Louise Denham and Rhianon Urquhart

Food exists at the intersection of many different issues, from climate change and planetary health, to public health and diet-related illnesses. There is therefore huge potential for our food choices to have positive effects on our environment as well as on our health and our healthcare costs.

To try and harness this potential, we began the Food Vale journey in 2016. Food Vale is a public health intervention in the form of a partnership of a number of organisations, led by the Local Public Health Team in Cardiff and Vale University Health Board. Founded as part of the Health Board’s mission to “keep people well,” Food Vale set out by first seeking to understand food choices across the Vale.

Why do you eat what you eat? The answer to that question is based in the food choices you make. The term food choice simply refers to how people decide on what to buy and eat. There is, however, a complex system of interdependent factors that affect these choices which vary considerably from person to person.

They may depend on culture, heritage and up-bringing; they may depend on factors such as allergen information, marketing, or where the food has been sourced. Often, food choices will also depend on cost and a number of other personal factors such as habitual purchasing, the time it takes to prepare, or the mood we’re in when we buy it. As well as more logistical issues such as what food is physically available locally and the tools and skills we may have to prepare it.

To develop a strong set of data to help us better understand the eating habits of the people of the Vale of Glamorgan, we chose an innovative narrative-based research method using SenseMaker® software to investigate the complex nature of our relationship with food, exploring who effects change and how to work with them.

This was an entirely novel way of working for us and employing a new piece of software to support our research practices was really exciting. Using it, we were able to capture the stories and experiences of real people and then analyse them in a way that generated both qualitative and quantitate data as well as invaluable insights into our population’s food choices.

We were grateful to get early support from the University Health Board, which gave our initiative a lot of strength and meant that the core messages surrounding health and nutrition were built on robust, scientifically-backed data. Nevertheless, we also understood that in order to ensure the success of the initiative, it was important to work in partnership with stakeholders from across the private, public and third sector.

We reached out to representatives from these sectors including local authority, social housing providers, smallholder associations and local food businesses – to form the Food Vale steering group. This was an exciting time for the Food Vale partnership, as we now had a group of dedicated individuals on board to help direct and progress the development of the Food Vale initiative in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Crossing these organisational, and sectoral, boundaries has proved very valuable. Often we in health confine ourselves to working alone or in silos, solely shouldering the burden of trying to change the world but we recognised early that our influence in the sphere of food choices was much less significant for a lot of people than potential partners in the local authority and private sectors.

Partnering with the private sector can be often overlooked by many staff working on projects in the NHS and we were no different. Without knowing how businesses were going to react to our proposition of a partnership or what we would have to potentially offer them in return, it was a bit of daunting prospect writing to them initially.

However, the truth could not have been further from any anxiety we had as our experience with our private sector partners has been incredibly positive. Many businesses and organisations have been eager to make positive social change not for profit but for the affinity they have for their communities and a desire to give back.

In collaboration with our new partners, we hosted a number of engagement events to bring together people from across the region to build a collective vision for the future of food in the Vale of Glamorgan. The ideas from this – along with the findings from the earlier SenseMaker® research – helped to define Food Vale’s key priority areas for a good food movement, later enshrined in the Food Vale Charter. They are:

• A good meal for everyone everyday
• Supporting local businesses to thrive
• Think global, eat local

The charter is a collective vision that we share with our partners to ensure that the future of food in the Vale of Glamorgan is centred on these three principles. We envisage a Vale in which residents have access to affordable, sustainable, locally sourced food; one in which local businesses and supply chains are supported with a thriving economy, and where businesses are committed to reducing packaging, waste and increasing recycling. Any organisation, business, or individual signing our charter is pledging to work with us towards this vision, thereby building our network of committed partners with each signature.

Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic posed distinct challenges to our work. Many existing issues – particularly those surrounding issues of food access – were exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, and since many of our partners work at the forefront of food provision during the pandemic, it has also caused interruption to certain work. Despite this, we have still managed to make significant progress.

In 2020 we were thrilled to have successfully attained membership of the broader Sustainable Food Places network, and later that year recruited a dedicated partnership coordinator. By adapting to new ways of working we also held our first annual Food Vale Festival in early 2021, which included a range of online activities and videos to celebrate the work already happening across the county and build our network.

Working in partnership with clearly defined priority areas has also enabled us to embed our work in the local Public Service Board’s Wellbeing Plan, as well as supporting a variety of other important workstreams including an in-depth pilot study investigating ‘why can some people not have a good meal everyday’.

We’re now moving into our next iteration as a partnership and beginning to put together a coherent action plan built on the foundations of our key priority areas. We are excited to connect with new community groups, people and projects across the Vale.

Despite the challenges that we have endured, the process to date has been a thoroughly fulfilling one. We are optimistic that – thanks to the care gone into building strong foundations, and the efforts to create space for genuine connection and discussion – our work will continue to go from strength to strength as we build momentum for the good food movement across the Vale of Glamorgan.

You can learn more about Food Vale on their website.

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