‘Food is a system, but people don’t often treat it as a system’, says Hannah Fenton, Development Manager at Good Food Oxford. ‘If there’s any problem in any part of the system’– social, economic, or environmental– ‘other parts suffer’.
Good Food Oxford (GFO) is a growing network of 140 organisations working together for a better food system in Oxford and Oxfordshire. It is a cross-sector partnership with a shared aim: to identify and catalyse actions by individuals and organisations that promote healthy, fair, ethical and environmentally sustainable food for Oxford. As a ‘backbone organisation’ GFO is built around the concept of collective impact, which co-founder Julian Cottee describes as ‘an approach to social change that calls for organisations to work together to tackle systemic challenges. We wanted an organisation that could convene all manner of actors with a stake in the food system, from farmers, to academics, to restaurant owners’.
GFO’s accomplishments are varied, with recent campaigns, reports and projects around food waste, food poverty, sugar consumption and sustainable procurement. The organisation convenes members to share resources and ensure that their efforts are aligned, works with funders to unlock grants for members, and instigates new collaborative projects.
But how did GFO begin, and how did it come so far in just a few years? We recently spoke with Julian Cottee and Hannah Fenton, who played key roles in GFO’s early development, about the organisation’s journey.
How did you know it was the right time to attempt this kind of initiative?
Julian: There was a strong set of actors already working around sustainable food in the city, but there was a feeling that we needed to see more collaboration in order to improve Oxford’s food system. There were already strong community linkages through organisations like Community Action Groups (CAGs), which created a nurturing environment for new activity. At the same, the Sustainable Food Cities (now Sustainable Food Places) movement was just taking off in the UK. In a way, the city was just waiting for something like this to come along. It wasn’t hard to mobilise people and get them involved. We had 100 members by the end of the first year.
How did you get Good Food Oxford off the ground?
Julian: We held a public meeting at Linacre College in December 2013 to discuss the concept. We had an outline vision for the kind of organisation we wanted to create, but wanted to leave space for people to shape what GFO would become, which I think is vital for an organisation like this. If you don’t represent the priorities of the members, then there really is no backbone organisation. We then held a series of open meetings and workshop sessions around the creation of the Oxford Good Food Charter, a statement of shared values that would unify the network.
We had a number of key partners in the beginning that gave us credibility: Cultivate, a social enterprise growing and selling local food, which I had worked for previously and was well-known; Low Carbon Hub, which was well-respected and well-networked; Oxford City Council put their stamp on the Charter; and CAGs and Sustainable Food Cities were important as well. Having those established actors put their heft behind the organisation was very, very useful in allowing it to gain ground quickly. Low Carbon Hub gave us office space and seconded co-founder Hannah Jacobs from their staff onto the project for one day a week.
How does the idea you started out with compare to what actually exists today?
Julian: Because GFO is a collaborative network and the priorities of the organisation are driven by members, new areas of focus have emerged over time. One of the big ones is around food access and food poverty in the city. GFO has ended up doing an awful lot of work around those themes, which, coming from an environmental sustainability background, I hadn’t initially anticipated. This work has been a big part of an ongoing discussion about inequality in Oxford, and how issues like food poverty are affecting people even in an area that people think of as an affluent, southern English city.
Hannah: We’ve also seen an expanding geographical focus, especially driven by COVID-19. I was quite clear in the beginning that it was about feeding people in Oxford, but now we are starting to work right across Oxfordshire. There’s a lot of value in working across the county, because there are policies we can influence much better if we operate county-wide.
Julian: There is also a really productive interplay between local and national scales. For example, the first Oxford Pumpkin Festival in 2014 was a collaboration between GFO and national charity Hubbub, which was trying to find new ways of engaging people in the food waste debate. After pioneering the festival here and figuring out what kind of activities might help capture the public imagination, what we did has become a model for at least 25 cities worldwide. This kind of collaboration goes two ways: it helps to amplify the impact of what GFO is doing on the ground in larger arenas; and it helps national initiatives to take root in real places.
What have been some key turning points for GFO since 2013?
Hannah: A big turning point was the first tranche of funding. When we started, there were two team members each working one day a week, but there was no money changing hands. We had the first input from a benevolent individual through a trust, sankalpa. Their grant gave us two years of start-up funding to make GFO into a proper organisation. We had £50,000 a year for two years, and that enabled us to focus on real backbone activities instead of seeking project funding.
