Author Archives: abigailwincott

BSUFN Symposium 2017 – Provocation: The problem with the past

At this year’s symposium we decided not to have a keynote speaker, but to open up the floor to anyone attending to issue a provocation relating to food, it’s production, politics or study. There were four provocations.

This is the provocation given by Food Network member Abigail Wincott of the University of Brighton.

I study alternative food movements and politics of lifestyle and consumption. These lifestyle discourses are often very politicised. There is stuff relating to personal health, fashions and fads, like macarons or kale. But a lot of it is more or less overtly about a number of big issues that really are important.

There is a concern for social justice or fairness – an interest in the impact on workers and consumers of the quest for excessive profits, and of the dominance of corporations over the food system. A lot of attention is paid to the environmental damage caused by the same.

In addition, I’ve found there is a lot of concern expressed about a loss of diversity. This may be expressed as a blandness and homogeneity of food culture or of food itself and also characterises the experience of shopping for it. This is generally regarded as a negative byproduct of globalised capitalist food systems.

There is a concern about obesity, of course. This isn’t just a personal issue in lifestyle media, it is talked about as a social issue, one that the government or industry or society needs to take charge of.

Finally, there is a lot of talk about loss – loss of foods, loss of knowledge, a loss of pleasure. For example there are lots of references to the way people don’t know how to shop for the best, cheapest foods anymore, that they don’t sit and eat together anymore. In a sense this is an idea of a loss of pleasure in life. I guess this is also connected closely to the sense of homogeneity, and to the colonisation of life by corporations.

Now in these lifestyle stories about what is wrong with food and what puts it right, ‘the past’ keeps cropping up. The past takes various forms:

  • nostalgia for the way things used to be or taste
  • the past as a benchmark (a dinner plate used to be so big, people used to spend X amount on food, people used to know how to cook)
  • heritage – protect what is disappearing before it is lost forever
  • retro or historic themes or imagery: The ministry of food, bunting, wartime and austerity, for example.

I am partial to all of this myself, and of course I write about the uses of the past in lifestyle media. I’m not going to join in the dismissal of these uses of the past as automatically socially conservative, elitist or misinformed. People are using these ‘pasts’ to argue for different and better futures.

But I think we have to give some more thought to the way we use the past.

When we think about the future through the past, that affects what we think about, the solutions we come up with and how we feel about them. My problem with our uses of the past are that we tend to think in terms of individual solutions (lifestyle, individual consumer choice) and not to think about the modern state and complex social organisation, or modern technology.

Our ideas about the past are culturally produced: western, gendered, classed, colonial. They’re not a window onto reality.

Thinking through the past isn’t ubiquitous, people buy novel and high tech foods. People start co-ops and campaign for government regulation using a health science frame instead of a nostalgia frame, for example. But it’s pretty ubiquitous among alternative food types and that includes campaigners and academics. journalists, food writers…

It seems to me that these uses of the past are a heuristic. They have allowed us to boil down some very complex considerations in ways that allow us to ‘feel’ what is wrong or right, at a glance. Simple, traditional, like our grandparents cooked and ate, like other people’s grandparents cooked and ate – these things can come to ‘feel’ right. That helps us make fast judgements about what to eat, what to buy and what causes to support.

This heuristic has served its purpose and I think now it’s holding us back. We need to be more critical. We could cast our historical net wider for more unusual practices and ideas.

We need to ask more specific questions. The Green Revolution, mechanised production of food – are they just 100% intrinsically bad, or specifically bad for contingent reasons, like who profits from them or particular techniques that can be changed?

That would allow us to try some thought experiments. What if… we had factories making food, run by not-for-profit organisations? Might they be more energy efficient than home cooking, each of us heating our own ovens in our own home kitchens? That can’t be ‘felt’ to be right, within the dominant lifestyle discourse, which says, go back to the home, go back to traditional methods of production, go back to the small producer.

Industrialisation and high tech solutions to food problems are collective, public approaches to feeding the world. At the moment they are largely profit-making, but that doesn’t make them private in the sense of individual or small-scale. They are mass solutions to mass problems. This collective action on feeding the world has been developing over thousands of years. Social organisation is something people do really well. That mass organisation, planning and economies of scale are hidden in almost all the discourses of good food that look to the past.

The possible exception is the nostalgia for the post-war era – the idea of the Ministry of Food and the benevolent state, which Rebecca Bramall and others have written about. This is a time when people believed more wholeheartedly in progress and modernity. When the British had been hungry until they had been fed by state organised rations. They knew the past could be hungry and dirty and unregulated. People were a bit happier to embrace the new and the large-scale.

