Nike Sewell has measured out her life in meals. The school dinners at Grafton Primary School in north London where she grew up the daughter of Caribbean migrants. The best cuts saved for her by the local fish and chip shop. The cooking lessons with her mother, a trained chef, who she would later nourish with homemade courgette and pineapple cakes when she became too old to go alone to the kitchen.
But as a 63-year-old in Preston, Lancashire, living off benefits, she is less likely to eat healthily than women her age in other parts of the UK, and more likely to die in her sixties than most of the rest of the country. Sewell prefers to shop at Lidl, the budget German supermarket in town, but her benefits don’t always stretch to fruit and vegetables.
For almost a year, Sewell has been coming to a cooking class run by The Larder (Lancashire and Region Dietary Education Resource, a food co-operative in Preston). The seeds of the co-operative were sown five years ago, when Kay Johnson, a trained chef and nutritionist, was commissioned to develop a sustainable food charter for Lancashire. Over time, she began to imagine a food hub with an education element, a cafe and a catering arm to supply to Preston businesses.
In February, the doors opened on The Larder cafe in Preston city centre, which promotes healthy, seasonal and local food. The co-op has just signed a contract with a private company to provide accredited catering and hospitality courses for people on probation. It also works with the local housing association to provide cooking classes like the one Sewell attends.
Since Sewell started coming, the change in her diet has been so profound she has reduced her diabetes medication. “We need GPs to come here to this cooking class and see that we don’t need medication, we need this,” Sewell says as she shreds celery for a rainbow salad one Friday at the Sion Park community centre.
Preston is a city of two halves. The difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest parts are 10.5 years, according to Public Health England. In 2015, the Royal Society for Public Health declared that Preston was home to the UK’s most unhealthy high street, for its fast food outlets, bookmakers, loan shops and tanning salons. Residents see vegetables farmed in the area head south in lorries.
“The tomatoes they grow here, you can’t buy here,” says Chryssa Malfa-Erguvan, The Larder co-op member running the cooking course at Sion Park. “But the smallholders we work with are very happy to speak up and be part of the hubs that we organise.”
Andrea Czinege is one such smallholder. It’s still winter but Czinege has decorated the table at the community centre with seasonal produce taken fresh from her land. There are bushy herbs, fat apples, chard with brilliant red stalks, and squash cut open to reveal orange insides. Today, Sewell and her fellow attendees are mixing winter spinach with feta to fold into tiny pies, and using self-seeded cabbages, picked when the leaves are young, to make a salad. The class has been so popular it was extended from an initial 10-week run in May 2018 and, months later, Sewell still comes every week.
“We are trying to create a situation where people, regardless of income, have access to good food and information about where it comes from,” says Kay Johnson, founder of The Larder.
The business is the first co-operative to have emerged in tandem with The Preston Model, a council-led strategy to reduce inequality at a time of unprecedented budget cuts. Preston, like all councils, is creaking under the strain of an austerity programme imposed by the Conservative government since 2010. By 2020, councils in England will have lost 60p of every £1 from central government. In 2019-20, Preston is among the UK councils which will have their government grant slashed to zero.
Preston council is supporting the development of new businesses in the city organised as co-operatives, where profits are shared between workers rather than external shareholders. It scarcely seems a coincidence that the co-operative model was invented just 30 miles from Preston by a group of traders, called the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, whose businesses had suffered from the advancement of machinery at the end of the 19th century.
Matthew Brown, Preston council leader, sees co-ops as one way to reorganise power within the economy, taking it from shareholders in the City of London and putting it into the hands of local workers. “We’ve had years of austerity, we’ve got an economic model that works for the richest, so we’re trying to do things differently, with co-operatives that give people the sense that things are different,” he says.
Preston council has worked with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, a think tank based in Manchester, to rearrange spending in the city so more money is spent locally. The council plans to support co-operative businesses that can provide services to the police, the hospital and the university. Brown believes this will mean more money going back into the pockets of workers.
The idea, dubbed the Preston Model, has caught on. The Labour Party has set up a taskforce to look at whether the same principles could be used in other cities. But Martyn Rawlinson, Preston council cabinet member for resources and performance, says it’s really nothing new: “None of these are new ideas, it’s just been packaged up differently,” he says in between shifts painting The Larder cafe days before it is due to open. “The capitalists will keep doing their thing. People will still go to McDonald’s and Primark. But you need to give people a choice. All we can do is do that and see what happens.”
Johnson says the hardest thing is trying to change a culture where the cheapest is seen to be the best. “If the university is looking for a vegetable supplier and the cabbages are 1p cheaper if they come from France, then automatically they will choose the cabbages from France,” she says. “It could be a tiny price difference. Buying local is not necessarily more expensive, but suppliers and organisations have to have a better understanding of social value.”
In February, the community came together to paint The Larder ready for its grand opening. Some cleaned the kitchen cupboards and washed cutlery, others removed the light fittings, and some painted the walls. As she worked, Johnson talked about creating a demand for better food in Preston by showing what is possible. “The people coming in can afford to pay our prices, and that profit can go towards the farmers, the staff and the community projects,” she says. “Cost shouldn’t be a barrier to having a healthy diet.”