Where does your food come from?

Just by the roundabout, in between St Paul’s and Ashley Hill, lies one of Bristol’s best known independent food stores. The Better Food Company was founded in 1992, and has had its main outlet in St Werburgh’s since 2001. Built on similar principles to Coexist (and the company supported us in our recent Wellbeing Crowdfunder campaign), the shop continues to supply ethically-sourced and organic food to Bristol, much of which is sourced from local farms a short drive away from the city.

When I met founder and managing director Phil Haughton last week, our conversation ranged from the origins of the business, to the politics of our current food system and local experiments in community food-growing. Phil’s life-long passion for organic food and farming began at the age of 14, and developed when his family moved to Scotland and began to run a small-holding when he was 17. He quickly learnt how to produce butter and cheese, and how to grow vegetables, skills he adapted to an urban context when he moved to Bristol in 1981.

Working at Windmill Hill City Farm, Phil quickly realised “just how many people have no clue about where their food comes from”. Through his involvement in working with children and young people, his new mission became to forge “a connection between the producer and the consumer — telling the stories.”

These experiences laid the groundwork for what would later become the Better Food Company, which evolved from the idea of trying to provide an alternative to a corporate-controlled food system, which he argues is fundamentally unjust and has led to disintegration of communities, fewer jobs on the land, and increased food poverty:

I think [the industrial food system] has been an arena over the last 50, 60 years which has been increasingly exploiting everything at its fingertips. It exploits energy, exploits the land and exploits people. And it’s done it in spades.

The company’s journey has not been easy: he describes the difficulties of trying to establish a business in an area that was once a bit run down, not to mention a public that had yet to adjust to the concept of organic food, although a series of crises in the late ’80s and early ’90s — including the first outbreak of BSE and Salmonella — created more converts.

Despite advocating tirelessly for organic produce, Phil doesn’t shy away from one of its central contradictions: for a public accustomed to supermarket prices, organic food is often prohibitively expensive, especially for people surviving on low incomes. Phil argues that the dependence on cheap food (which hides the true cost to animals, labour and the environment) is part of the injustice of the current food system.

It is a really difficult issue. We’ve been spoon-fed this economic argument for so long, about cheapness and value. And actually, when you start to break it down, there is more and more evidence that if we were to actually wean people off fats and sugars and highly processed foods and get them into cooking, which so many people don’t know how to do, you can often make fantastic food very cheaply.

Part of the solution, he feels, is to generate more awareness about where our food comes from, and to build communities around the growing and sharing of food. He points to Bristol-based organisations doing precisely that, such as Feed Bristol — a community food growing project — or the Matthew Tree, a charity addressing food poverty in Bristol.

The Better Food Company has continued to thrive, recently opening its third store in Wapping Wharf. But Phil insists rather that opening more stores for the sake of it, what he would really like to see is the “ethos and people-first approach” replicated by more businesses around the UK. This, together with more local currency initiatives such as the Bristol Pound, might help create a food system “where you respect and honour the growers, the producers, the processes, the customers and the staff.”

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