Lunch Break: Truth and transparency

Lunch Break: Truth and transparency

Feed Me Truth is a campaign by Happerley Transparent, a new marque with an ambition is to provide openness in the supply chain, starting with schools. TV presenter and farmer Adam Henson and Happerley co-founder Matthew Rymer explain why they are removing the smoke and mirrors of food procurement

Words by Morag Wilson

Any child would think it was a rather different day at school should a flock of sheep attend the morning assembly, but for some at Walsall Academy in Bloxwich, West Midlands, it was the first time they had ever seen livestock in the flesh.

‘Concrete children’, it’s a crude term to describe those who have never left the city lights to venture into the countryside. For the millions of us who live in rural areas or like to hop in the car to see the rolling hills, it’s a puzzling thought that a child could reach their teens, enjoy eating meat, and yet have never even glanced at a farm animal munching in the fields.

It was one of the most startling things farmer and TV presenter Adam Henson found when he brought some sheep onto the stage to highlight the importance of food provenance.

“There were a number of children in that assembly who were blown away because they had never seen a sheep before, it was like we had taken an alien into the room,” says Adam, who co-presents BBC rural affairs programme Countryfile, which brings in over six million viewers a week. With those figures, it’s difficult to see how people aren’t engaged in some form with our rural landscape.

“If their parents have never gone into the countryside, why should they do it?” shrugs Adam. “It is quite concerning but it’s up to our education system to try and correct that as much as it can.”

An advocate for introducing Agriculture as a GCSE option to educate children on issues of land use, food production, the environment and conservation issues, Adam has joined forces with Matthew Rymer, co-founder of Happerley, to champion the Feed Me Truth campaign, which aims to engage pupils, teachers and caterers in demanding to know where the food on their school dinner plate comes from.

The two met through their work with Gloucester cattle, a rare local breed, where Rymer and business partner Clifford Freeman introduced the idea of Happerley to Adam. They invited him to work as an ambassador to link the scheme with education and become a non-executive board member.

“Matthew has surrounded himself with really knowledgeable, business-minded, astute people who feel that it’s a really important and clever idea,” says Adam. “This is being talked about at important levels in farming, food production and at a government level.”

Happerley was set up by farmers to create a “currency of truth” that underpin the claims made so often by food suppliers and retailers.

“We could see the disconnect between what is produced on a farm and what is on the plate,” explains Matthew. “Whether you’re a butcher, a cheese processor or a farmer, you realise there’s a vested interest across the whole food chain to have a level playing field and empower the consumer to know the journey of that food.”

Happerley Transparent isn’t another accreditation to abide by. This marque, Matthew stresses, is about transparency and labelling and stands for no creed, be that local sourcing, animal welfare or seasonality. It aims instead to provide a clear look at the journey food has taken from the kitchen door to the supplier, producer, and – when technology like blockchain is there – right down to where the seed was planted, all through a unique QR code on a menu or product.

It will allow the consumer to face all the facts and see through any dubious marketing campaigns or supermarket branding (we’ve all heard of the fabricated farms some retailers label their own-brand meat under).

“Someone who once cheated me gave me a pearl of wisdom,” says Matthew. “He said, never listen to what people say, what matters is what they don’t say. Then he took my money with the other hand.”

There’s no judgement. If you want to buy chickens from the USA, or even horsemeat, then you can, but importantly know that’s what it is you’re buying.

“Customers can choose on their own ethics and price points. They can eat whatever they want to eat, as long as they’re correctly informed,” says Matthew. “I have spoken to catering butchers who have said that meat going to a company isn’t actually that at all.”

On developing the marque and speaking to suppliers, Matthew has discovered that some of companies won’t – or legally can’t – reveal precisely where their produce comes from. Either customers will have to be satisfied with the transparency of supply to end there, or it will mean that at the next tendering process, that supplier might just lose out.

So where does education and Feed Me Truth come into this? Because, as Matthew and Adam stress, it all starts with education. Where else can we get the message across about food traceability and the supply chain than in schools and nurseries? Where else have you got classrooms for learning that can connect so swiftly to the food that is then eaten onsite in lunchtime?

“There are all sorts of organisations working with schools and there are celebrities like Jamie Oliver pushing messages, but to fully engage the children about food, it starts with them knowing what’s on their plate,” says Matthew.

The recent trend for veganism and meat reduction is a good example of this. Matthew is of the belief that this reactionary response to a trend is affecting children at the prime of their growth, yet if they understood food production methods better, children could make decisions based on facts than following Instagram influencers.

“Wouldn’t it be good that if, starting with school meals, children could understand how meat is produced and develop their own opinions about whether or not to eat it? They could then know how to substitute their diet,” says Matthew.

Through education there might be more shades of grey to the black and white decision of turning off meat, suggests Matthew. Perhaps with greater knowledge of our supply chain and farming practices, consumers can make a purchasing decision based on whether an animal was grass-fed or how far it travelled to the abattoir.

Adam and Matthew discovered the effects of good food education when they attended Walsall Academy for the launch of Feed Me Truth. Located in a relatively deprived area with a large number of Free School Meals, the head teacher and catering team witnessed the pupils becoming much more engaged with the school meals service, asking questions about the ingredients of dishes and where they’re from. Now, they have a large proportion of pupils in for breakfast too.

“The head teacher and teachers were really engaged, the catering staff were on board and the children loved it,” recalls Adam. The food was no different to any typical school lunch menu, yet, Adam says, “they understood where the fish in the fish and chips came from, how their carrots were grown and they knew that the shepherd’s pie had lamb in it.”

The Feed Me Truth campaign includes resources for the school syllabus and a new education portal has just gone live.

Feed Me Truth launch sponsor Little Pioneers nursery and pre-school, part of The Co-operative Childcare, highlights another example of how the campaign can be used. By becoming Happerley Transparent, they are putting pressure on their procurement providers to rise to the challenge of delivering insight into the supply chain. Schools and nurseries now have a means to involve this in their tendering process.

“It might be the case that a school says it is going Happerley Transparent and as their tendering process follows through, it will become an increasing issue if a supplier isn’t transparent as the school can’t engage that menu into the syllabus,” says Matthew.

“We want those big caterers to turn transparent. It might be that all they can say is that we buy our chickens from this wholesaler and that’s as far as they get, this isn’t an overnight change. But we see a real opportunity with schools because transparency in the supply chain need not cost an extra penny on that school meal.”

However, Little Pioneers has created a secondary menu, one which costs a few pence more, but using the tool, they can validate why the ingredients are more expensive.

“They have really taken it on board and are doing a lot of food education and growing, right when they start developing their taste buds,” says Adam.

Procurement and education aren’t commonly addressed together, but procurement methods and changes to the UK supply chain can only happen if people are better educated.

“Large organisations are getting on board with explaining where food comes from to fill that void of knowledge, such as the National Farmers’ Union and LEAF Education,” says Adam. “And procurement is a massive part of that story that needs to have clarity, truth and trust.”

The Feed Me Truth education portal is available to view at Applying for the Happerley Transparent marque is free of charge to the state school sector.