Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Jam and food security

In recent days, jam has been on the menu with the third WI Real Jam Festival taking place at Denman.   This year, the festival was exciting not only for jam buffs but for all the family as it included a Christmas market in the Georgian house where, once fortified with mulled wine, those must-have Christmas purchases could be made and children could listen, enraptured, to stories from the resident elves.  Santa’s grotto, handbell ringing, a brass band, a barrel organ, and a pop group also featured, making sure that all tastes were catered for throughout the weekend.

The path to the craft demonstrations passed the miniature farm with sheep and donkeys, but a pat on their broad backs was simply irresistible.  Once inside again, there were the four hundred odd entries of jam to be viewed, as well as a Christmas chutney and mincemeat too.  If that were not enough, then there were the cookery demonstrations to watch from Pam Corbin of River Cottage, Kath Mepham of the WI, celebrity chefs Alex MacKay and Paul Hollywood, not to mention Denman's own Peter Lien.  In true WI fashion, homemade lunches and cream teas were available, as well as 800 freshly baked mince pies – and hardly a crumb was left.  And crumbs must not be left in the battle for food security!                          

Indeed, food security, and the question of how we ensure that people have a safe, sustainable and nutritious food supply is one of the biggest public policy challenges of the 21st Century.    To raise awareness of this challenge and generate debate on the way forward, the WI launched ‘The WI Great Food Debate’ a few days ago at the Yorkshire Museum in York. With its commissioned report, Food for Thought, prepared by the IPPR, the NFWI hosted the event, attended by WI members, farmers, environmental activists, industry representatives and other interested parties, who were addressed by Secretary of State for the Environment, Rt Hon Owen Patterson, alongside NFU President Peter Kendall and Jennie Barron from the Stockholm Environment Institute.   How the world shall be fed with an estimated population of 9 billion by 2050 was one issue at the centre of discussions.  There is plenty of food to go round we are told, but distribution is inequitable and we are woefully wasteful.  There can be many solutions and yet there are also tensions and difficult trade-offs that must be considered.  Factory farming, GM crops, local produce, Meat Free Mondays and balancing our need for food and energy security all formed part of the conversation at the York launch event.  The debate is on. In the New Year, individual debates will be springing up across England and Wales opened up by the WI. Do join in and be part of the conversation.

Friday, 30 November 2012

A Week of Change

It has been quite a week! From the royal endorsement of an exceptional Gardening in Schools project, to a debate on reforming to the women’s justice system, to the NFWI's new home for its archive material at the London School of Economics.

The role of food education in creating a good school food culture is the remit of the Gardening in Schools Champions Group, of which the NFWI has been a member since March this year. Convened and run by Garden Organic, the Champions and other interested parties met at Carshalton Boys Sports College to see the gardening and cooking, two of the many facets that make this school an exemplar. One of the key elements for success in this field is determined and supportive leadership, which Head Teacher Simon Barber gives in abundance. This was evident as he showed us around the school garden, restaurant and home economics room, where students were happily and keenly engaged. 

The boys were all ready and waiting to welcome HRH the Prince of Wales, who was accompanied by Chef Jamie Oliver. Jamie Oliver has already done much in recent years to bring school meals to the forefront of concern, and he is ready to do something more about their standards in a big way. The School Food Plan is being compiled by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent of LEON, who were also there, taking heart from this school where it has been proven that changes for the better in 'school dinners' can happen.

And change should also happen in women's prisons in Scotland, according to Dame Elish Angiolini, the first woman Solicitor General and the first woman Lord Advocate in Scotland.  Currently the President of an Oxford College, Dame Elish gave the annual Prison Reform Trust lecture, during which she shared shocking statistics including the following: at any point in time 1 in 4 women in Scotland’s prisons are on remand and only 30% of them actually go on to receive a custodial sentence; also 75% of custodial sentences given to women are for six month or less, which is not effective in reducing re-offending.  In the prison she used as a case study, 80% of women have mental health problems and 60% were under the influence of drugs at the time of the offence; women’s offending is often complex and if anything, Tuesday’s lecture served to highlight the need for better co-operation across the health and criminal justice sectors.  24 of the 27 recommendations that Dame Elish’s recent Commission made have been accepted by the Scottish government. Overall, she feels that the imprisonment of women could and should be reduced. I know the Prison Reform Trust echoes this sentiment, but this is an area in which progress has been slow coming.

