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Thursday, June 13, 2024
FoodTim Crabtree

Tim Crabtree

Tim’s choice of venue for lunch is The Farmer’s Kitchen at Washingpool Farm and when I arrive he’s already there, chatting easily with owner and farmer Simon Holland in the busy farm shop. What strikes me immediately is the genuine friendship and palpable respect between these two veterans of the local food scene.

The Holland family have been farming at Washingpool just outside Bridport for three generations but when Tim arrived in Bridport in 1995, to work for Dorset Community Action, Washingpool’s retail business was a tentative farm gate affair that Tim describes as “a little shack with an honesty box”. Since then it’s steadily developed into a thriving mecca for local food, garlanded, among a shed load of other prizes, with no less than four Taste of the West Gold Awards. Home grown Washingpool produce including beef, pork, lamb and fruit and veg straight from the farm’s fields, are sold in the shop – alongside a full roll call of other local products – and used in the dishes prepared and served in the popular Farmer’s Kitchen.

In 1998, when Tim set about organising the first Farmers Market in Bridport, it wasn’t easy to persuade farmers that adding value to their products by getting involved in retail and direct marketing was a good idea. Tim’s argument for this – that the terms of trade for farmers had reduced them to selling ‘commodities’ whose prices were increasingly driven by supermarkets, processors and manufacturers – was a difficult one to win, “even the NFU said it was nonsense. But Simon had been away to college, he was open to new ideas and he could see the logic of it. He was one of the original supporters of the Farmers Market and was prepared to take that risk.”

The restaurant is filling up with a mixed and convivial crowd and we order Roast Roots Soup, served with hearty chunks of Evershot Bakery wholemeal bread. “I should have said about the bread,” Tim clearly regrets it may go to waste, “I can’t eat bread because I’ve had a wheat intolerance for the last 4 years. I’m also allergic to meat!” A summer job at a pork pie factory put him right off meat for years, “It was one of those classic things, I saw the way they made the sausages and I just thought, no, I don’t want to eat that anymore.” Tim started eating meat again ten years ago but then a serious virus left him sensitised to its proteins. “There’s an argument that we should all convert to a completely vegetarian diet but I think there has to be realism in the politics. We’re not going to get everyone to stop eating meat so we have to promote better quality meat and a reduction in meat consumption at the same time.”

The soup is delicious and I munch away on the bread while Tim talks about his Dorset childhood. “I always say I grew up in Dorset, but I was actually born in Reading. We lived in Germany for a couple of years and then my Dad got a job as an educational psychologist in Poole. It was the fastest growing town in the UK and seeing the effects of a town developing that fast definitely had an impact.” Tim’s Dad had grown up in a very working class family in Liverpool but Tim describes his family as liberal, rather than overtly political. I muse to myself that this is the Tom Crabtree who later, during the ‘80s, penned ‘On the Couch’ for Cosmopolitan Magazine. The column ran for almost 10 years and gained Tom an adoring following as the ‘agony uncle’ who consistently took his female readers’ side against all the ‘rotten men out there, giving them hope that -somehow, somewhere – good, caring, romantic men could still be found’. (Linda Kelsey Was it good for you too?: 30 years of Cosmopolitan) I wonder how this played out for Tim as a young man and realise that he’s definitely going to see me coming with any veiled attempt to analyse his motivations.

When I first met Tim in 2002, he was running The West Dorset Food and Land Trust which had already successfully launched the farmers markets, a local food directory, Dorset Food Week and a producers network of 60 local business, and had followed this with the Bridport Centre for Local Food, which was in the vanguard of the regeneration of St Michael’s trading estate in Bridport’s South West Quadrant.

Since then Local Food Links Ltd, a not for profit social enterprise, with Tim at the helm as Executive Director, has rolled out a succession of further projects – the Bridport Food Festival, Grow it, Cook It, Eat It, cookery workshops and NVQ training in Catering for young people. In 2004 it began a hot meals service for schools and nurseries and now the Bridport and Blandford ‘hub’ kitchens use local produce to provide freshly prepared meals, on a daily basis, to over 25 schools and nurseries – 200,000 hot school lunches a year – and has recently started lunches at day centres for older people too. Roll over Jamie Oliver – this is an astonishing achievement, accomplished with quiet and determined purpose and a huge amount of ‘partnership’ work, and accompanied by almost no fanfare – other than the first ever Gold Mark Catering Award from the Food For Life Partnership in 2009. Food Links continues to expand with cookery workshops for older people, residents at women’s refuges in Dorset and young adults in supported housing.

