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Learning from Liége

 

Lessons for a resilient local food culture  

 

This week I have had the joy to visit Liège, Belgium, and learnt about their 10 year journey of creating resilient food systems. Regional food sovereignty is something I am passionate about not just as an interest but as a necessity of our time. We cannot wait for more food crises and shocks, we must begin building the resilient and agroecological food belts at scale now. We also cannot wait for government or top-down action on this, we must begin from the grassroots and engage all stakeholders. True food localisation is not a niche artisan or middle-class occupation, but a landworker (and peasant) led movement across the globe, reclaiming food and land from the corporate, wealthy and privileged agendas. It is a people's movement literally from the soil up and is essential in securing a resilient and thriving future. I have been working with many wonderful people in our home bioregion of Avon to build better food systems and envision a bioregional vision for our valley. The vision that emerged was one of Food hubs, Producer co-operatives, a resurgence of market gardens, land access for new growers, a Regenerative Learning Hub, land-based apprenticeships and a central Food Hub and community kitchen. (more info on the unfolding vision here: weareavon.com ). It was then immensely helpful to visit Liege and meet Christian, one of the founders of the Liege food belt, and to learn from their journey after 10 years of powerful grassroots action.

 


Image 1: Liege


Largely thanks to this Transition Town initiative and the deep collaboration of producers and communities, Liege now has 30 food-based co-operatives and food hubs around the City that distribute, process and deliver (often on e-bikes) the food to thousands of people (including 100 schools) from over 300 producers. Some of the co-operatives, such as ‘Oufti’ are driven by a committed membership base (500 people) and providing a wide range of foods. Others focus on just several local products such as CREA farm’s Community Supported Agriculture scheme. They started by gathering community voices, in a launch event with over 600 local people and stakeholders coming together to co-imagine: “what could be different within one generation?” This imagination piece began a wave of momentum and flurries of creational activity, leading to one of the great food revival stories of our time. They began a Food Council in partnership with local authorities and community voices which now covers 24 districts, over 625,000 people and 120 members inputting into local food strategy, movement and resources.


They are working on land access issues and making public land and property available for regenerative food supply and food hubs – a powerful model that is rippling across the Walloon region, where 8% of land is owned publicly, and this land could feed many of the cities with fresh food. The team have secured 7 million euros from the European resilience and recovery plan for a 3000 m² building that will house food transformation activities (e.g. vegetable cannery). This and other initiatives are helping fill the often missing gaps in local supply chains to collate produce from agroecological growers and ensure it is ready for wider year round supply and wholesale to schools - making huge leaps in their the aim to get 100% of school meals from local, organic, regenerative sources (a target they are on track to meet!). They had a 10 year celebration this year and it was incredible to see the momentum and spark still evident, with many/all of the initial 600 people from the beginning involved and so many hundreds more from the city and its respected producers. Underneath this all has been a revival of pride in their place, and a fundamental belief in being part of its solutions – now local authorities, mayors, institutes and businesses take this movement seriously and see how it is putting Liege on the map and bringing so much social, health, environmental and economic benefit.

 

Image 2: Some of the projects, co-operatives and farms in Liege mapped. What would a local food map for Avon or Bath look like? source: https://www.catl.be 2023


I met Christian one of the founders and drivers behind the Liege Food Belt and we talked and shared stories, lessons and future visions. Christian is both inspiring and calmly reassuring, a gentle but passionate food activist who carries both vision and pragmatism, underpinned by a relentless drive to make things happen, to connect the dots and to engage each day with the systems we aim to change. So often I discover that it is the mindsets, characters, communities, and relationships beneath all the outer work which is really special, and a signifier of success in holistic terms. We need to invest in our own learning, mindset shifts, relational skills and collaboration if the regeneration is to be successful, and once we engage with this work life can take on a new meaning beyond us. We each need to realise the leader and empowered citizen that we are and can be, and take some first steps on this journey. The drive and motivation is always critical, and I asked Christian about how/if this has shifted, ebbed and flowed since the project beginnings. As with so many endeavours, there was a spark, a whirlwhind honeymoon phase of early action, then challenges, followed by maturity, renewal, maintenance and succession. This life pattern cycle will often be circled many times, in the day to day and in the long term, as I have witnessed in so many projects. I saw a continued motivation through the story of Liege food belt, even in times when one of the leading co-operatives ‘failed’ economically (in todays backwards economy this is no real failure). And now, 10 years on and so much has changed for the better, so many people connected and empowered and sparked into action through this initial vision, it is impossible to list all the achievements in a short blog post. I noticed that the next steps and evolution of the project seemed to flow and emerge, often in unexpected but necessary ways. The important bit is to get going, take the first steps, mobilise community around it, keep renewing the energy and prioritising healthy relationships throughout. This gives me a great trust in life and a knowing that once we begin a process with good intention, preparation and collaboration, we need not let fear or cynical voices dominate. There are always pragmatic considerations to navigate in the present and there are at time struggles on any path – we can pick our struggles to be part of the regeneration or continue struggling and caught up in the degeneration.