It also took time to assemble the NFWI archive at the Women's Library, housed at the moment in London's Metropolitan University. Volunteers have been instrumental in making this happen, beginning some ten years ago when the archives were retrieved from the damp garage at the WI's college, Denman.  WI member Anne Stamper and her helpers did a magnificent job, which has continued until now, when those archives are to be moved to the library at the London School of Economics.

A visit to the LSE showed where the contents of the Women’s Library will be housed and stored, in relevant ambient conditions for some items. There is much of the WI's history to be seen, but on this visit I was enthralled to see a letter written by Mrs Pankhurst to Kier Hardy, in pencil, explaining how she and her fellow suffragettes were force fed.  She even drew a diagram of how the tube was put down their throats. I also found a pamphlet written in 1643 by midwives of London bemoaning the fact that with the Civil War raging their business was suffering because there were fewer babies to deliver!  War must stop, they protested, or else we shall be out of work. Today we are protesting that there are not enough midwives…

And now I shall depart for Denman and the WI Real Jam Festival. With a Christmas Fair also taking place, and cookery demonstrations by inspiring chefs and bakers, including Paul Hollywood, this is an event not to be missed.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Reforming Women's Justice

Tonight I will be at Friends House for the Prison Reform Trust’s annual lecture, given by Dame Elish Angiolini. Dame Elish will be speaking on the topic of ‘Reforming Women’s Justice’, and brings a wealth of experience on the topic, most recently gained as the Chair of the Commission on Women’s Offenders in Scotland, which advocated significant overhaul to the system. Following the publication of the Commission’s findings, and indications from the Scottish Executive that they accept the majority of the recommendations, tonight’s lecture will focus on some of the challenges and opportunities for reform that lie ahead.

The lecture comes at a time when the PRT has published polling that shows significant public support for health measures, such as better mental health care and treatment for drug addiction and alcohol misuse, to cut female offending rates. The high number of women in prison, is something that has really struck a chord with members throughout the WI’s Care not Custody campaign. 

All too often women’s offending is linked to underlying mental health problems as well as drug and alcohol abuse.  Many women prisoners have been victims of serious crime and sustained abuse.  Over a course of years evidence has built up showing the financial and social cost of imprisoning too many women for non-violent offences.  Progress in this area has been too slow for too long.         

Tonight’s lecture promises to make a valuable contribution to an important subject. You can watch the lecture live from 7pm on the PRT website: www.prisonreformtrust.org

Friday, 23 November 2012

The WI Great Food Debate

On 6 December 2012 at the Yorkshire Museum, Museum Gardens, York, the NFWI is launching The WI Great Food Debate.  The keynote speech will be made by Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I will be joined on the panel by Peter Kendall, President of the National Union of Farmers , Pam Warhurst, Forestry Commission Chair and Anne McIntosh MP, Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (invited).  The events starts with a reception at 6.30pm, and the debate with discussion will run from 7.00pm to 8.30pm.

Ensuring global food security will become one of the world’s biggest challenges as the global population is predicted to rise to 9 billion by 2050, increasing demand for food and intensifying competition for land, energy and water. There are growing concerns about how to improve security and sustainability of food supplies at the local, national and international levels, both now and in the future. There is no simple solution to addressing the tremendous demands on the food system and a holistic approach, involving all sections of society is needed, yet to date, there has been little public conversation about these issues.

IPPR and the NFWI are joining together to host a debate on food security as part of the NFWI’s ‘Great Food Debates’ and programme of work on food security in 2013.  A keynote speech will be delivered by Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, followed by responses from speakers on food and sustainability and audience Q&A.  The event will also launch a discussion paper on food security produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research for the NFWI.

As we saw from the 2007 milk debates, public debates are a great way to examine complex issues and the role that all parts of society can play in addressing important challenges.  The NFWI will draw on the lessons and model of the milk debates to develop a WI Great Food Debate during 2013 that builds awareness of the challenges that our food and farming system faces and examines how we might go about tackling them.  We’re calling on all members to join the debate so pelase do come along if you can.

Please contact the public affairs department on publicaffairs@nfwi.org.uk or 020 7371 9300 ext 212 to register your attendance. 

