As the new chair of London Food, Boycott is tasked with improving Londoners’ access to healthy, locally produced and affordable food. A tough ask for a journalist, you may think. But sitting across from Boycott in her City Hall office, it’s clear this is no PR-driven appointment. Boycott, who herself produces vegetables and meat from a smallholding in Somerset (she has houses both there and London) is as fired up on the issue of London’s food supply as any of her editorial campaigns and has big plans to shake up the city’s food system.
“I want to see a lot more food being grown in the city, a lot more attention being paid to how we procure across the public and the private sector and a lot more attention given to what we do with food waste,” she says. “I want to visibly give a sense that growing your own food is possible for all of us even if you happen to live in the most overpopulated place in western Europe and that it will not only benefit you, but it will benefit the planet.”
Listening to Boycott is like standing in the path of a tornado. Over the course of an hour the whole food supply chain is taken to task, but the brunt of Boycott’s wrath is reserved for the multiples.
“The politics of food in this country is the politics of the supermarkets. Where I live down in Somerset, we lost every single planning battle all the way down the line against Tesco and we’ve got a small town council that was faced with legal bills it couldn’t meet. It’s a hideous little building and a grotty little supermarket as far as I’m concerned.”
Boycott has the bit between her teeth. I get the impression that although she is not entirely sure what her new role entails, she is 100% certain of what she wants to achieve.
Regenerating unused space
On a practical level this involves setting up community schemes to grow more food from scratch, teaching schoolchildren the value of sustainable food, reducing the carbon footprint of food coming into the city and ensuring potential green spaces are not sold off to developers.
“We have a lot of plans for regenerating unused urban spaces and spaces people maybe haven’t thought about. Obviously this involves making huge attempts to preserve all allotments against the planners, but also to create more allotments and areas you would loosely describe as urban growing spaces that will produce local food to be sold in local markets, or simply to be eaten by the community that’s producing it.”
A sceptic could be forgiven for querying whether these urban growing spaces exist in London’s dense urban sprawl, but Boycott is not one to let naysayers derail her blueprint.
“Yes, London is a condensed city, but if you start trying to look with slightly different eyes you notice that there’s a lot of space by the side of the railway line, a lot of space along the canal, a lot round the back of the churchyard, there’s the Royal Parks, there’s that unused bit of the car park by the hospital.”
More to life than the office
If all this sounds rather pie in the sky, it seems even more incredulous when referenced against Boycott’s previous declarations on home cooking. As editor of the trailblazing feminist magazine Spare Rib in the early 70s her mantra was “Don’t cook, don’t type”. One promotion offered readers a free dishcloth printed with the words, “First you sink into his arms, then your arms end up in his sink”.
It’s clear, however, that Boycott’s reincarnation as a local food producer has instilled in her a fervent belief that food can play a positive role in society, beyond providing mere sustenance. She doesn’t subscribe to the theory that Londoners, especially those living on limited resources, only want cheap convenient food.
“You only have to look at the fact that every allotment in London now has a waiting list of about 20 people for every space. People want them because they’re getting something more than just vegetables, they’re getting the fact that they’re part of a community. Urban isolation is a horrible thing. We do lead fractured lives and I think people are becoming increasingly aware that there is more to life than the office, even if it’s just a case of having a grow bag on your patio or herbs on your window sill.”
Boycott sees her role as a cheerleader for the London food strategy: “talking about it, writing about it, publicising it”. She will also champion local food projects, such as the Growing Communities Scheme in Stoke Newington, where residents grow fresh produce in urban gardens and run an organic fruit and vegetable box scheme.
Last weekend’s Feast on the Bridge, Boycott’s first official event as chair of London Food, gave Londoners the chance to showcase local, seasonal and ethically sourced food from across the capital. It’s this kind of celebration of food that Boycott is looking to replicate in every nook and cranny of the city. If grassroots growing is Boycott’s passion, food wastage is her bête noire. Finding practical solutions to recycling issues is not in her remit.
Indeed, London’s convoluted structure, where each of the 33 local authorities has its own recycling scheme, is not always conducive to joined-up thinking. But Boycott’s will no doubt be a persistent voice in the ear of Boris Johnson as he strives for a more collaborative approach to recycling. “Where I live I get nothing for food waste and I get nothing for plastic,” she protests. “On a very simple level, what should be achievable is that you get joined-up thinking. At the moment it’s all totally chaotic and you’re not going to get people to do it while it is chaotic.”
The job at City Hall arose after Guto Harri, the Mayor’s communications director, heard Boycott speak passionately about food at the Hay Festival. Where Boycott will come into her own is as a mouthpiece for food-related issues.
“One good thing that could come out of the credit crunch is people thinking about not throwing away so much food and I see my job as talking a lot about it. Think about the amount of food the supermarkets throw away; we throw away 50% of the food that comes into this country. That’s disgusting. It’s immoral, actually, and we can’t carry on doing it.”
You could never accuse Boycott of adopting a politician’s tone. In fact it’s exactly this take-no-prisoners approach that could encourage Londoners to share her vision for a greener capital. “We’ve got it into our culture that it’s fine to throw away food and it doesn’t matter. Nobody connects with the time and the effort and the work and the carbon and the transport and the cow at the end or whatever it happens to be that has laid down its life and it just ends up in a rubbish bin and then in landfill. I’m sorry. It’s just shit.”
Supermarkets had better watch out. This is one hot story that Rosie’s not going to drop.