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True Food and the growth of the organic movement

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By Charlotte Hawkins

True Food turning twenty is a reason to celebrate. From what started out as a small group of like-minded individuals clubbing together to buy organic and ethically produced food in bulk to share between them, now True Food is a thriving not-for-profit business that makes an even wider range of organic and ethical food available to the people of Reading and beyond, with its own permanent residence in Emmer Green. So how did this all happen?

True Food will always owe a debt of gratitude to those individuals who wanted to make their vision a reality. However, over the years True Food has morphed from this group of individuals forming the True Food Club in 1999, to a market that travelled around Reading from 2004, to then having a permanent home in Emmer Green since 2009. But it takes more than dedication and hard work to make a unique organisation such as True Food a success, and a large part of that success has been down to a change in society as a whole: what was once seen as a fringe movement has now become mainstream.

There is an irony to the fact that how we produce and use food is starting to come full circle. One hundred years ago, there was no such thing as an organic movement as ALL food was produced organically and the vast majority was grown locally as there was no alternative. The introduction of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers was seen as a good thing to increase food supplies when large numbers of people struggling to get enough to eat was a reality. No food was wasted; that which could not be used for human consumption was used as animal feed or composted to enhance the growth of foods that could be eaten. Animals were either grazed or fed scraps of real food – not pellets of soy protein isolates with synthetic added vitamins and continual doses of antibiotics. Eating meat was also seen as a luxury; no part of the animal was wasted, and the bulk of people's diets was made up of in-season and locally grown fruits and vegetables and whole grain bread.

This is not to look back at those times with rose-tinted glasses: the all-too-real threat of not having enough to eat is not how anyone wants to live, so it is easy to see why the changes that took place particularly after the second world war were seen as progress, and in many ways they were. Food poverty, particularly in this country, is not a way of life for the vast majority, and most of us can choose to eat whatever we want, when we want it. But aside from the work of the people involved in promoting True Food, the principle reason for True Food's growth is that increasing numbers of people are concerned that our current way of doing things is coming at a huge cost to the environment and our health, and they are willing to do something about it. How is this coming about? 

A large part of it is knowledge, for which the media is responsible. Many more people are aware of the impact the way we live is having on the environment. We now know that vast areas of our oceans are polluted with plastics, which not only destroy aquatic life, but break down into tiny particles which end up back in our food supply. We see images on television of the miles of rainforest that has been destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations, and are told about how that affects the ecosystem and natural habitat. The quantity of fossil fuels burnt in food production and transport has also been brought to public attention, particularly in relation to the fact that a significant amount of this is completely pointless when around a third of the food that is produced is wasted, and we air-freight food around the world even when we can enjoy the same or similar foods that are grown closer to home. Shoppers know that at True Food they can buy local food that minimises the use of plastic packaging, and takes many steps to avoid food waste such as the rootle box. 

We have also become aware of the conditions in which many animals that we eat live before slaughter, with broadcast images of over-crowded chicken sheds and pigs kept in tiny crates. We are also starting to understand how the food we eat in the West impacts on the indigenous populations that grow it, for example with quinoa in Bolivia and the use of child labour in chocolate plantations in Ghana. True Food only stocks organic meat where animal welfare conditions are paramount, and only sources sustainably and ethically produced foods and household goods. The adage that "knowledge is power" is certainly true when it comes to making changes in the way that we behave.

Increasing affluence
We have also become increasingly affluent. It's difficult to be concerned about how food is produced if you can't actually get enough of it in the first place. The welfare of food producers and animals is low down on your list of priorities if the welfare of your own family is suffering. But we have a choice: whereas living in a way that was more in harmony with the environment was just how it was, we can now choose where to spend our money based on our values and priorities, as most of us have sufficient disposable income to be able to do so. True Food's fair pricing system and not-for-profit status helps to make these choices easier.

Dietary lifestyle choices
With knowledge and the choice that comes with affluence, we now give far more consideration to the kind of diet we want to follow and the reasons behind it. During the past twenty years, people have become far more conscious of what they eat from both a health and ethical perspective, and in particular the rise in vegetarianism and veganism reflects that, as does the increase in people choosing to go back to eating unprocessed foods of the sort that previous generations ate. There are many more people now who actively choose to buy particular foods for their healthy properties, and True Food has always catered for people with specific dietary philosophies, tastes and needs. True Food sells products that are unavailable elsewhere, which has encouraged the development of a loyal base of customers who regularly come to the shop to buy these goods.

Impact of climate change
Another reason for True Food's success is that climate change isn't a theoretical concept discussed by aloof academics as it seemed to be twenty years ago,  but the reality  of it is on our doorsteps as we now see the evidence with the increasing frequency of extreme weather patterns disrupting our own lives, affecting us and the people we know. It is often only when things affect us personally that we sit up and take notice, and are prepared to make changes that we believe will make a difference.

Shift in social values
The final reason is that to care about issues such as food waste, animal welfare, the use of pesticides and ethical food production is now socially acceptable. People who cared about such things used to be seen in a negative and often derogatory way – as hippies, tree-huggers or as members of the sprout-your-own-sandals brigade. Particularly amongst the middle-classes and millennials, to NOT care about these issues now is seen as ignorant, unacceptable and irresponsible.

Of course, these five things are inextricably linked. The media airs issues of concern to people and reflects the changes in dietary choices, which brings greater awareness; then more people understand the implications of how we live now and act on these issues and can afford to change what they buy. Then the more socially acceptable these views become, then more media coverage is given, and so on.

So True Food is part of that journey. The concern about environmental and ethical issues is on an upward trajectory, and looks set to continue. Of course, closer to home, even though the ethos of True Food is becoming mainstream, the success of True Food itself is down to its members and shoppers.  True Food needs volunteers to help in the shop to keep the number of paid staff to a minimum, which keeps prices affordable: if prices become unaffordable to a significant number of shoppers, True Food can't generate enough money to meet its overheads, and will disappear from our community even though more people care about what True Food is all about. It is also down to shoppers choosing to buy their food at True Food, and spreading the word – by talking to family, friends and colleagues or bringing them to the shop, or even just doing a simple act such as forwarding this newsletter. Small changes by many people will make a big difference to the future of our planet.