But generally,still our heuristic holds us back Some new ideas can’t be understood, don’t make sense if we look through the past in ways we do – tackling global social problems as individuals.

What injustices will become visible, if we stop assuming our ideas about the past are neutral and ‘true’? What kind of society-wide solutions could we find, that we have never found before, if we stop using the past as our benchmark? Who might we hold to account if we stop focusing on food as individual choice?

Would you like to post a provocation about food and its research? Let us know using the contact form and we’ll get back to you.


Jamie Oliver, heating up the debate at BSUFN16

By Abigail Wincott, University of Brighton

Jamie OliverThe BSUFN annual symposium yesterday was a lively one and there was a particularly heated discussion during our parallel session on ‘Consumers, Identity and Culture’.

My media colleague Gilly Smith and Jo Ralling from the Jamie Oliver Foundation talked about TV chefs, the changes they might effect in wider food culture and the materials and structures which accompany those changes. For example, Gilly mentioned new restaurants and a foodie tourist trade in Hungary, in part the product of a Hungarian version of Jamie Oliver. Jo talked up the successes of Jamie’s food campaigns in the UK, including the sugar tax and changes to school dinners.
A couple of people in the room took issue with their account, accusing Jamie-style cheftivism of unforgivable smugness and asking why Oliver doesn’t raise the issue of food poverty more often.

Others worried that these chefs’ campaigns tend to shame people, that lifestyle TV formats of problem-expert advice-redemption are inherently judgemental, assume lack of information is the reason for poor eating and don’t recognise the varied and individual circumstances people eat and cook in. The same might be said however for public health campaigning the world over…

To her credit Jo acknowledged she and the team at the JO Foundation were aware of these issues, discussed them and tried to produce programmes which took account of them. At all costs they wanted to avoid shaming she said.

Gilly argued people who make sweeping statements about foodie campaign TV tend not to have watched the half hour programmes, but only read the soundbites in news reports. These leave less room for nuance she argued.

This discussion about lifestyle TV activism is a really important one and we didn’t even scrape the surface on the day. It seems to me the question of form or format is key – Jo and Jamie and  Jo Ralling speaking at the symposiumother media producers are bound by generic conventions like the quest or the transformation. Commissioners need to show they are moving with ‘the next big thing’ and won’t always stick around to follow things up (a point Gilly made). Sound bites may get read more, but long form journalism and longer programmes do have the potential to be both entertaining and a bit judgemental but also so much more.

I think we should all be mindful that food debates of all kinds are mediated, and all are affected by the medium. Academic journal articles, conferences presentations and Q&As are no exception. Our discussion was at least as inadequate on the day as any news report – but it was, I hope, an important opener to a much longer conversation.

Should we buy into heritage vegetables?

This post is by BSUFN member Abigail Wincott.

heritage toms wp 1At this time of year supermarkets and garden centres start vying for consumers’ attention with trays of flowers and vegetable plants, and increasingly among these are ‘heritage’ ranges.

Indeed from requests for donations to plant conservation charities to the lifestyle sections of newspaper to serried ranks of heritage tomato plants, demands on consumers to buy into the protection of this peculiar new kind of heritage come from many directions.

Rarely are these claims questioned – naturally not by those selling ‘heritage’ seeds and produce – but also not by journalists, who tend to reproduce claims about the value of ‘heritage’ and the work to conserve it, made by conservation bodies, chefs or seed sellers.

In many ways the term ‘heritage’ seems a rather pompous one to apply to food. It more commonly applies to castles and cathedrals, solid evidence of human civilisation, handed on through the generations, and preserved for the good of humanity. What on earth can ‘heritage’ mean when applied to vegetables and seeds, which rot or are eaten or otherwise transformed, and surely seem pretty ephemeral, not to mention trivial?

And as consumers, should we buy into these claims – implicit or explicit – that we can shop to save ‘heritage’ – whatever it is?

Well, maybe yes. Actually.

For the past few years I’ve been collecting and analysing a database of texts about heritage vegetables, seeds and fruit trees, looking at the way the narrative of ‘heritage’ is created. The range of people involved is phenomenal – from the UN to Reclaim the Fields, via Waitrose, which would make a fairly bizarre shopping trip.

One thing stands out across the database, though, which is that the process of heritage is driven a sense of loss and ongoing risk to that which we inherit from the past. Social justice NGO Practical Action warns that ‘More than 90% of crop varieties have been lost from farmers’ fields in the past century’ and it dubs this a ‘haemorrhage’ of biodiversity. A National Trust webpage about lost apples says they had ‘all but vanished by the late 1970s’ though luckily, the Trust retains those grown from twigs snatched from a bonfire.

