When I first came across the idea of a Regional Centre for Expertise for sustainability education – and RCE – for Wales, in 2008, I was sceptical about the latest acronym. It sounded so bureaucratic. But then I heard Julie Bromilow of the Centre for Alternative Technology talking about an RCE she’d visited in Japan, and the possibility of being part of a global network to solve a global problem seemed very appealing.
At the time, I was the Information Officer at Organic Centre Wales in Aberystwyth, organizing school visits to farms and locally sourced school meals alongside my regular editorial duties. It was rewarding, but I longed to be part of something bigger, to compare our work with what others were doing, and to see how far we could take it. Above all I wondered what exactly we were doing. How were farm visits supposed to change anything? Why were the school meal projects so powerful, while running a stand at an event could sometimes be very tedious?
Perhaps the RCE could be a way of shaking things up, I thought. So I jumped at the chance to join a subgroup that would look at food education, along with Julie, Dr Jane Claricoates from the RCE secretariat at Swansea University and Dr David Skydmore of Glyndŵr University. Our first task, in 2011, was to write a topic paper, which explored what ‘transformative education’ might mean in the context of food and drew on our respective experiences as well as the research literature.
Next, we organized an event at Coleg Powys at which we used reflection and leisurely discussion to investigate how students, lecturers and local food producers related to the food chain. This was intended to give an idea of how food education could be effective, by connecting with people’s existing understanding and values. It also revealed the richness of the human experience that lies behind the facts and figures of the food system.
After that, although we attracted some new members and continued to meet for a year or two, the group began to disperse. Illness and job changes were part of that, and maybe the RCE was too peripheral to our various job descriptions to get the attention it deserved. However, the central concept of collaboration between higher education and practitioners turned out to be very durable, as did our question about what makes food education transformative. The Food Group morphed into an enquiry held by a loose network.
In 2014 funding from the Welsh Rural Development Programme to Organic Centre Wales allowed us to take this to a new level with an action research project we called Food Values. This tookresearch from social psychology and applied it to food education, and it turned out to be a powerful approach which brought fresh insights to many of us involved with food education. It later became the basis for the Wales Food Manifesto which holds a vision for a Welsh food system that is held together by shared values of care, fairness and equality.
Food Values exemplified the ethos of the RCE, even if it wasn’t technically part of it. It was a collaboration between higher education, in the shape of Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones and her colleagues first at Aberystwyth University, then Bangor, and the wider community, exemplified by the Public Interest Research Centre, Organic Centre Wales and a host of NGOs and individuals, from Age Concern in Gwynedd to the United Reform Synagogue in Cardiff. It enabled a very rich and inspiring exchange between academia and practitioners that benefited both sides.
When you regularly teach groups and organize community events, as I do, it’s easy to get burnt out and demotivated. The connection with researchers can bring a fresh perspective that allows us to go deeper into our practice, and to take more satisfaction from what we are doing well. For academics, I imagine, it must be rewarding to be involved in projects that have an immediate benefit and show theoretical principles at work in everyday life. And although we didn’t manage to make any connections with the global RCE network, that would obviously add yet more value to the process.
The Food Group is dormant now, but its work lives on, and there is so much more we could do. As Welsh schools prepare for a major reform of the curriculum and the Well-Being of Future Generations Act starts to take effect, the opportunities are huge. Could RCE Cymru in its new guise offer the opportunity for another round of collaboration on food education? Read our blog at https://foodesdgcwales.wordpress.com/ and get in touch with Jane Powell.
About the author
Jane Powell worked for Organic Centre Wales from 2000 to 2015 and is now a freelance education consultant and writer. She is Wales coordinator for LEAF Education, a member of the Dyfi Biosphere Education Group, and editor of the Wales Food Manifesto. Based in Aberystwyth she is active in community food projects, including a garden at the university. Her website is www.foodsociety.wales.