Monday, 19 December 2011

A World Without Jam...and packaging

I am heartened to read today that at last supermarkets must within a year cut down on the amount of packaging they use or else laws will be brought in to ensure they do. Apparently, a former environment minister has even made the drastic suggestion that the public should dump packaging at supermarkets – whether stores want it back or not!

Well minister, you are not the first to come up with this ‘drastic’ action. Back in 2006, when the WI's campaign to reduce packaging began in earnest, this was one of the actions members were urged to take. But we used the word return, not dump. Some members did return their packaging and may still do. I understand this practice is a matter of course in Germany. And what about refunds on glass bottles like we used to have in this country? It is done in Germany, along with plastic bottles too.

In 2006 we called for cucumbers not to be wrapped in plastic and for the sale of single fruits and vegetables, rather than the ubiquitous set of four in a double, and sometimes triple, wrapping on a plastic tray.

I remember taking with me into the Radio 4 studio a pack of four parsnips to illustrate to Jennie Murrie on Woman's Hour exactly what the WI meant by over packaging. Right on cue a liquid oozed from the pack on to the presenter's desk!

The WI has been on the packaging case for years and I do believe we have made great inroads. I am now able to buy parsnips singly, even if I need four of them. The option is at least there – in some places. Supermarkets still have a long way to go.

Another long-standing campaign has been the struggle against climate change. I represented the WI in Poznan in 2008 and Copenhagen in 2009; the latter being classed as a summit. How far did Durban talks progress? I heard a reporter comment this year that the talks have provided “a roadmap to secure a roadmap of an over arching global deal”. Yet it seems the gap between pledges, and what is actually required, remains vast, while all the time the sense of urgency remains somewhat lacking.

And therein lies the issue. How urgently do we care about the sort of world we leave to our grandchildren? I tend to think in terms of the next two decades. The WI all along has raised the issue too, of women being part of the discussion, decision making and solutions. It's worth taking another look at our award winning film ‘A World Without Jam’, because sadly the message is the same now as it was six years ago, and the 100 months to tipping point is down to around 30. How about a new year's resolution to think again as consumers, about all the rubbish we produce and where it goes and what happens to it after we put it in the right bin.

Monday, 12 December 2011

WI members make prison journeys

Prime Minister Atlee, presiding over many a gathering in the room bearing his name in the House of Lords, must raise an eyebrow at some of the discussions it hosts in the twenty first century. Possibly not on his agenda was the visiting of  by ‘wrong-doers’ - folk held at Her Majesty's pleasure in their place of incarceration.

A few days ago, the WI, in partnership with Action for Prisoners' Families, hosted the launch of the report of The Women's Institute Visiting Prisons; a publication of accounts written by WI members who volunteered to visit inmates at prisons across England and Wales. Many people receive no visits or very few visits during their time in prison and this can be due to many factors including distance from the prison to family homes, cost of journeys, restrictions that surround visits, and  lack of co-ordination between prison authorities and the families to name but a few. In some prisons, inadequate or poor provision for children of all ages when taken to visit a parent can be a barrier to frequent visits, and some visits, although planned, may never come about. Accounts have also been written by WI members who were unable to make their planned journeys because of insurmountable travel difficulties, non-response from the person requesting the visit and prisoners being moved to different jails at a moment’s notice. One visit was halted as the visitor was in transit because the prisoner was being transferred to another prison there and then.

All of these journeys were undertaken, or not, to highlight the problems, difficulties, frustrations and stresses put upon a prisonler's family in their desire and endeavours to play a major part in the offender's rehabilitation.   None of the WI visitors had previously met the people they were visiting and some were subsequently unable to visit unless they gave their age and address. All were apprehensive but all  were pleased to have taken part in this project.

My round trip of 320 miles took ten minutes short of nine hours, cost around £121 and was achieved using buses, trains and boats. I have become a seasoned traveller in recent years but even so, this trip, which had to be undertaken in one day to avoid spending more money on accommodation, was no holiday jaunt. I was blessed with sunny weather, but in the dark and cold of mid winter it might have been a different matter. The family of the man I visited live even further away than I do, so their journey would include an additional 226 miles.

It is important to remember throughout this project that at the beginning and end of every visit, including those that did not come to pass, is a person. None of the prisoners taking part had received a visitor for a long time, if at all, during their sentence; they not not projects, but human beings whom society entrusts to the criminal justice system to correct and rehabilitate in order that they may play an active and responsible role in society. Surely society should practice what it preaches; that this is such a huge job should not deter from the mechanisms that will one day make the system a good one – one that works.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Little black dresses

Could Men In Sheds - MIS - become the male equivalent of the WI, I wonder? A study coming out of Leeds Metropolitan University confirms that men coming together in sheds for conversation and to share talk and tips on hobbies, in other words interaction, has a positive effect on their well being. No longer one man in his shed but men together in sheds.

