Thursday, 15 October 2015

Marking International Day of Rural Women and World Food Day with a potted history of the WI and food (minus the Victoria sponge!)

Right from its humble beginnings in a small north Wales village (and at a time when few women participated in public life and the vote for women had not yet been won), WI women rolled up their sleeves and joined forces to feed the nation and create a better society for themselves and their communities. As we mark the International Day of Rural Women (15th October) and World Food Day (16th October) – let us reflect how through food these strong country women shaped Britain’s future.


In 1917, with word out that only three weeks food supply remained in the country, the newly formed National Federation of Women’s Institutes urged WIs to get behind food production efforts. WIs began growing more for villages and communities and, at a time when fruit conservation was something of a novel concept, members began bottling and preserving excess fruit in tremendous volumes. Building on this successful contribution to the war effort, the NFWI published a pamphlet in 1917 entitled Women’s Institutes and their part in the reconstruction of rural life. The pamphlet highlighted the WI’s important role revitalising rural communities and made clear: ‘The WI movement is not a war emergency measure but will be of permanent value in the world of rural regeneration.’

During the Second World War efforts were again stepped up. Members organised markets, and bottled and preserved thousands of tonnes of fruit and vegetables that would otherwise have gone to waste. Between 1940 and 1945, over 5,300 tonnes of fruit was preserved – nearly 12 million pounds of fruit that helped ensure the food security of the nation. The jam-making label stuck.  While it is now something of a stereotype, it is one that the WI is rightly proud of – demonstrating the organisation’s commitment to encouraging members to give help where needed, and tackling some of society’s major challenges along the way.

As well as their stellar work during both world wars, WI members have always been heavily involved in food production and preservation – as individual farmers and as WI members working together, especially in times of great need. In 1929, the WI drew attention to the urgent need for fruit culture and preservation to be promoted in England and Wales. In the aftermath of WWII, at the 1946 NFWI Annual Meeting, the WI noted ‘with grave concern’ the world short of food, and so pledged itself ‘to do everything in its power to increased home production and preservation.’ Again, in 1975 and in light of world food shortages, WI members called for the scaling up education in food production and preparation, and provision of a stable, well-balanced agricultural policy domestically and globally.


The WI’s focus on food production has also included fair conditions and fair prices for both farmers and consumers. In reaction to the critical situation facing the dairy industry, in 2007 the NFWI launched the WI Great Milk Debates to raise awareness of the challenges faced by dairy farmers and the importance of the dairy farming industry to the UK. The WI Great Milk Debates examined how best to safeguard the future of the industry with 100 debates taking place, involving 15,000 people, and tapping into the huge strength of feeling about the dairy industry that still exists across the country today. While dairy farmers continue to face a number of challenges, the years that followed saw several major retailers invest millions of pounds in establishing dedicated relationships with the dairy farmers that supply them, encouraging retailers to enter long term partnerships, and taking greater responsibility for the fortunes of their producers.

This, of course, was by no means the first time that WI members focused on milk. Resolutions in the 1930s highlighted the very high cost of milk to the consumer at that time, and the concern that this was detrimental to the nation’s health. In 1936, the NFWI was asked for evidence by the Reorganisation Commission for Milk and so a questionnaire was duly drawn up and sent out to federations. The responses received revealed the widespread concern that the price of milk at the time was limiting the amount of milk that people could afford to consume. WI members called for the government to intervene to reduce the retail price, in a manner that bore no adverse effect on the producer, so that milk would be available more widely for consumers. Over the following years, WI members were called upon to collect more detailed information about what (if any) local schemes existed that helped mothers and young children get affordable milk, leading to letters to MPs and meetings with the Minister of Agriculture to promote the cause.

This support for farmers was not just confined to the UK. In 1992, the WI joined with CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam, Traidcraft and the World Development Movement to become a founding member of the Fairtrade Foundation. Today, the foundation reports that the Fairtrade certification mark is on over 4,500 products in a market worth over £1.7 billion, which includes the UK’s top-selling fruit: the banana. As a result, over 1.4 million farmers and workers have been supported in improving their lives and their communities.


The WI has also brought a strong consumer rights perspective to food issues, especially with regards to food quality and hygiene. In 1929 the NFWI focused on bread, starting with the call for the loaves of bread that were being transported across districts and towns to be enclosed in paper bags. Quality of the bread was also an issue, with a resolution the following year about the nutritive value of commercially-sold bread. In 1931, the WI called for the extension of the National Mark to jams, honey, pickles, bottled fruits and vegetables ‘in order to safeguard consumers and to enable them to distinguish goods made from a full percentage of home grown fruit and vegetables from other kinds appearing on the market.’ Some twenty years later, a further resolution saw members turn attention to the ‘deplorable conditions’ in which food was handled, distributed and served, urging members to ‘help the authorities in every possible way.’

In the early 1960s, the WI turned its attention food safety and to the increased use of chemicals in food production, with resolutions calling for stricter controls on insecticides and pesticides in agriculture (1960) and scaled up research into what effects these chemicals had on human health (1962). Food irradiation was another issue that mobilised WI members, with the prospect of the ban on commercially available irradiated food being lifted promoting members to pass a resolution in 1987. This gained the attention of WIs across the country which highlighted their twin concerns around food safety and consumer choice. WIs swung into action, urging the government not to legalise the irradiation of food without research about the effects, or the introduction of proper safeguards to protect the consumer. Members came out in force – descending on Westminster for the WI’s first ever mass lobby of Parliament in 1990.

The WI’s work on securing a sustainable future for the UK’s dairy industry, recent pioneering work programmes on food security and food waste, and campaigns on country of origin labelling demonstrate that the WI is a leading voice on food matters here in the UK. As the NFWI continues to promote and reflect WI members’ concerns at national and international level, WI members play a fundamental role in our campaigning – informing the issues we work on and bringing the strength and credibility that ensure the WI is an organisation that is not only heard, but more importantly – gets things done!