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News Blog: Grow It York: Believing in healthy food

In a previous blog post, Katherine Denby, from the University of York, introduced the vertical farm project which she is leading as part of the FixOurFood programme. In this blog post, we explore the partnerships which are behind Grow It York.

For those who haven’t heard of Grow It York, it is a vertical community farm at the heart of a vibrant container park in Piccadilly, York. On the door of the container farm it says ‘We believe in healthy food’ and inside there are salad crops growing such as pea shoots, watercress, microgreens and herbs. But the ‘healthy food’ goes further than nutritional value. It is also about a healthy planet which supports biodiversity and vigorous ecosystems and enriches the communities where it is grown and eaten, helping local economies to thrive.

Grow It York, which is an integral part of the FixOurFood programme, was built to investigate how vertical farming can play a role in creating positive changes within our food systems, while also benefiting our health, environment and economy. To achieve the bold ambition which the University of York has for this project, it has teamed up with two key partners LettUs Grow and Spark: York. LettUs Grow are experts in indoor farming using aeroponics – an eco-friendly method of growing crops indoors without soil, using less water and without the need for pesticides. Spark: York, the location of the farm, is a community interest company using shipping containers to provide spaces for local restaurants, retailers and entrepreneurs. Placing the vertical farm in the heart of the city allows Grow It York to supply hyper-local produce to the surrounding businesses and locals.

As well as setting up the farm, the University of York is researching how hybrid businesses that prioritise social and environmental benefit (not just profit) can be encouraged in the food system. It will explore how these innovative businesses can help tackle the health, environment and economic challenges of how we produce, supply and eat food. This joint university-business community farm is the first of its kind, but there are plans to expand to other locations if the project is a success.

In the shorter term there are plans to offer community slots for growing in the farm and for events in collaboration with school eco and food groups. The farm is also holding events as part of the York Food Festival. Those who are curious can take a peek through the glass door of the container at the growing crops. The site is open 12 -11pm Tuesday to Saturday. Those who want to taste the vertically farmed produce, can pick up a free salad bag from Spark York’s General Store at Unit 3 on Thursday mornings from 9.30 – 11 am and Saturdays from 8.30 – 10 am (or until the stock has gone).

News Blog: From seasonal to sustainable – our young ambassadors share their thoughts on the current food system.

Online zoom screenshot of people on the call

Blog by Maddie Sinclair. Research Assistant, Sustainable and healthy food for children team

Monday 19th July was a highly anticipated date by many, and for the FixOurFood team this was no different. We had planned to welcome 50 children from 6 schools across Yorkshire involved in our “Leaders for Change” programme, to Spark: York. The “Leaders” are groups of children passionate about food and climate change, engaged in activities in their schools, such as the school council. The day would have involved the children aged 7-17 meeting each other, learning about the interaction between food and climate change, exploring and tasting fresh produce from our Urban Vertical Farm at Spark, to name a few of the planned activities.

As circumstances changed, we were faced with the challenge of shifting the day online and creating virtual alternatives to our activities – Prof Katherine Denby who set up the Vertical Farm, had the superb idea of sending samples of fresh produce to the schools on the day! When one school confirmed their attendance, we donned our positive hats, and vowed to see it as an opportunity to pilot our virtual sessions, and to hear the fantastic ideas we hoped our Leaders would be eager to share.

After smoothing over some initial technical hitches, we made our introductions, and started to build up a picture of the Leaders’ interests and involvement in food and climate change activities. Here’s a snippet of what they had to say:

“I think saving the planet is so important for the future!”

“I really care about the environment and I have a Green ‘Blue Peter’ badge”

“Food and climate change are really important. Oh and I love food, I think it’s so tasty”

We then delved into an activity about food miles and carbon emissions, and the Leaders’ discussions flitted from the use of plastic wrapping, to using electric vehicles for transporting food, to the differences in flying versus shipping food. We had anticipated more technical issues with switching to a virtual event at short notice. However, the children effortlessly flowed into a well-rehearsed discussion setting, with a democratic leader making sure everyone’s voices were heard.

