Food matters: DIY supermarkets / restaurant workers / biodynamic wines

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Ahead of publication of the Ecologist Guide to Food - the first in a forthcoming series of hard-hitting consumer guides - our regular new blog will be covering all things ethical and culinary, and reporting on stories and issues that there simply wasn't room for in the book...

Kicking off we take a look at the hiSbe ethical supermarket, the hidden exploitation of restaurant workers, plus the pioneering UK biodynamic wine growers... 

How do you change a city's eating (and shopping) habits? Set up your own supermarket...

Two sisters are aiming to change the way one city shops - and eats - by establishing a bold new 'ethical' supermarket as an alternative to the big retailers that currently swamp the area.

Ruth and Amy Anslow are hoping to swing open the doors to their new venture in Brighton & Hove this autumn. Called hiSbe - how it Should be done - the alternative supermarket aims to 'promote and provide access to good food, so that many more people can afford it.'

The shop, which has been in the pipeline since 2010 when hiSbe was established as a Community Interest Company (CIC), will occupy a 3000 square-foot site in central Brighton.

'Good food', say those behind the venture, 'means products that are as local, healthy, natural, sustainable, GM and pesticide free, fairly traded, high welfare, seasonal, minimally packaged, ethically produced and thoughtfully sourced as possible.'

'We live and die by our values,' says Ruth. 'We won't be 100% organic but will be absolutely clear about our sourcing policies.' Food dispensers will be used to cut down on packaging and staples - rice, pasta, coffee, sugar - will be sold in bulk, she says.

There will also be, Ruth continues, information displays on the issues connected to key products and its own unique 'everyday choices' programme for sustainable eating, encouraging customers to 'go local', 'think welfare', 'end waste' and 'avoid processed'.

The shop will also act as an incubator site for other, ethical, micro businesses, with a number of 'pods' being planned to sit on the shop floor, including some with the capacity to offer take away food.

Although acknowledging that hiSbe prices on some items will not be able to match the cheapest fare offered by the big retailers, the shop insists it's produce will be priced competitively in order to be able to serve the local community.

This could be the venture's greatest challenge however. The area has three large supermarkets - Sainsbury, Co-op and Lidl - just a stone's throw away along with numerous conventional convenience stores. Tempting folk away from those, particular in such economically challenging times, won't necessarily be easy.

But hiSbe's arrival is well timed, as its founders point out, with much regeneration underway in this less-than-glamorous 'London Road' area of the famous seaside city - the long neglected Open Market is being revamped, as is a major local park.

hiSbe is being financed by investments and loans, and is currently running a Buzzbnk crowdfunding campaign to raise additional finance for the shop, which the founders hope will be the first of several.

Useful links: 


And the best biodynamic, organic, wine comes from... 

Many wine aficionados may have missed it, but June witnessed a huge and important milestone in English winemaking when Sussex-based Sedlescombe vineyard unveiled the first sparkling wine and the first red wine to be produced on these shores under strict Biodynamic Agricultural Association (BDA) standards.

Sedlescombe's owners - Roy Cook and his wife Irma - launched the two unique wines during English wine week, some two and a half years after they released the first accredited biodynamic white wine to be made in the UK. Sedlescombe is best known for being the UK's top eco-friendly vineyard, producing up to 30,000 bottles of organic wine – red, white and sparkling – a year.

The vineyard is run to strict organic and biodynamic principles, which outlaw the use of pesticides, herbicides or other artificial inputs and seek to enhance the land through environmentally friendly cultivation techniques. This is in contrast to many conventional vineyards, which can use vast amounts of chemicals which some critics say are damaging to the environment (and potentially to people.)

‘Our approach is completely opposite to conventional chemical farming where they seek to dominate nature,’ says Roy. ‘We [attempt to] maximise the fertility of soil, land and the quality of the grapes. I don’t think the chemical approach is sustainable in the long term.’

The new sparkling white, a 2010 vintage Premier Brut, is made in traditional champagne style according to the producers, with '60 per cent Seyval Blanc and 40 per cent Johanniter grapes grown at the home vineyard, and at the nearby vineyard at Bodiam Castle.'

The new red, a 2011 vintage Regent, is oak matured and hails from an 'outstanding harvest' that year at Sedlescombe's Millennium vineyard.

