Career Chat With Sinead Fenton, Director Of Organic Food Growing Social Enterprise, Audacious Veg & Fenton Eats
When looking for food-related inspiration you don’t have to dig too far. Social media platforms such as Instagram are swarming with ‘fitspo’, ‘clean eating’ and ‘meal prep’ images that are aimed at those of us who are looking to change our diets or find some healthy recipes. Whilst these carefully curated and edited photos look enticing on a digital feed, I often wonder just how much nutritional research has been conducted to produce such a perfect looking plate of food. I question, does that dish contain all of the vitamins and nutrients I require in a day? Did the photographer actually get to eat the food after they have played around with the lighting and the placement of the vegetables? And more importantly, is this food even good for me?
Cooking and sharing food has become more of a solitary activity, limited to a photo and a catchy title for our virtual followers to look at. Instead of using cooking as a means to integrate socially with family, friends or neighbours, we are losing the beautiful physical and mental health benefits that come with preparing and making food for others. We’ve stopped growing tomatoes and strawberries in our gardens, we don’t visit farms to educate ourselves on where our meat comes from – we know nothing about how our roast dinner has made its way onto our plates.
Sinead Fenton, Director & Project Lead of organic food growing social enterprise Audacious Veg believes it is time for us change our attitudes. “We should aim to raise awareness about different issues within the food system and connect people with their food.” Sinead believes it is paramount that we “innovate, grow and sustain both people and nature through horticulture training programmes.”
I had a chat with Sinead about her love of food, the planet and people – and how they can all work together…
Your first project, Fenton Eats, focussed on exploration within the food system – where did the idea for this come from?
I grew up as a terribly fussy eater and I had little to no interest in it; the concept of food beyond the supermarket was completely alien to me. Growing it, processing it, transporting it, seasonality and so forth, were all things I’d never given consideration too, and why would I? I grew up in East London, and cities generally mean everything is available to you, at all times; food is just there, ready at your convenience. So for a large part of my life food was just sustenance, a necessity and another commodity just like anything else.
When it comes to changing ingrained habits it often takes something extraordinary to occur in order to prompt change. For me it was a series of things such as moving away, travelling and even embarrassment. My housemates introduced me to the idea of food as expression, for them cooking for others was joy, it was an experience. In Greenland, this harsh environment wasn’t the bountiful city I knew, and with that, nor was food; this is when I started waking up to the fact food has to be produced, and what’s produced is a product of the environment. In Mongolia after our food truck travelling across the South Gobi Desert broke down, we were left with little supplies, this is when I was really faced with what meat was, as I watched in horror and confusion at the camp goat be slaughtered.
All of these things and more were all part of a journey that has taken me from a place of ignorance and disinterest, into a place where now my life is surrounded by food and I genuinely feel enriched in so many ways. And so Fenton Eats is just that, openly talking about these experiences and wanting to share my journey into learning more about food and its positive effect on my life, with the hope that others who come from a similar place that I did can also learn to value food and it’s why it’s important to not disregard such a important part of our lives.
What do you believe is the most problematic issue within the food system and why do you think it is important to raise awareness about this issue?
I was at a conference a couple of years back and chef Raymond Blanc said something that has always stuck with me since. “We are a generation that has swallowed everything, defecated everything and asks no questions,” he said. We ask no questions, we just accept that food is food, but it’s not, every piece of food has a story behind it, the people that grow and produce it, the conditions under which it was produced, the methods used to process it, the means under which it was transported and so on.
When we buy something we’re inadvertently consenting to the conditions under which something was ended up with us, so essentially we’re saying we’re okay with it. But the food system is shrouded with so many issues, from the use of toxic chemicals, to exploitation, to environmental degradation and so on, all of which go unaccounted for when we simply buy and eat.
Our food choices mean were inadvertently creating an intensive, detached, emotionally and ethically devoid system that is growing at unprecedented rates, and simply it can’t go on like that. From an environmental, social and economic perspective, limits will eventually be reached and already are frankly, so it’s important to ask questions and hold processes and people to account when we’re not comfortable with a process or disagree with it.
