A new year is traditionally a time of reflection, and like countless others, Angela Whiting has been casting her mind back over past successes and let-downs.
But the 41-year-old has been delving deeper than just the events of 2013.
In fact, the mother of two small children has been pondering on happenings and experiences from as far back as 2010.
That was the year she joined Durham’s Love Food project as assistant to its director Hazel Coppock.
And her current bout of nostalgia has been prompted by the realisation that at the end of this month, funding for Love Food will run out after four years.
There have been, by Angela’s own admission, many ups and downs, as you would expect of a scheme that set out to bring the eat, use, produce and spend local mantra to the people of Teesdale, Weardale, the Allen Valleys and Derwentside.
Thankfully the plusses far outweigh any negatives. The two things that stand out for her are the number of fledgling businesses the venture has been able to help get on a sound footing, and its successes in educating the area’s youth about the importance of not just home-cooked food but provenance and keeping it local.
As 2014 really gets under way and D-Day for Love Food fast approaches, Angela says she has been filled with an “amazing sense of satisfaction” at what the project’s small but dedicated team and partners have achieved in helping both businesses and consumers recognise the wealth of high quality produce and talent there is in the region, and the lasting legacy that will be left behind.
Except that hopefully it will be a legacy that Angela and Love Food won’t be turning their backs on, but rather will be inheriting and running with for the future.
For while the current cash pot may have run dry, Angela is pursuing other avenues and reveals she is “fairly hopeful” that alternative funding will become available and allow Love Food – albeit in a slightly different format – to carry on its good work in promoting all that’s good about eating and drinking in County Durham.
It will inevitably mean the programme will have to become more commercially minded going forward and that certain activities that aren’t sustainable might have to fall by the wayside.
But it is lucky that Angela, whose background prior to 2010 was in project management, is passionate about supporting local food in every aspect.
“It is our intention to keep it going, to keep the ethos going behind it, to continue bringing people together and to keep educating the public about the importance of buying and using local produce as a way of strengthening not just County Durham’s economy, but that of the North East as a whole by supporting the region’s growers and producers,” she says.
Initiatives like Love Food that champion going local have never been needed more in what is still a time of austerity. The green shoots of an economic recovery may be tentatively (some may say very uncertainly) growing, but it’s been a tough last few years for small scale independent retailers and producers.
They have needed all the help they can get to market themselves and their wares and encourage consumers to spend wisely and locally.
Last year’s horse meat fiasco which embroiled the big supermarket names and food manufacturers offered a welcome boost to farmers, retailers and producers and seems in part to have been sustained.
Certainly Angela maintains it was a “positive” Christmas on the home-grown food front as people chose to buy and eat local.
“I think there is now a perceived quality about local food and people are much more aware of what is out there and are now consciously choosing local produce on both the back of the recent food scares but also the work of groups like Love Food.
“It takes two to three years to develop an awareness and get people knowing what is out there and what they need to be doing. We are now on the crest of a wave and people do have knowledge about Love Food.
“It is important we keep tapping into that and moving forward. We have a lot of very productive people in this part of the world and Love Food has helped them and helped raise understanding across the board about the importance of choosing local.”
It actually started out as the North Pennine Dales Enterprising Food project, a mouthful of a name that was soon changed to the more digestible Love Food.
Based in Teesdale, its aims were simple: to support the production, use and appreciation of locally-grown or reared food both in its home area and neighbouring Weardale, Derwentside and the Allen Valleys.
The initiative was borne out of Teesdale Marketing Limited, chaired by local food champion, former Journal Taste columnist and restaurateur Bill Oldfield of Oldfields Eating House in Durham.
Teesdale Marketing worked alongside the South Durham Enterprise Agency and the North Pennines AONB Partnership to deliver the initiative. It was rewarded with nearly £400,000 for the first three years and then won a further £77,500 from the Big Lottery Fund’s Local Food Scheme to sustain the enterprise for a fourth year.
Love Food set out to establish new routes to market for producers; encourage environmental best practice; promote the use and appreciation of local fare; improve business competiveness and related skills and develop culinary tourism in the North Pennines Dales.
That’s been achieved by helping new Dales businesses develop and come to market; supporting the Great Weardale Cake Bake contest and running a North Pennine Dales Breakfast competition; organising a Teesdale schools cookery challenge and region-wide workshops on marketing and labelling; providing ‘taster tables’ at summer shows and chef demonstrations at events; arranging foraging courses and helping fund the valuable work done by UTASS – Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Service – in helping farmers with complex environmental and administrative paperwork.
Love Food’s Come Dine With Me undertaking, run over the last two years, was, Angela says, a particular success. Nineteen schools took part last year, with competitors challenged to source local ingredients and cook a two-course meal for an invited guest judge.
The meal was assessed on the number of ‘food miles’ used as well as its presentation and taste.
Angela, who was behind the contest, says: “It was a huge success and I know the standards were so high the judges had a hard time deciding on the winners.
“What the contest did was enable young people to understand where their food comes from, thanks especially to all the producers and restaurateurs who participated so enthusiastically with free farm visits and talks to the schools which were central to the project.”
The plan had been to roll the competition out to other schools in the region - a route Angela hopes can still be taken. “The schools have really enjoyed the competition and there is an expectation now it’s been running two years that it will continue.
“The thing I have learnt is that there are certain things that aren’t sustainable, like the education activities. But if going forward we can be more self-reliant and commercial then we can off-set some of that against the things that aren’t self-sustaining.”
Enabling new ventures to get going has been a key element of Love Food. Businesses have been able to access free support through the South Durham Enterprise Agency and this has been instrumental for new start-ups and helping expanding concerns open up new markets.
In the rural North Pennine Dales trying to develop a small ‘kitchen table’ production into a sustainable business can be hard. The leap from table to full production can be costly, time consuming and risky.
Love Food recognised this and in August last year came up with a solution – a £25,000 industrial ‘test’ kitchen fitted at Durham County Council’s Woodleigh premises in Barnard Castle, which businesses have been able to hire for anything from one day upwards. The first business to use it was Tapas in Teesdale, run by chef Jose Rodriguez from Barcelona and his wife Denise.
The couple tested the market for their authentic Spanish cuisine. Following successful use of the kitchen, Tapas opened its own restaurant in Barnard Castle a few months ago.
Denise, who is originally from Stockton-on-Tees, says: “We had a lot of business support from Love Food before this, but the test kitchen was absolutely ideal for what we needed. It was not realistic to develop the business from home, but it meant we could grow at the right rate and with excellent facilities.”
Love Food has also helped people get back to basics. Eating out has been taken to new levels, with the wild foraging trips and a number of food trails, put together through the North Pennines AONB, showing cyclists and walkers the paths, bridleways and roads where they can find pubs, restaurants and cafes serving high quality local food, have also been launched.
Angela says: “We work on the premise that it’s not just about telling people how important it is to use and eat local produce, it’s also about pointing them in the right direction, involving and engaging them, making it as easy as possible to subscribe to the idea.”
And neither has it been just about telling pubs, restaurants and cafes that they should back local – it’s also been about helping them source high quality goods and services and supporting the development of an effective business relationship through a series of ‘Meet the Producer’ events.
After four years, Angela, Hazel and their co-partners on the project are still fortunately hugely enthusiastic about Love Food.
“It’s been an amazing project so far and we’re looking forward to moving ahead,” Angela says. “We have spent four years building a network of partners and developing a real food buzz and the tragedy would be if that were to be allowed to fizzle out.
“We sometimes don’t recognise the wealth of quality and talent in this region. Love Food has made a difference to that and will, all being well, continue to do so.” www.lovefood.me