Vanessa Kimbell believes our health and the health of the earth are ultimately intertwined, and that eating is about nourishing ourselves and the planet. In her new book Food for Thought, she shows us how our everyday meals can be used as a tool to change the world by sourcing ingredients with thought, and standing up for those who are producing our food in the right way.
When did you realise that we have the power to change the world “one bite at a time”? My travels as a food journalist took me out of my home, where I have three young children who are secure, loved, nurtured and cared for in an environment where I know, for example, if I fall and hurt myself, I can call an ambulance and it will be here within 15 minutes and I’ll be taken care of medically. This is something we take completely for granted. When I started travelling I met the people who were growing and gathering the food my family and I eat here in England – food eaten without a second thought.
My first revelation was my trip to western Uganda to watch the harvest at a Fair Trade vanilla plantation. My visit opened my eyes to the reality of what it actually means to pay a fair price. You see the little Fair Trade labels on food items, and I suppose I had been quite sceptical in some ways, viewing it as a marketing tool, where the reality is that it’s a powerful tool that makes a difference as to whether or not a child receives medical care, or a little girl learns to read and write. While I’ve always bought Fair Trade products, I'm not sure the real message had actually filtered through to me.
However, I believe Fair Trade stretches even further, to the point of affecting the political stability in some regions. When you treat a person fairly, they can stand on their own two feet, support themselves, support their families. If people are kept on the edge of living, there is no motivation, no future, and so it’s much easier for them to turn to violence and conflict. How many of us would even consider that when we’re eating our quinoa porridge in the morning?
People think they can’t change things, so they do nothing. Can we shift this mindset? What really hit home was this phrase: “You can change the world one bite at a time.” You don't have to strap yourself to a tree in the Amazon jungle to make changes – I can't do that, as much as I would love to as I’m quite radical in my thoughts and beliefs. But this doesn’t mean I can’t make a difference – quite the opposite. Every time you make a choice, whether to buy the Fair Trade item in the supermarket, or purchase your fruit and vegetables from the local farmer's market, you choose to support someone – and this is what makes a difference. Think about the cumulative effect of those decisions every day, every week, every year throughout your life: the number of people you and your family can support through your everyday food choices. It's the accumulation of little things that ultimately makes the big differences, such as recycling properly.
And this is the point to Food for Thought: that you absolutely can make a real difference to those who produce the ingredients, and to the environment. I’ve taken classic recipes and transformed them into ethical, sustainable meals with a flavour twist, using ingredients available in the typical supermarket. Every single recipe I read over and over again to make sure that not only was all the information there, but also the empowerment for the individual. You can be really radical at your own kitchen table while you're eating supper: I call this food activism.
How did you go about redeveloping the recipes? The first thing was that this book is for the children – all children, as they have the right to grow up in world they can live in. But also when my children read the recipes, they had to understand them and “get” them.
It’s a given that the recipes are delicious. They’re also practical everyday recipes that don’t create too much washing up: as I said, they’re about empowering people – and nobody feels empowered when they have a mountain of washing up to tackle after they've cooked. Apart from that, we radicals don't want to waste time washing up when there are more urgent things to deal with!
Before writing the book I spent at least a week talking to anyone who was willing to have a conversation with me. I spoke to the dustbin men, sales assistants, people standing in bus queues, people on low-income benefits, young people, elderly people, the employed and the unemployed. Inevitably the response was: “Of course I want climate change stopped. Of course I want to help farmers.” Nobody is going to say, “I really want farm animals to be badly treated, and I really want farmers to be paid a low price.” The general public does not intentionally eat food that is damaging and unethical: they just don't know. Or if they do, they just don't know what to do about it.
Because when someone says you should change, they rarely tell you how to make change. Trying to live an ethical and sustainable life can be overwhelming – even I became completely overwhelmed by it, and I'm someone who lives and works and breathes food and ethical living. At one point, I felt I’d lost my way, feeling almost paralysed by the weight of what I’d taken on. The more I read and researched, the more I felt it was mission impossible as I became entangled in arguments about local versus organic, or whether the only route to become truly ethical was through veganism. If I'm overwhelmed, how do people who don't even know how to cook go on?
The recipes are a medium that is a practical instruction, telling you what to use and how they benefit the producers and the environment, and so are very accessible.
You teach people from all over the world the art of sourdough bread making (www.sourdough.co.uk): how does this align with your ethos of sustainability? In order to be a good sourdough baker, you must have a relationship with it. You have to touch it and feel it and smell it: I have to use my senses. I've been making sourdough bread since I was 11, and it’s just been so much a part of my everyday life for so long that it was perhaps just four or five years ago that I realised my everyday was actually quite extraordinary!
My fascination began about a decade ago when I realised I couldn't digest normal bread, but I could eat sourdough. The second reason is that it provides a daily opportunity to make a difference. I insist on using organic ingredients and I'm a member of the Soil Association (the UK’s leading organic certification body). The ultimate thing with my sourdough is that in order to be a good sourdough baker, you must have a relationship with it. You have to touch it and feel it and smell it: I have to use my senses. And it changes according to the weather so it's always going to keep you on your toes.
It’s the most ethical, sustainable bread you can eat. As an investigative journalist, I've visited Europe's largest yeast manufacturing plant where I learned that the production of commercial yeast involves the use of chemicals. Sourdough, on the other hand, uses local wild yeasts and a local flour or organic flour, which makes it an ethical and sustainable bread.
What will happen if we continue to choose cheap food that – as you’ve commented elsewhere – no longer sees the soil or even sunlight? I think we're already seeing the long-term ramifications, as it’s damaging the planet's heath and our health. I think that we, as a race, are borrowing too hard off the planet. We have to return it. If we don't start looking after our soil it won't look after us, because it's a mutual relationship. So the long-term ramifications are dire, I believe, if we continue along the same path over the next century. Sadly, we're in a position where countries such as China and India are moving away from doing things the right way and trying to catch up with the west, where we do things the wrong way.
I believe this is why it's so important that the people who write about food, the people who cook food, the families who talk about food, use their abilities to change things. With consumerism, businesses go where the money is. So when people start insisting things be done correctly, that the food is grown ethically, that the producers and their workers are paid fairly, and boycott things that are unethical, businesses will follow. Every time you make a choice, whether to buy a Fair Trade item, or purchase fruit from the local farmer's market, you choose to support someone – and this is what makes a difference. You can be really radical at your own kitchen table while you're eating supper: I call this food activism.