Audacious Veg has successfully branched out into the restaurant world – do you think people’s attitudes towards food are changing, and if so, how?
Yes and no. Firstly yes in that there’s a growing interest in the environment and sustainability and with that has come a surge in interest around where food comes from and being open to trying new things. This is great, because for us one of the things we’re keen to do is re-evaluate what ‘vegetable’ means to us today. By definition, it’s all edible plant matter. However, in practice we think of veg simply as what we seen in stores, carrots, leeks, tomatoes etc, but actually flowers, stems, seeds and so much more can all form a part of a vibrant and balanced diet, and we want to celebrate the diversity in our food system by trying new things.
I say no because this is small group that’s engaged on the grand scheme of things and that’s what we need to work on. How do we engage different sections of society, who are disengaged for a number of reasons to be more involved and change their attitude to food, especially when there are so many other things in life competing for our attention? So that’s what we need to look at now, accessing those people and sharing our vision of what a good food system looks like and how it links to other parts of our lives and why it’s important to have a say.
What does an average day in the ‘office’ look like for you?
I spend four days a week onsite doing harvesting or carrying out maintenance tasks, and one day a week where I do more ‘admin’ based tasks, or simply resting the body after lots of grafting! My days onsite are great, I’ll usually be onsite from about 7.30am-8am, and typically start off with a crop walk, checking the beds, looking in the polytunnel and seeing what needs to be done and how the plants are getting on.
We’ll then start with either the harvesting, getting things boxed up and ready to go out on deliveries, or we’ll crack on with maintenance tasks, such as weeding, watering, pruning back plants, sowing new seeds, clearing beds, feeding the worms in the wormery. We’ll have lunch under the elder tree and usually pick away at the golden raspberry bed in front of us, then continue on with the rest of the days tasks. We tend to water later in the day depending on the heat, so that’s usually one of our last tasks and then we’ll finish up on a final walk around and log what needs to be done for the next day.
Have you noticed any physical or mental benefits from working outside amongst nature?
I suffer with anxiety and being outdoors does me the world of good. Cities and offices aren’t great environments for me, I find them claustrophobic, and although the pace of cities in particular is something I find too intense, I also just don’t feel engaged in those environments. There’s something about being outdoors that just makes me feel free, it’s like I decompress and all my senses, which often feel so suppressed, come alive and I’m engaged and intrigued by everything around me. The pace of being outdoors is soothing, things generally are a bit slower, and everything around you is working with one another, in a complex and astounding system, which is incredible to see evolve and change throughout the seasons.
Country parks such as Bedford’s (part of the Essex Wildlife Trust) are now running numerous outdoor activities for young children, to help teach them about the nature and the environment. Would Audacious Veg ever look into running classes or activities for children?
Totally. It’s actually one of the things we’re keen to expand on going forward, working with young people to increase aware around horticulture and food. Last year, we worked with over 700 children doing gardening workshops and teaching them how to grow edible flowers, salad greens, vegetables and making soil mixes up, too. This is our way of introducing children to an expanded concept of what vegetables are, introducing them to new flavours and making food and growing fun.
Next year we hope to be able to have site visits with small groups coming to our plot, exploring the land and getting them stuck into growing and being outdoors.
What is your favourite thing to cook and/or eat?
I love katsu! And Japanese food in general. Panko crumbed aubergine, a hot katsu sauce, with brown rice, pickled cucumber, mixed veg in a soy glaze. And if I’m feeling particularly fancy, I’ll make vegetable gyoza to start with.
What would you have liked to have achieved in 10 years’ time?
That’s a big question! We want to keep developing our system, at the moment were transitioning to a no dig approach and are looking at new growing methods like intercropping and companion planting. Our system is based on soil health principles and nature mimicry and we want to keep exploring that, so hopefully in 10 years’ time, we should have something pretty exciting and thriving in place!
We’d love to get another site too, in an ideal world, we’d go to a larger site to focus on the production a bit more efficiently. We love the idea of having an off-grid farm and regenerating a piece of land and really challenging ourselves to be as sustainable as we can be.
Interview: Sophia Chettleburgh
Images: Sinead Fenton