Alongside the CV he’s sent me as background for our meeting, Tim has provided an article he wrote 10 years ago for Christian Ecology Link about ‘the role of local issues within a sustainable lifestyle’. It kicks off with beautiful quotes that Tim says sum up for him ‘the challenges that we are faced with in charting a course through life’. One each from Thomas Merton – Catholic mystic and thinker, Martin Buber – Jewish existentialist and Aldo Leopold – the mid-Western ecologist who had a profound influence on environmental ethics and the movement for wilderness conservation. I ponder this range of influences. Tim’s intro talks about ‘learning to persist and endure’ and the need to search for ‘guidelines for living.’

There’s also a discussion paper written by Tim for the New Economics Foundation that makes a critique of market liberalism from the new economics perspective of ‘promoting individual well-being while supporting sustainable communities’ and a proposal for embedding the economy into society, by moving from a market to a social economy. Tim writes, ‘the key point here is that we are discussing not just technical solutions and institutional innovations but also deeper psychological processes which resist the adoption of “new” ways of acting’. Two quotes stand out – ‘The art of living is always to make a good thing out of a bad thing’ (E.F. Schumacher A guide for the Perplexed) – and – ‘Western man is … anxious, depressed and desperate. He still pays lip service to the aims of happiness, individualism, initiative – but actually he has no aim. Ask him what he is living for, what is the aim of all his strivings – and he will be embarrassed’ (Erich Fromm Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism).

Is Tim’s life and work all about making ‘a good thing out of a bad thing’? I’m sure there is an ‘aim to all his strivings’ and I want to try and understand what this is. A couple of weeks beforehand Tim had emailed me, pretty much out of the blue, about his new Sunday evening Shiatsu and Mindfulness Practice group at Bridport’s Quaker Meeting House and I wonder how this all fits together – the politics, economics and strategy – Shiatsu – ‘the guidelines for living’ – and especially the food.

“I was good at school, I got into Oxford from a state school, but I was always anti-authoritarian, not in a confrontational sort of way, I just had the sort of brain that was always asking questions, always challenging”. After Oxford and a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Tim went to Japan to study Aikido. He taught English to earn money and also worked for the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Peace Foundation with hibakusha, surviving victims of the atomic bombings; there was also a stint with the Resource Centre for Philippine Concerns, “some of my first experiences of working with food were of malnutrition on the Philippines island of Negros.”

Returning to London Tim joined the New Economics Foundation in 1988, first as General Secretary and then as Research Co-ordinator. “The New Economics Foundation was doing a lot of policy work with all the big agencies, like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, The International Institute for Environmental Development – it was all very exciting, all very high powered, going off to conferences all round Europe – but it felt that we weren’t really achieving very much, it was all words and the words weren’t persuading anybody to change anything.”

Frustrated by talking rather than doing, Tim looked for funding for a research project into social enterprise. “I decided I wanted to work in Bristol as it was a very exciting place at that time, with lots of social enterprise stuff happening, so I did the research and then I got the job I wanted” – as Development Manager for Bristol & Avon Community Enterprise Network – “and I deliberately applied as a job share so that I could spend the other half of my time studying Shiatsu.”

This turned out to be life changing. Tim’s Shiatsu teacher also used the Chinese theory of the five elements and identified Tim’s dominant element as fire – which badly needed earth as a balancing influence, “so she put me straight into the garden and I didn’t enjoy it much, something about earth made me very resistant”. Then she put Tim into the fire element “but before I’d got the hang of earth and how to use it as a means of control and I felt as if I didn’t come down from this fiery element for about three months, until the next workshop when she worked with me on the earth thing again. And then I got it. The Chinese way is to understand one thing by comparing it to another and she wanted me to realise that I had this fiery temperament and needed to cultivate ways of balancing it. So I decided to volunteer one day a week at the City Farm and that was how I got into food.”

