This May, Bristol will be hosting its inaugural Food Connections Festival. Designed to join the dots between local producers, businesses and consumers, the festival hopes to encourage us all to have a more considered relationship with our food.

This is a festival with a difference, as alongside the usual glamour provided by a combination of culinary glitterati and fine dining events, the organisers have set out to prove that positive engagement in tackling obstacles to sustainable food systems can be achieved through providing inclusive, accessible, and, above all, free community events. But whilst bringing people together for some grub and a good time is all well and good, can it really be argued that it will improve local food systems?

Sharing a mealBristol is a city at the forefront of progressive food culture and planning; the first UK city to have its own Food Policy Council and the city next in line to be celebrated as the Green Capital of Europe. We are defined by our colourful houses and communities, and home to a growing number of top eateries, which recently earned Bristol a number 2 spot in the Observer Food Monthly’s top 50 food trends.

With all eyes on Bristol, it’s a prime time for this festival to show everyone what it’s made of. Yet for all Bristol has to celebrate, there is increasing concern about the existence of deprivation ‘hot spots’ within its borders, nestled amongst some of the least deprived areas in the country. For instance, men in Southmead can expect to live to 75, but a move across the street to Henleaze could add 10 years. It’s inequalities like these that the festival aims to address.

Kalpna Woolf has been instrumental in helping the festival take shape, and has been working hard to unite communities through food: “My mission is to engage with communities in Bristol – getting the message out to the widest audience is critical if we want everyone to think about what we eat, where our food comes from and it’s impact on our city and our planet.”

“Holding events in these communities not only provokes this debate and raises awareness, but, I believe, the sharing of good food is powerful – it brings people together in a celebration of cultures and mutual respect.”

Bristol Food Connections

By focusing on the connectivity of food and the way it is woven into our communities, the festival aims to showcase the best of what Bristol has to offer, while at the same time bringing together communities to celebrate how much can be achieved through eating well. Events are focused on inclusivity and extend to all corners of the city, inviting people to see food as an opportunity for real change in the lives of people who live there.

The majority of the events at the festival are free. Markets, panel discussions and feasts will be springing up across the city, inviting punters to sample foods made on their doorstep and engage with local producers.

Bristol Pound, the city’s own currency, recently launched their ‘Real Economy’ to link people and food across the city, and will be hosting three pop-up markets in Barton Hill, Hengrove and Knowle West. By developing local supply chains and showcasing local enterprise, the aim is to grow the capacity of the local food system and increase access to healthy food.

Community gardens are throwing open their gates in Southmead, Golden Hill and Horfield, hoping to empower local communities by taking ownership of otherwise disused land to develop community cohesion and facilitate planning for a better future.

Other events are connecting people and planet more directly, inviting people young and old, to get working with the soil. Windmill Hill’s family growing days and St Werburgh’s City Farm forest garden planting event will be encouraging people to make the connection between growing and eating food, whilst passing on technical knowledge in a fun and informal environment.

DSC_3563Although there are fears that such initiatives can’t step up to the plate in delivering tangible benefits, by inviting local residents to visit and engage in the gardens and markets during the festival, perhaps they can be understood in the larger context of what can be achieved citywide if they are a success. There is optimism that such events can have a lasting impact in creating supportive community networks that foster local enterprise and sustainable food systems.

Standout events at the festival are those that aim to directly address the existing food deprivation in the city. Three Cook ‘n Converse evenings will bring together cooks, local activists, shop keepers and residents to cook together and discuss food accessibility in their local area and its obstacles. The aim is to understand how they can motivate the elderly, young families, or people from low-income households to cook good food at home, in the hope that it will have a direct impact on public health.

FareShare will be supplying the food being cooked at these and other events throughout the festival. By creating feasts from food that would otherwise go to waste, people will be forced to confront the reality of how unsustainable our current food systems are, which is hard to stomach, but should be made more digestible over some incredible food.

It is events like these, pioneering in their approach, facing head-on the barriers that exist in providing healthy, accessible food across the city, that show how best to engage the public in a way that builds demand and inspires change. By adopting a holistic approach to local issues and truly engaging community members, it is hoped that this festival will do more than expand a few waistlines or purse strings, but will have a lasting impression on the city.

Once the marquees are packed away and the bunting boxed up for another year, it remains to be seen what will be the lasting impact. There is certainly the opportunity to inspire change and aim for a better future for people of Bristol, but it is unlikely this festival will have the continuing effect it hopes unless the public make the most of what is on offer. This is more than just free food and celebrity spotting; it’s an opportunity for the people of Bristol to take ownership of the food they eat.

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