This is an open event so do pass the invitation on.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

All for a good cause

A week ago the Alzheimer Society launched its request for a million Dementia Friends by 2015. This is part of the plan for not only raising awareness of the many facets of the disease, but also to recruit people who are willing to learn what sufferers and carers need and then pass on that knowledge. 

The Prime Minister's Dementia Challenge was also heralded at a reception in No 10 Downing Street with the release of the first report from the Dementia Friendly Communities Champion Group. Representatives from the many agencies, companies and charities that engage in this field attended the lunch time reception. Honeyed sausages on sticks are great levelers, and while nibbling on such delicacies, conversations ensued between researchers into dementia, the emergency services, the WI, scientists, bankers, insurers, retailers, carers and sufferers. All such people in one place, learning and gaining understanding from each other. The heartfelt desire is that this be replicated across society within villages and towns, shops and offices. I know myself, having had personal experience of the effects of dementia over the last twelve years, just a little understanding goes a long, long, way. 

Twenty-four hours after this positive and satisfying gathering, I found myself attending a coffee morning hosted by a WI prior to its third annual meeting in the afternoon. Members of four other local WIs were also present. There was plenty of chat of course, as well as beautifully decorated and delicious cupcakes and biscuits, all homemade, and copious amounts of coffee. Everyone indulged in these goodies! Craft items were also on sale, and I was unable to resist the softest knitted sheep as well as a heart shaped Christmas tree decoration.

There was a short formal interlude where I was asked to say a few words and present the cup to the winner of the first craft competition. The winning item was a card and paper model, with great attention to detail, of the Mad Hatter's tea party from Alice in Wonderland. I was very pleased I did not have to choose the winning item since the standard was extremely high in all categories. The entries included a delicately knitted fruit flan, a plate of knitted cakes with a bite taken from one, and an embroidered picture copied from a photograph - only a close look showed which was which.

One member also read out her clever and beautifully incisive piece of creative writing. We even sang Jerusalem, which was equally as uplifting and emotive as when sung in the Albert Hall with 5,000 WI members. The morning's gathering was even more of a positive and satisfying experience than the No 10 Downing Street reception; for this event was hosted by the members of Bronzefield WI, the first Prison WI.

I am so proud of the organisation which at this time I have the privilege to lead. The WI prides itself on being there for every woman; it is what each one wants to make of it and what each wants it to be. The WI is proudly proving its worth in so many places.

And showing what goes on at the national level is the aim of the Open Days held each year at 104 New Kings Road.  Two weeks ago, Membership Chair and Vice Chair, Janice Langley and I met over two hundred women who had made the journey from all parts of England and Wales to see what goes on behind the scenes. The Open Days give WI members the chance to see the beautifully formed but small offices, which house the super staff who help to make things happen and give shape and form to the ideas that become actions, projects and campaigns.

And I found myself speaking of our latest campaign earlier this week in Brighton at the conference for the Royal College of Midwives. “More Midwives” is the brief of the mandate given by a 95% majority of members at our AGM in May this year.  Between the speaking I was fascinated with some of the stands that I walked around. A number of plastic models of women giving birth brought back a few memories, but the many different pictures of babies once again made me realise why all the pain is worth it.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Sisters on the Planet

If you are a Facebook fan you will have seen photographs from the recent event organised by Stop Climate Chaos- Green Is Working- which called on George Osborne to recognise the potential of the green economy.  We all wore green hard-hats in a bid to show the Treasury that the low-carbon sector has generated growth and jobs. And we won’t stop there, because Green IS Working. A letter stating just this was also delivered to No 10 Downing Street, so as ever we are watching this space.

A while back I spoke at an event known as The New Home Front, set up by the new economics foundation. My talk focused on what the WI did during the Second World War - food production and jam making, as well as producing gallons of rose hip syrup and much more.  Much of what I said can be found in a report, also called The New Home Front, which sets out policy proposals designed to illustrate what could be implemented if there was the will to act.  It is a recommended read for anyone concerned about the changing climate, and what this means for food security, reuse and general well being.

Likewise, it is the well being of people who suffer with dementia and their carers that is on the minds of the Dementia Friendly Communities Champions, and a report is currently being compiled to present to the Prime Minister just next week. There are many forms of dementia and not all sufferers live in nursing homes, so much can be done to make life easier for them and their carers while still living at home.