“That first afternoon I was put in a work group with people with learning difficulties and I was paired up with this guy and I didn’t know what do and he kindly, quietly disguised his contempt that I was a 30 year old man and I didn’t know how to sow seeds or really do anything at all”. As Tim relates this story I have a strong image of his muddy and slightly reluctant epiphany – highly educated, analytical, adept at developing political and economic arguments and strategies – with a spade in his hands and not the first idea how to dig.

It’s starting to make sense to me how food became central to Tim’s work, as he says, it has many different dimensions – political, economic, philosophical, psychological, emotional – which are complex and interrelated. It’s one of our most basic human needs and at the same time affords opportunities for sharing and conviviality, so is fundamental to both community and culture. And the question of the ‘guidelines’ is coming into focus too. Along with the Shiatsu and Aikido, Tim began a Buddhist practice while still at Oxford, which he’s kept up for twenty-seven years; for the last sixteen years he’s also been an attender at the local Quaker meeting; and then there’s the Mindfulness practice and his interest in Christian and monastic traditions. It strikes me that all of these share a commonality of method and purpose – the use of disciplines, precepts and frameworks that while providing constraints also support growth, development and change.

“Buddhism teaches that we all suffer because we crave and if we can find ways to reduce that craving then we will reduce our suffering. Relating that to food is really interesting because there’s so many eating disorders and diseases of excess in the West.” But Tim’s very clear that the ‘guidelines’ should not be used for rigid control – that would lead to fundamentalism – instead they’re challenges to develop greater understanding and compassion for suffering and fragility and a recognition of the importance of restraint. “They’ve given me the confidence to say that the big problem is a lack of self awareness and understanding of the complexity and connections in the issues we face. My interest has always been in how do we provide for our basic needs – food, warmth, shelter, care, culture – and that includes exploring if a new framework, based on religious and spiritual tradition, could bring a different dimension to economic and political solutions.”

The restaurant has filled and emptied while we’ve been talking and I’m concerned that Tim’s had such a frugal lunch, having declined the delicious, but wheat based, puddings and tarts. We return to talking about local food and how his concern that it had become a ‘niche’ and out of reach to those who needed it most, propelled the school meals project, the expanding work with older people and other low income sectors of the community, “Free school meals was the big issue really that drove the school meals project and I guess that’s what I still feel most proud about.”

And what about the future? Tim stood down from his directorship of Local Food Links last year and is now working for Cardiff University, researching the future direction of the community food sector, while his work in Dorset continues through research with Wessex Community Assets into the links between renewable energy and food production and at SturQuest, on research into the support and training needs of local food businesses. As the founder and a board director of Wessex Reinvestment Trust he’s also been very involved in community land trust housing and he’s as interested by care and education as he is by food. If he does get back into food in a practical way in the future one idea is a cross between a care home and a co-housing project, with food at its core. “I’m 50 next year and I suppose I’m starting to think about the next phase of life – 50 to 100 seems like a very interesting period! In a traditional care home setting you have a restaurant and are served the food, but in this set up, growing, cooking and of course sharing food would be a very big part of the whole community’s purpose. It would be great to combine this idea with a community farm. Whenever I go down to my allotment I wish I could just spend more time down there and share it with other people.”

Just before we leave, Tim remembers one last story about Washingpool and its partnership in the Food Links projects. “They were crucial to the Fruit Scheme and have been a really important supplier for the schools meals. I remember one time we’d made leek and potato soup for Bridport Primary and when it was heated up it had a really funny smell. It wasn’t a problem from a health and safety point of view but the teachers were worried and wouldn’t serve it. This was at about 9.30 in the morning and we had to make soup for 250 children in a couple of hours. We rang Washingpool and asked if they had any leeks and they’d just dug some up, so they brought them down to us within half an hour.”

I’m just thinking that this is surely what community is all about and Tim seems to have read my thoughts. “I’ve really enjoyed the work with schools and older people in that I’ve learned how to have a connection with this community. All of the analytical stuff, the research and policy, being an observer and a critic and wanting to change what you see, can make you an outsider. But being in a family and connecting with other people, living in a community like Bridport, has really helped to balance that.”

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