Face-to-face conversation and interaction are given elements of the WI and the sharing of knowledge of crafts, and interests and skills have added to the wellbeing of our members for 96 years so far.  And nowhere was it more in evidence than last Thursday at the NFWI's Little Black Dress sustainable fashion show at the London Fashion and Textile Museum.  The show saw 35 WI models modelling their creations designed either by themselves or another WI member.  But these were dresses with a difference.
Members chose to enter one of three categories:
• The Best New Dress, designed from scratch.
• The Best Re-made or Upcycled Dress - made using existing clothes updated, adapted or refashioned
• The Best Eco-friendly Dress - made using any material, fabric or otherwise but must be made to minimise the impact on the environment such as recycled materials, organic textiles and environmentally friendly processes.

The models were accompanied by fellow WI members and supporters, and with competition in mind, the judges were Baroness Lola Young, ambassador for the Ethical Fashion Forum and the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethical Fashion in Parliament; journalist Lucy Siegel whose work in championing ethical fashion and exposing the truth behind the high street labels has brought the issues behind ethical fashion into focus; and Marylyn Haines-Evans, NFWI Public Affairs Committee Chair.  The competition was the culmination of the current stage of the WI's Fast Fashion Campaign which aims to raise awareness of the environmental and social impact of fast fashion.  The modern high street is increasingly dominated by this type of fashion and like fast food; the fashion is low priced, mass produced and designed for instant gratification.  However, the surge in demand for cheap disposable clothing produces a range of negative impacts for people and the planet.

The NFWI has called on retailers to be more open about where and how their clothes are made, and it wants retailers to use their influence to improve the working conditions throughout their supply chain.  Every year in Britain we throw away 1.2 million tonnes of clothes but only 25% of textile waste is recycled.  Most of these clothes end up in landfill contribution to the mountain of waste that our children and our children's children will have to deal with way into the future.

Now onto the dresses – they were all wonderful!  Many harped back to the ethos of make-do-and-mend of years gone by, which is highly fashionable.  Others chose to use camellia leaves or newspaper, not to mention stinging nettles and old tights, materials from men's suits and ties, video taps and plastic food trays. Imagination ran riots but came up with designer clothes to die for. 
The whole event was a celebration of women sharing their talent and their friendship and I feel sure their well being was well and truly catered for.  And don't forget, many of the craft skills used by these talented members can be learned in the WI's own college, Denman College, in Marcham, Oxfordshire.

Friday, 2 December 2011

WI Foods are launched

"What more do you want? Jam on it?" This is a phrase I recall hearing from my Aunty Mimi when I was a small girl whenever something was not to my satisfaction! Were she here now I could tell her in response, "Well, actually, there is jam in it, on it and throughout it." And it is the WI.
Last week saw the long anticipated launch of the WI's own food brand with three flavours of jam; raspberry, strawberry and blackcurrant; five types of biscuit; ginger, shortbread, chocolate, oat and Shrewsbury; and two pickles; spicy tomato and sweet onion. Plain, self-raising, wholemeal and strong white bread flours will follow shortly in the list. Launched at the BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham, the stand did a very brisk trade with plenty of interest from intrigued buyers. At the moment the jams, pickles and biscuits are available on line at and in the spring they will on sale be in delicatessens, farm shops, corner and village shops and the like. Do have a look on line – there is a discount for WI members.
The jam label has been stuck to WI members for many a year so, of course, we wear it with pride. So much so that we now have what has become an annual WI Real Jam Festival at our own college in Oxford – Denman College – in the Georgian house that used to be known as Marcham Park, and was given the name of Denman after our first National Chairman; Lady Gertrude Denman.That aside, it was a natural and logical step to have WI jam on the market, which is as near to homemade as possible for a product that has to be mass produced. All of the items sport the strap line "Food is our heritage"; what more could we want? Jam on it? I'm satisfied! So much so, the WI has presented Her Majesty the Queen with a selection of jams and biscuits.
I mentioned Denman College above, well as you might know this is also the location of the WI Cookery School. I heard the actress Rachel Weisz saying on Monday that her next project was to learn to cook. The WI would be delighted to give lessons – from basic baking to cordon bleu expertise. Do give the WI a try Miss Weisz!