 

We urgently need food sovereignty and resilient communities now. This has become evident in recent shocks, crises and food shortages. We live in an illusion of constant supply of cheap global commodity food, that is destroying personal and planetary health. The sooner we wake up from this the better, and we have already left it to beyond the last minute. Most our fresh fruit and veg comes from intensively irrigated (and often indoor) farms in Spain, which is running out of water with reservoirs at less than 40% 'normal' capacity, and increasing uncertainty of the future of food production in these regions which we have grown to depend upon. Droughts, extreme weather and political instability are affecting other supply lines, and we are gradually waking up to the fragile realities of an overcomplicated system of feeding the world (which in fact the current system does not do, rather leaves 1 billion malnourished and 1 billion overweight, and wastes 30% of food). Every town, city and region should be prioritising a local food strategy and plan, both as climate & environmental solutions and as a necessity for the health and thriving of populations. The lessons from Liege and many other transitioning towns have never been more relevant.

 


image 3: Peri urban farm in Liege (Hamish Evans, 2024)



It's important to also put this into context, and to marry hope with pragmatism. Even in Liege, the food supply is still dominated by non-sustainable sources and factory models of ‘agriculture’, ways of producing and distribution that are not conducive to the thriving of people and place. The incredible work of the Liege Food Belt has taken huge steps, and one of the greatest is to get local and organic food in over 100 schools, and to get sustainable food modules being taught at university as a compulsory unit. And an annual ‘Feeding Liege’ festival celebrating food culture and local producers. This is indeed the stirrings of system change, and signs of paradigm shift with tipping points being visible in education, enterprise, and culture. And despite this, the great work still exists at the margins, the fertile but small edge of society often in alternative bubbles of privilege amongst those with the capacity and inclination to engage with these bigger visions and projects. And the food affordability challenges have surfaced amidst a cost of living crisis, putting local food out of reach for some people. The cost of all food has increased, alongside energy and day-to-day living. So two large questions remain;

 

1. How to bridge this work to the mainstream and to include more of the population in this vision, momentum and work towards overall health?

2. How to make local, organic, regenerative food the affordable norm?

 

The above questions do require some top-down action alongside this bottom-up work in my view. We need economic shifts to recognise food as public good and producing of healthy food as a public service, rather than be left to a global commodity market (which is also skewed by unfair subsidies favouring big industrial farms). We also need livelihood and land security for a larger number of farmers (and new entrant growers), perhaps in the form of a basic income for farmers (and other caregivers!). We also need a values shift and a renewed appreciation of food, a revival of food culture, which does not happen overnight but can be helped through education, cultural events, media and public information campaigns. And in the meantime whilst we try to get these in place, we must make do and be proactive in our own projects and work.

 

One way we can address the cost of living crisis is through community solidarity, which is possible in local food systems but often not an option in a global commodity food market. For example, in our veg box scheme we have a sliding scale pricing mechanism, and the offer of solidarity food boxes, whereby some in the community choose to pay a little more and some are then able to receive a cheaper of free food box when times are tough. Some local authorities, particularly in the USA now give free food vouchers for low income families to spend at local farmers markets, rather than on processed junk in a food bank. This is often a win win win, supporting local farmers, tackling inequality and increasing health outcomes (whilst decreasing health costs; £4bn in UK based on diet-related illness, more than all agricultural subsidies currently).




Image 3: one of many food producer co-operatives ; https://www.catl.be

 

To bridge this local and regenerative food systems work to the mainstream, and beyond current bubbles, is a complex socio-cultural mission and requires some huge personal and collective transformations. It wasn’t so long ago in the UK that we valued local food more, and people spent 40% of household budget on food (rather than a measly 4-5% today!). It was only a couple of generations ago we had market gardens dotted around the towns (including my own), and farmers markets at the heart of communities, like a Sunday church but for food! Both of these remain in pockets of resistance, amidst an unfavourable economic and social context. So we can support and revive these, and build and multilply the number of local producers, a trend which is beginning to be visible in our region. We take on trainee growers each year and they often begin their own market gardens, CSA schemes and regenerative farms. Thousands of people are seeking land and have the passion and direction, but cannot gain access to land in a property investors market with often closed doors to any small scale or community based projects. Land access is an essential part of this whole nexus, and more common and accessible land is also a part of the cultural change – people will not necessarily fall in love with nature, respect farmers or care about food in a world where they are banned from accessing it, and discouraged in education and culture to go into a land based livelihood. We certainly need more landworkers and producers for the vision to come to life, but this doesn’t need to be everyone, or even the majority. Perhaps one or a few per community. We do need everyone to engage in some way, and primarily through the food eaten 3 times a day, and our relationship with its source. This actually leads to healthier, more connected and resilient lives, and contributes towards a positive movement for change. I’ve been so inspired to see some fruits of this change in Liege and other pioneering places, led by visionary and pragmatic people plodding along for a better tomorrow. We are all in this work and all have a role to play.


Image 4: Liege train station (Hamish Evans, 2024)

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