost at home, they can still get involved and reduce their food waste.
We then started to talk about school food, a topic close to Sonja’s heart as she has two school age daughters. First, Sonja explained that Catering Leeds, which is a Council run enterprise, has really started to take the importance of food seriously. They offer school meals and kitchen training and pride themselves on ensuring that the food they provide to school children is local, seasonal and healthy. Sonja explained that their menus are varied and packed with nutritious ingredients. The next challenge, Sonja told me, is to encourage as many children in Leeds as possible to take up school meals so that companies like Catering Leeds can continue to serve fabulous food.
Over the summer school holidays, work didn’t stop for Sonja or the Leeds Food Partnership. Instead, a lot of effort went into reducing food poverty across the City to ensure that children are having the food they need to thrive. For example, The Leeds Community Foundation has funded a number of ‘Healthy Holidays’ projects, including Getaway Girls, Groundwork Leeds, Hamara Healthy Living Centre and Hyde Park Source, so that children and young people had somewhere to go and could eat nutritious food whilst they are there. Many of these initiatives have also been working hard to reduce their food waste, and some have even achieved a food waste kite mark in the process.
Climate crisis and the role of food
A topic which came up throughout our meeting was that of the current climate crisis and the role that food plays in it. Leeds City Council and the Leeds Climate Commission kicked off a three-month consultation on climate change at a launch event held at the University of Leeds in July. Sonja spoke at the launch and explained the links between food and climate, and the necessity of making a City-wide plan to improve food sustainability with a focus on reducing our food waste. Everyone living and working in Leeds is encouraged to get involved because, as Sonja told me, it is important that becoming more sustainable is ‘something that needs to be done by us all, or with us all, and not done to us.’ More information about the City’s work to tackle climate change and boost sustainability can be found on the Leeds.gov website.
Work continues for Sonja and the Leeds Food Partnership team. Veg Cities is one of the campaigns being run, trying to encourage people to grow, cook, sell, serve and save more vegetables. Sonja explained that encouraging people to shop locally is an essential part of improving food sustainability in Leeds, and with so many farms in and around Leeds growing fabulous food, we can all do more to play our part.
A number of food sustainability events are coming up which we can get involved with. These include a discussion about the procurement research being conducted by the N8 research group, a risk and scenarios event being held at Leeds University, and a push to support local farms (with promotional talks taking place across Leeds and Harrogate).
Photograph by MarkWheelwright.