These tales of loss lead logically to the idea that something must be done to protect what’s left. Indeed the concept of loss produces a key component in the process of heritage – the guardian or trustee.

The National Trust puts itself forward as a guardian of plant heritage through its network of historic kitchen gardens. So do the John Innes Centre, the Heritage Seed Library and many, many more.

beetrA burgeoning movement

But the place you might more commonly come across this idea of ‘heritage’ vegetables, as a middle-class British consumer in particular, is the lifestyle section of the broadsheets and the heritage produce labels in supermarkets’ luxury ranges and the menus of the posher sort of pub.

Here the idea of loss is very muted. Rather than the sense we’re driving off the end of a biodiversity cliff, the consumerist story of heritage vegetables is that of a burgeoning ‘heritage vegetable movement’, powered by dissatisfied consumers, who ‘expect more’  and are forming a ‘back-to-the-roots revolution‘.

As a result, the loss is relegated to some vague recent past in lifestyle texts. The present is a time of revival, renewal and growth, where ‘the outlook for heritage varieties has changed’ as they have ‘moved out of the history books and back into vegetable patches, gardens and orchards’.

To me this is a striking difference. It might seem self-evident that consumer-oriented writing would stress the feel good factor, while charities and not-for-profits would emphasise tragedy. But both make their living, if you like, from ‘heritage’, whether that be through justifying public funding, appealing for donations, selling produce or selling advertising space and the consumers to look at it. If feel-good narratives are more appealing, then why would all interest groups not employ the burgeoning movement narrative?

donate box on Crop Trust website

Global Crop Diversity Trust website

One very good reason is that the feel-bad narrative suggests the need for official institutions of some kind to step in and ‘do something’. These are the very groups who reproduce that catastrophising version of the heritage story. That narrative also very effectively constructs ephemeral materials like vegetables, and abstract concepts like diversity or taste, as materials, at immediate risk of destruction. As such, their safekeeping in walled gardens or seed vaults seems very appropriate.

But seeds and vegetables are not like castles and cathedrals. Even when they’re ‘rare’ there are likely to be hundreds of them. They can be reproduced, often with little expertise. You can keep them in an old jar in your shed. As you may well do. And perhaps this is why this form of heritage is not uniquely identified as a properly expert domain, but remains a lively and contested field (forgive the pun).

Which is a good thing. Even those who work in the ‘expert’ conservation sector are aware of the limited effectiveness of trying to protect diversity by storing a very small number of samples in a box somewhere, and there is some recognition that home gardens represent important vestiges of diversity. But gardens and allotments are absolutely outside the sphere of influence of these groups, and inaccessible to the professional crop breeding sector.

While the lifestyle and ‘posh’ retail uses for ‘heritage’ entail their own problems, they nonetheless promote the idea of a broad-based movement to IMG_1174 (1)revive, rather than refrigerate, diverse food crops. And so, if it takes your fancy, by all means try a heritage tomato plant or heritage beetroot salad. And if they’re beyond your budget, you may be able to grow your own. Seed swaps take place in community centres around the country, and online. And it is just possible in this case your consumption will, aspart of a wider movement, help conserve this peculiarly ephemeral kind of heritage.

You can read more detail about the research which is published as Wincott, A. (2015) Heritage in danger or mission accomplished? Diverging accounts of endangerment, conservation and ‘heritage’ vegetables in print and online. Food, Culture and Society 18 (4). A limited number of free views are available by clicking

Take part in our 2016 symposium

A row of cookery books

Cookery books. Image by Sunchild57, under a CC licence.

Brighton and Sussex Universities Food Network Annual Symposium 2016, 16th June 2016 

The symposium is free to attend. Please put the date in your diaries and we’d also like to hear from you if you’d like to present this year:

Call for papers on this year’s theme: ‘Contemporary Food Issues’

The annual symposium has become the highlight of BSUFN year, showcasing the diversity of food-related research at Brighton and Sussex Universities as well as non-academic and community-based initiatives in East Sussex and beyond.

In recent years, food and related topics have received an increasing profile in the media, in policy debates, and in research and theoretical discourse. Food has become a pressing issue of our time, seen from political, economic, health, social, cultural and environmental perspectives: key to thinking on sustainability, environmental and climate change, and the food-water-energy nexus.