Roy says: 'I have no doubt that [the] decision to upgrade from organic to full biodynamic status in 2010 has added an extra quality to our wines and helped to define their unique "terroir". We have been making sparkling wines since 1990, with very good results – but I am confident that the 2011 Brut is our best sparkler ever. The 2011 Regent is in my opinion as good as, and potentially even better than our award winning 2003 vintage.'

Biodynamic, according to Sedlescombe...Biodynamics pre-dates organic farming by half a century and is based on a series of lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s. This system of agriculture shuns chemical inputs in the same way that other organic farmers do. In addition it incorporates lunar and cosmic rhythms into the timing of the application of special biodynamic preparations designed to benefit both soil and plants.

In France some prestigious estates such as Chateau Margaux and Domaine de la Romainée-Conti are managed [in a] biodynamic [way] as are scores of other less well known wine estates. The system is currently enjoying something of a renaissance around the globe, especially among wine growers, as a number of formerly organic vineyards are upgrading to this ‘gold standard’ organic system.

Useful links:

Sedlescombe Wines

Biodynamic Association

Restaurant workers: the forgotten victims of exploitation

Next time you visit your favourite restaurant, or sit down to enjoy a take away, spare a thought for those toiling in the kitchens. Particularly if you happen to be in Ireland, where the pressure group Migrants Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) have been campaigning around the issue tirelessly.

Earlier this year they released an eye opening film, Food for Thought, highlighting exploitation and non compliance with employment law for many migrant workers employed in the country's restaurants.

Helen Lowry, from the group, says: 'Every day in the centre we are seeing the impact of the recession on the lives of low wage migrant workers on a continuum of being treated slightly less favourably to situations of extreme exploitation. Non-compliance is bad for the economy; it hurts workers and undermines decent employers. We would like to see ethical consumption take root amongst Irish consumers and we believe there is an appetite for change.'

It's not only cooks; those helping prepare, serve and clean eating houses are also suffering, according to the group. Ireland's wider hospitality sector, including restaurants and hotels, employs over 130,000 people, with around 35% believed to be migrant workers.

MRCI earlier undertook detailed research into exploitation in the sector, with their subsequent report containing disturbing testimonies of a number of exploited workers. Edita's story - she is from Lithuania - is typical:

'I came to Ireland to build a better life. I came to here together with my daughter. I began working for a restaurant in Blanchardstown in County Dublin in January 2007. I got a job there to work as a kitchen porter. I did not receive a contract from my employer. I thought that my pay and hours would be worked out in time. I was desperate to find work because my English was not very good. I was told that I might be working more than 39 hours in a week.

When I started working I actually worked 12-14 hour days, five and sometimes six days per week. I worked every Sunday. The work was very difficult and heavy for me. I would only get breaks when things were not busy. I was not given proper protective clothing like good gloves and aprons to do the work in the kitchen. I felt that there were not proper mats and people were always slipping. The job created a lot of stress for me. A roster was posted up that had all my hours of work on it. But the payslips that I got at the end of the week did not match the number of hours that I actually worked.

I was paid €8.00 per hour for every hour that I worked up to 39 hours in a week. For all the hours after that my pay was cut down to €5 per hour. I did not receive any extra pay for work I did on Sundays or on bank holidays. I was not paid properly for my annual leave days. In the year I worked there I took a two week holiday but was only paid for one week. I felt like I was treated like a dog by my boss and supervisors. They were always yelling at us. The boss and the boss’s wife would say things like ‘you Lithuanians are stupid and crazy’.

I felt that we were treated differently than the Irish workers there. They were treated better. They got better hours and they were not bullied by the employer like we were. I was not happy with my working conditions and the way that I was being paid and treated. I raised all of these issues several times with the head chef who was my supervisor. I was told that if I was not happy with my working conditions I could go back to Lithuania and look for better conditions there. After one year I decided that I could no longer take it and I left.'

Such exploitation is not limited to Ireland, of course. In the US, campaigner Saru Jayaraman recently lifted the lid on shocking conditions inside American restaurants in Behind the Kitchen Door, her groundbreaking book launched in association with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. What about in the UK? Watch this space.

Useful links: 

Migrants Rights Centre Ireland



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