Julian: For the early years we were not set up as a legal entity; we were basically a project sheltered by the CAG network and their parent organisation, Resource Futures. When we secured our first funding, this allowed us to employ Hannah Fenton, via Resource Futures, as GFO Manager to take the organisation forward. In retrospect, it was a very agile way to do things, a way of starting to take action without having the hassle of the legal stuff, and experimenting quickly to see what would develop.
Hannah: It was only when our initial money was coming to an end that we really felt the need to have an independent organisation. That was partly about funding. Funders were questioning our local credentials as on paper it appeared we were based in Bristol (where Resource Futures is headquartered) rather than Oxford. So there was an urgency about that. But it also felt like the time to go independent, time for us to show our worth. We were mature enough to be entirely driven by the priorities of the network and the strategy and the action plan that we’d put together, rather than following the priorities of our host organisation.
The decision about what organisational form to take was a tricky one. Because many of our members are businesses, the Charity Commission rejected our application as our members could be seen to be financially benefiting from our activities. The other sticking point was that, because we insist on a living wage for food workers, they saw us as too much like campaigners. After taking advice we decided to become a company limited by guarantee, which means that there is an asset lock and we have voluntary directors, but our charitable objects are written into our articles of association.
Another turning point was in 2018 when GFO earned a Sustainable Food Cities Bronze Award, given to cities or regions that have taken tangible steps towards addressing food access, reducing waste, cultivating relevant knowledge and skills within the community, promoting healthy and sustainable diets, transforming local food procurement, and helping develop a sustainable food economy. After four years, it was kind of a ‘what next?’ moment for me, and over the course of the next year, I decided it was time for someone else to take GFO to the next stage. So our new GFO Manager Fiona Steel is now focused on taking the organisation forward as Oxfordshire-wide, while I’m continuing to work one day a week on fundraising and development.
Throughout all of this, what resources from the University have you drawn upon?
Hannah: We have benefited a lot from our relationship with the university. Since 2015 we have had seven interns, all funded by the Environmental Change Institute, as well as two Crankstart interns. The Saïd Business School hosted us for a year at the Launchpad until they moved the co-working space over to the Oxford Foundry and it became student-only. We have also collaborated with various parts of the university: we’ve had the Research Kitchen seminar series with the Environmental Change Institute, promoted events at the Martin School, worked with the LEAP project (Livestock Environment Assessment and Performance) to run vegan cooking sessions; and the University Estates Team is part of our working group on Catering and Procurement. Of course the central University is part of the network. And many of our team members are Oxford University alumni – Julian, Hannah Jacobs, new Manager Fiona – and several volunteers and Steering Group members.
What does growth or success look like for GFO?
Hannah: I think there are four tiers of impact: individual action, community action, working within existing structures, and structural change. We need to be working at all of those levels. Sure, you can ask individuals to reduce their meat consumption, but ultimately, there is structural stuff that needs to change too. We need our pension funds to divest from industrial agriculture, that kind of thing. We aren’t going to change the food system until that level of change is happening.
Or you can think about four spheres of action: you’ve got service delivery; you’ve got grassroots campaigning; you’ve got people actually transforming their local communities, and then you’ve got policy work. The Charter goals are what we’re aiming for ultimately, but the mechanisms to realize them operate in all of these arenas.
Julian: GFO works systemically and as an enabler, so defining and measuring impact can be a challenge. But for me, it’s about people working together to move things forward, to hold processes to account, to exchange ideas, to address systemic issues at different scales. That is what a functioning civil society looks like. Success is a processual thing, not an end goal for GFO. Of course, the ultimate success is us all not being harmed by climate change and having healthy diets — that’s the big-picture goal. GFO just provides some of the glue and the infrastructure to make that happen on a variety of levels.
Hannah: GFO currently runs on about £60-70,000 a year, and that’s three people very part-time. I think it would be beneficial to grow, but it has to be rational and sustainable. The worst things that I have seen are organisations that have gotten enormous injections of cash and then not gone anywhere. In a way, I’d rather have a stable foundation that we can build on slowly. But time is not on our side, first of all in terms of the sustainability of our food system, secondly in terms of people going hungry, and also, with COVID-19, in terms of food businesses closing down. So I think getting bigger would be good, just not in an empire-building kind of way.
My hope is that we square the circle of sustainability and food access. We are always trying to keep the whole food system in mind, so that if everyone goes down the food access route, we don’t forget about sustainability; or if organisations want to serve surplus foods to people in need to try to solve two problems at once, we try to find a way forward that preserves people’s dignity. We’re always trying to balance competing interests. We’re not willing to settle for trade-offs. We want to create a system that works for everyone.