The 2016 annual symposium will reflect this agenda. Within the broad theme of ‘Contemporary Food Issues’ the format for contributions to the mind_mapsymposium is open. BSUFN invites the submission of abstracts for presentations, posters, panel sessions, discussions or interactive sessions according to the format you consider to be most appropriate for your topic.

Submissions are invited from researchers, undergraduate and postgraduate students, non-academic organisations, community groups, practitioners, policy-makers, and other interested parties or individuals. Submissions from any disciplinary background are welcomed.

If you’re not sure whether your project is relevant, or you’re not sure what format to present it in, we’d be happy to hear your ideas and advise.

Please submit an abstract of no more than 350 words in length, along with a brief description of the research and subject area. Abstracts should provide contact details for you and others who are collaborating with the symposium presentation, as well as the format of the presentation or other contribution you’d like to make. Abstracts should be submitted via e-mail to by 17:00 on Friday the 29th of April 2016. Applicants will be informed of the outcome of their submission no later than Friday the 6th of May 2016.

The BSUFN Symposium will be from 9:00 until 17:30 on the 16th of June 2016 and will be held at the University of Brighton Falmer campus. Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

Registration to attend the BSUFN Symposium is free of charge. You can register to attend by going to

Details for the symposium will be made available online as they are updated. Please check the website for updates at

The Brighton and Sussex Universities Food Network Annual Symposium 2016 is kindly supported by: SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit) and the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, and COSTALS (Centre of Sport, Tourism and Leisure Studies), University of Brighton.



joke false teeth biting Hastings rock

Hastings Bites Back – food research in Hastings

Posted by BSUFN member, Abigail Wincott.

Hastings Bites Back is a new kind of research group. It draws members from across the Hastings area, and researchers from the University of Brighton, who have come together to produce research in response to the most pressing food issues, as decided by members and by the general public.

The project began last Autumn with a recruitment phase. I phoned dozens of food and drink related businesses, clubs, food banks, council departments and community groups, as well as any existing research
groups, like the Hastings and Rother Family History Group. With the support of the University of Brighton’s Hastings campus, 1,000 postcards were printed, which I handed out round town.

Members of the public trying research taster activities

Using props to generate ideas. Hastings Herring Fair.

I held a research taster activity stall at the Hastings Herring Fair. Through the taster stall and postcard campaign a large number of suggestions came in, telling is what kind of food issues people wanted us to work on.

Around 30 people have signed up to take part in Hastings Bites Back, with a core of 12 active members. The group is as diverse as you would expect from those beginnings – artists, teachers, councillors, business people, a scientist, local historians and me, a media researcher from the university.


As fantastic as that kind of diversity is, there was always the risk that we would have different interests and incompatible expectations of the project.

Yet so far that hasn’t been the case. We realised our ideas were threaded through with common themes: an interest in how spaces within the town change over time, in what has been lost – food knowledge, disappeared businesses, ways of life, lost sounds and smells and long lost people. Big themes motivated many of the ideas – themes we already know are not unique to Hastings: that modern industrial food production has brought us plenty, but at a cost to the environment, our health and wellbeing. That the town is changing so fast, it’s hard to tell what is for the better and what for the worse. All of these were represented in the suggestions from the general public too.

Next steps:

Over the next 6 months, the group will come together for a series of meetings, to plan a cluster of small projects – from family history research to developing a cookery course or producing an art installation – which work together to achieve a set of overall research aims: to make Hastings more productive, to understand the different forms of value that food production in urban spaces might have, and ultimately, to enable us to improve our quality of life in our town.

What can you do?

You can join the group as a researcher, and take part in one of the cluster of projects or add your own. For example, you might want to develop a new food product, start a community food initiative or research the history of your street.

Alternatively, you might want to apply high quality research in your business, community group or organisation. If so you can help make that research relevant for your needs by talking to us.

It’s in our interests to make sure as many people as possible see and benefit from our work so we want to hear from everyone about what they think the project might do for them.

Does collaborative working have a bias in favour of ‘safe’ subjects and questions? Hastings Bites Back taster workshops 2015

This post is shared by BSUFN member Abigail Wincott of the University of Brighton.

This weekend, Bella Wheeler from the University of Sussex and I ran creative research workshops with members of the public, at the Hastings Herring Fair. As well as raising awareness about social and cultural research into food, the activities were used to generate ideas for a new collaborative food research project in Hastings – Hastings Bites Back.

boy_box_twitter wideWe demonstrated three creative techniques used in generating ideas and working through them during research projects. With a sizeable pile of magazines, old books, catalogues and adverts, some glue sticks and scissors, we asked visitors to create collages to express what interested them about food.