Zoe from the Food Foundation, one of our FixOurFood partners, gave a fantastic presentation to the Leaders. This was all about the importance of young voices in making changes in the food system. Zoe gave examples of the inspiring work of the Food Foundation’s Young Food Ambassadors, who are involved in campaigning for initiatives such as children’s right to healthy, affordable food. Within moments, it was clear how integral young people’s voices are for policymakers to understand children’s lived experiences regarding a healthy sustainable diet, to support their decision-making. Seeing the enthusiasm of our Leaders, we’re sure that they’ll be eager to get involved in campaigning activities. Whether that’s creating petitions, making videos for social media, meeting government ministers or speaking on panels, we hope our Leaders now feel inspired to take on some of these opportunities.

Lastly, we opened the floor to questions and comments from our Leaders. Once again, they impressed us with their awareness of issues surrounding food and climate change, mentioning politics, socioeconomic inequalities and nutrition.

“I know it’s important to make unhealthy food expensive but how do we make healthy nutritious food cheaper?”

“How do we get seasonal produce in the corner shops instead of junk food? It’s not fair to parents who work all the time but still want to feed their families well”

A very enthusiastic Leader also sent us their thoughts after the event, noting that the pandemic has accelerated the need for change in the food system, and they were passionate that young people need to come together and have their voices heard.

The session was a fantastic way to listen to children’s priorities, and to get them thinking about the changes they want to see in the food system. Our engagement with the Leaders will be integral to understand children’s priorities, to guide co-creation of research, help translate research into policy, and to get children at the forefront of transforming the food system.

Thank you so much to pupils from the University Academy Keighley school  for attending our virtual Leaders for Change session, and to Vicky from Ryedale School for giving up time in between teaching and meetings to introduce her school, with enough time to tell us about her school’s plastic-free status! We look forward to meeting you all in September, and to involving you in more fantastic activities.

News Part 2 of the National Food Strategy is released

Image of children receiving a healthy school lunch

Part two of the National Food Strategy was released on the 15 July, this landmark and independent report is calling on the Government to ‘commit to an historic package of reforms in order to build a better food system for a healthier nation’.

The report outlines why now is the time for action to be taken to protect the future of our people and our planet, acknowledging that whilst the recommendations may be met with some resistance, change is essential and that business as usual is just not an option.

There has been a swell of positive reaction to the report, including from Prof Bob Doherty, Academic Director of the FixOurFood programme who said ‘The programme welcomes the new National Food Strategy. It’s excellent to see the food systems approach applied to a range of measures and interventions across the food system and we support the recommendation of a Good Food Bill. It’s also very important to see food production and manufacturing linked to dietary and planetary health. We particularly welcome the levy on unhealthy foods and the use of the tax to improve access to fruit and vegetables for low income families. We also support the suggested investments in food system innovation and regenerative agriculture. In particular we value the focus on children’s’ health and diets, school education, the Holiday Activities Food programme, the extension of the eligibility for free school meals and the new government procurement standards to promote sustainable healthy diets and the community eat well programme’.

The report suggests five key goals for the food system of the future, it must:

  • make us well instead of sick
  • be resilient enough to withstand global shocks
  • help to restore nature and halt climate change so that we hand on a healthier planet to our children
  • nourish our souls as well as our bodies
  • meet the standards the public expect, particularly on animal welfare

To meet these goals the following key objectives were recommended:

  • Escape the Junk Food Cycle and protect the NHS
  • Reduce diet-related inequality
  • Make the best use of our land
  • Create a long term shift in our food culture

The report acknowledges that significant change with be required to our national diet and to the way we grow our food, and whilst the proposals are not without major financial implications, especially in the short term, a healthier nation will result in a stronger and more resilient economy in the long term.