One such woman who has made a great contribution in this field is Kate Woolveridge, who won an award at the Women of the Year lunch last week for her work promoting awareness of Alzheimer’s disease in Cardiff. Last year she formed a choir called ‘Forget me Not’s’ for people suffering with the disease, and she organises concerts and fundraising events for the choir that also focus on support for the sufferer’s loved ones.

Attending the Women of the Year lunch is an enormous honour, but even in the glamorous surroundings of The Intercontinental Hotel in London’s Park Lane it is no different from when WI members get together at annual council meetings. There is no doubt women truly are "Sisters on the Planet".

Thursday, 18 October 2012

2012- Year of WI Archives

I have written previously that 2012 is the year of WI Archives. Many WI members, as well as Federation archivists (WI members too), willingly give their time to make sure the WI's history and the history of women in society is recorded, collated, kept, and stored in the proper fashion.

I was very proud to be able to tell this to the assembled company at the launch of the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives last Monday. In the River Room at the top of the House of Lords, against the backdrop of THAT green wallpaper, I told of how our own NFWI's national archive was rescued from the damp obscurity of the garage of Denman and found its home in the Women's Library - soon to be relocated to the London School of Economics. I also spoke of both WI and Federation archives being housed in local Records Offices, as well as in some Federation offices. The main message always has to be:  a) take a record b) keep that record c) know where that record is kept.

"Neglect of archives across the voluntary sector is endangering our ability to understand activities and agencies which impact on all our lives". This sentence from my letter of invitation to speak is the essence of the subject and must be remembered. The smallest action can grow. Keep those notes, those odd scribbles that may become a driving force, collate them and find a relevant home for them. One day they may form the basis of a research project or even a best-selling book - available in e-book edition!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Food and climate change

Last week a letter from the WI was printed in the Guardian looking at the 50 months that are left for action to be taken to reverse the changed climate before what is known as 'the tipping point' is reached; the point of no return.  The WI has always maintained and still does, that the individual can make a difference no matter how small, that simple things like boiling only the amount of water in a kettle that you need right then, and recycling your 'rubbish'  in a responsible fashion have long been at the top of our agenda.
In 2006 the WI began to ask supermarkets to reduce the amount of packaging on their products, particularly on fruit and vegetables.  There have been inroads and the Courtauld Agreement does set down rules in this area but excess is creeping in again and the use of plastic carrier bags is increasing once again.  Rubbish of all kinds can now be recycled; albeit some local authorities recycle much more than others, but too much still goes into landfill sites.  Putting out the rubbish now means that we have to think what we're doing – one bin no longer fits all.     All this household waste, never mind that of commercial plants, industries, airlines, transport and much more, contributes to the excess carbon dioxide that is bringing the climate inexorably nearer to this tipping point.

The NFWI, as well as many other organisations, have been calling on the government for many a year to take action on reducing carbon dioxide emissions and lately, nothing much seems to be happening, which is what we say in the letter:  "To create jobs, more secure energy systems and less pollution, investing in a massive energy-efficiency drive and a programme to expand renewables are just two of the more obvious steps that could benefit the economy and the environment".

Last week I also learned of the benefits that many children are receiving when their school incorporates gardening into their teaching.  Food Growing in Schools, a large body of work in which the NFWI has had a small part, set out its intentions at a gathering in London's City Hall.  First of all, it must be a campaign of celebration: there is a need to engage all schools with the idea of food growing in schools.  Secondly, there needs to be a policy emphasis for this to happen.  Many departments – education, health, food, rural affairs and agriculture - should recognise the impact of food growing for learning. There should be an online hub with resources available for all those who want to make this happen, and businesses should continue and extend their support for food growing in school.  One supermarket in particular does this with its voucher scheme for gardening tools. 

Promotion of food growing by school leadership teams is a key element in the whole process; e.g. they should use food growing as part of a whole school approach to food, health and well-being, and integrate it into the curriculum and work with other schools, especially those in close proximity and with their local communities.  Last but by no means least, there should be clear connections made between food growing in schools and food- and land-based careers.  For some, this will not be something new.  My own father, a science teacher before the days of the national curriculum set up a vegetable garden with pupils in the school grounds where he taught, and this was instigated again at the next schools where he was a Deputy Head and then Headmaster.  I have a brother who is a horticulturist, so it must be in the genes but nowadays, a career in horticulture or agriculture is not something that is top of the list with either pupils or careers advisers.