We also had a big roll of wallpaper lining paper and some marker pens, for mind-mapping using words. Both mind-maps and collage were used by the Art on the Breadline project in Brighton this year, to generate and develop their ideas. Jotting down words on the mind map was by far the most popular technique with visitors.

And finally we had a props table with a treasure chest, full of ornaments, toys and other assorted objects. The aim of this table was to get people to think about who and what were involved in the food networks or food stories they were starting to think about, and about how they are linked to each other. This activity was developed from ideas I encountered at the AHRC Connected Communities workshop in Newcastle-Under-Lyme last year.

I waherring_fair_blog1nted to be as open as possible at this stage. To find out what other people wanted to research not just what I thought would be interesting. It seems that one of the main points of going to the trouble of involving complete strangers in research collaborations is that they think of things you would never think of, or think about familiar ideas in ways that feel fresh to you.

That’s why I chose the joke false teeth and a stick of Hastings rock for the project publicity materials – to avoid labelling the project in advance as ‘healthy eating for kids’ or ‘local heritage’. With that in mind, we still knew we had to prompt people with some questions, so we chose ‘What food issues are important locally?’ and ‘What do we need to know more about?’

But what came out of the exercise couldn’t be described as fresh. The questions themselves load the dice in favour of certain themes of course, because of their attempt at neutrality. The word ‘issues’ conjures up all the ‘issues’ we hear reported in the news, or by health workers or teachers. And ‘important’ seemed to tend to nudge people to saying what they think is widely perceived to be important. Obesity. Sustainability. Local.

Alison James’s wonderful 1982 study of children’s subversive sweet-eating culture* would surely rarely come out of such a brainstorming activity?

By saying as little as possible to steer fellow participants, we actually bias the project from the outset in favour of the usual palette of topics and questions found in government or NHS literature, celebrity chef campaigns and the news headlines: healthy eating, obesity, how can we make people cook ‘properly’, sustainability, local and seasonal.

As amind_map media studies person, I was aware of how few people thought a research project might subject sources of information to scrutiny, or seek out under-represented or under-examined cultures and practices.

Actually, in spite of this, some people at the fair did propose less popular themes like convenience and finding the time to make food. Someone wrote ‘ideology of education’. One woman was interested in combining her knowledge about nutrition education with a passion for expressive dance. But it’s generally very hard for us to ‘think outside the box’ and perhaps even less so, when we’re trying to think collectively, and trying too hard to choose what we think everyone else will agree matters most.

Surely the best social and cultural research challenges and questions, draws out things we had neglected to notice, or throws our comfortable assumptions up in the air. At the very least, it is always an inquiry, and never just an opinion. Yet most of the visitors shared views, rather than questions.

The issue for future workshops is to find techniques to encourage us all to go beyond our well-rehearsed opinions, to stop us privileging dominant ‘issues’ when generating ideas for research. I’d be interested to hear from anyone with experience or ideas in this area. They could feed into plans for our coming project workshops, when we’ll choose what to research and how to go about it.

*James, A. (1982) Confections, Concoction and Conceptions, in B. Waites, T. Bennett and G. Martin (Eds) Popular Culture: past and present. London: Croom.

BSUFN to launch Hastings Bites Back project at the Hastings Herring Fair

Biting teeth-blog2The BSUFN will be at the Hastings Herring Fair on Sat 31 Oct, at the Stade Hall on the seafront, encouraging people in Hastings to find out about social and cultural food research and get involved in a new project, organised by Hastings-based BSUFN researcher, Abigail Wincott (

Members of the Brighton Unemployed Centre’s Families Project (BUCFP) and Bella Wheeler of the University of Sussex have just finished a fantastic research project into food poverty. They’ll be showing their art exhibition Art on the Breadline and sharing their experiences of doing a community-university action research project. Visitors to the Herring Fair will get to try out some of the techniques developed specially to enable collaborative research projects like these.

BUCFP beans_blog2There will be collage, a props table and mind mapping activities, all aimed at getting people thinking about what they’d like to research and why. And of course we’ll be trying to sign people up to the BSUFN and to our new community research project in Hastings, Hastings Bites Back.

Abigail will keep all the mindmaps and collages as a starting point for the new project, along with any information sent in by email or on returned postcards, which are being distributed locally.


If you live or work in the Hastings area and would like to join the Hastings Bites Back project you can find out more and express an interest in taking part by emailing Please tell us what areas of food research interest you most.