‘The food system of the future must make us well instead of sick, be resilient enough to withstand global shocks, and help to restore nature and halt climate change so that we hand on a healthier planet to our children.’

You can read the full report here.

News FixOurFood supports Marcus Rashford

An image of footballer Marcus Rashford

FixOurFood has recently been supporting The Food Foundation in their efforts to encourage children to sign up to the Holiday Activities and Food Programme (HAF), a £220 million government funded initiative for children across England.

Both Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford and Henry Dimbleby, author of the National Food Strategy, are supporters of this valuable programme targeted at the children most affected by the pandemic. It offers children a safe environment this summer to learn, socialise and importantly eat well. Parents across the country have been encouraged to seek out local arrangements for their children through their council websites.

FixOurFood is proud to work with The Food Foundation to evaluate the the benefits of the programme for young people and their families, and also to support the development of a promotional video featuring Marcus Rashford encouraging children to sign up to the holiday programme.

You can read the full story here on the Food Foundation website and access the video here.

News Blog: Sparking interest in community vertical farming

Prof Katherine Denby from the University of York is leading a key area of research for FixOurFood, developing a business model which focuses on indoor vertical farming under controlled environmental conditions. This blog tells us more about this innovative hybrid business model

Vertical farming is a sector on the rise. It involves growing fresh produce on walls or in stacked beds – these can be outdoors where the climate permits, or indoors under natural or controlled lighting conditions. Plants are typically grown without soil on matting and irrigated using hydroponics or aeroponics. In hydroponic systems plant roots are submerged in nutrient solution (often with cycles of submergence) whereas aeroponics uses technology to spray the plant roots with a fine mist. Aquaponics combines hydroponics with aquaculture to provide fertiliser to the plants from fish waste.

Indoor vertical farming will not replace existing agricultural methods for food production but has much to contribute to developing a food system that delivers healthy, affordable, accessible diets from a healthy planet and supports a thriving and equitable food economy. Vertical farming systems significantly reduce the water use for production; water is recycled in the system and directly applied to plant roots. The indoor farm is protected from the weather and can deliver produce all year round. Often farms are located close to food businesses that will use the produce, or consumers who directly buy, greatly reducing the distance food needs to travel and helping support localised supply chains which can be more resilient in the face of global shocks, such as Covid 19, or significant changes to international trade as we have seen with the UK’s EU exit. Localised production and supply chains also promote the local economy; money is spent locally and the vertical farm can stimulate local enterprises such as food processors and retail. Shorter supply chains impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions too – a recent analysis (EDGAR-FOOD*) demonstrated that the GHG emissions associated with food transport, cold chain and packaging were considerable (~5% total emissions each) and what’s more, have increased since 1990. Reducing food waste in all parts of the supply chain is a vital component of sustainable agriculture with the level of control in vertical farming meaning minimal loss during production, and the short growing cycles from controlled lighting giving farms the flexibility to adapt to changing produce demands.

A major component of agriculture’s GHG emissions results from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser (the manufacturing process causes significant CO2 and N2O release). Vertical farming technology greatly reduces the use of synthetic fertiliser along with little or no use of agri chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. However, the often cited drawback of vertical farming in controlled environments is the high energy use (per kg of produce) for lighting and climate control. The GHG emissions associated with an indoor vertical farm depend on the LED lighting efficiency but most significantly on the source of energy being used (renewable versus non renewable). With renewable energy sources, GHG emissions from vertical farming can be significantly lower than traditional greenhouse horticulture production in many countries.

Vertical farms are popping up around the world and York is no exception – we have recently started Grow It York, a vertical farm located within a shipping container in Spark York, a Community Interest Company (CIC) in the centre of York. We want Grow It York to empower the local community around fresh produce – reducing transport, waste and packaging of fresh produce for local food businesses, increasing access to quality nutritious food, providing educational opportunities and engaging the community in building a sustainable food system. We are using Grow It York for more than just food production; to explore how we best integrate vertical farming into urban communities for social, economic and environmental benefits.