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Sharon Bill Music Tutor & Author

Food For Thought

International Day of Rural Women and World Food Day culminated a recent article with a potted history of the WI - and it makes for a very interesting read. I was moved to discover the true depths of what bought these ladies together. The substance of the story made me quite emotional and I do wonder if it might not be time for us to roll up our sleeves again? Although I'm very wary of jumping on the political band wagon, as it's so easy to make biased assumptions on too little information, I do approve of the WIs role in food management. We waste too much food today simply because we have lost the art of 'waste not want not' and the art of food preparation. We have HDTV and mobile everything and yet we have food banks (not wishing to open a can of worms). The WI recently supported a resolution to reduce food waste and it begins in your own kitchen... ‘

As a member of the WI I've heard all the jibes about old women and jars of jam, but I think if you really knew WHY we're associated with jam, you'd be humbled - as I was. The movie Calendar Girls did a great deal to promote the WI and give it a new, modern appeal - but I've discovered that it only goes a short way to promote what the WI was all about. 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. Although these ladies didn't have the power to vote, nor a voice to be heard at governmental levels they got busy in their own kitchens and in their own quiet, determined way bottled literally 12 million pounds of fruit into jams and preserves thus ensuring the food security of the nation. Without these, and further efforts, tonnes of fruit would have gone to waste and the nation faced the possibility of starving!

The WI didn't restrict its usefulness to solely a war emergency measure but endeavoured to be of permanent value. In 1929 and again, after the war in 1946, the WI voiced concerns about food shortages and pledged 'to do everything in its power to increase home production and preservation.’ More recently in 1975 members called for the scaling up of education in food production and preparation as the nation faced shortage yet again. Since then they've been at the forefront of Fair-trade, Dairy Farming issues and so much more.

My concern now isn't lack - it's overmuch. We have too much! Plenty is now a problem. We have so much convenience food at low prices we've lost the art of food preparation and meal times. We can eat out and snack our way through each and everyday. I know of women old enough to be my grandma who can't cook fresh broccoli and mums of young families that haven't a clue where to start when grilling a sausage. Children think that carrots are born in a supermarket and milk comes from a plastic carton. Why does this matter? Although convenience food is relatively cheap and accessible, it's very expensive to try and feed a whole family this way. Health is another major issue. My own father now suffers from diabetes and his taste buds are so spoiled that 'real' food makes him feel sick!

Cook-in-Sauces and Ready Meals were just gaining prominence when I was newly married and had three small babies to feed. At the time I didn't realise it but I'm now truly thankful that I simply couldn't afford all of these newly available, tasty cooking alternatives (they were really expensive back then). Thank goodness I learned to cook with raw ingredients and a tin of tomatoes - even tinned chopped tomatoes were really expensive then. It forced me to learn some basic cooking skills and it saved my children's taste pallet from becoming too accustomed to salt and sugar. I probably need to just add an aside here - we all enjoy a good take-away at home and I do like a BigMac now and then! I'm not looking for an extreme knee-jerk reaction.

Initially I joined the WI because I had a vague idea of its origins during the war and, although starting/running a small business in today's recession culture isn't even close to rationing, I knew that there were skills I needed in a 'back to basics' sense and hoped to gain help and inspiration. To some the WI can seem like an upper class social club where ladies with nothing better to do busy themselves with this and that - and no doubt that is the case here and there. However, at least they are busying themselves - not sitting in front of the TV all day! These ladies have a wealth of knowledge and experience and are willing to get out there and share it. Good for them! I think what worries me most is that we are generally so apathetic - so what if somebody doesn't know how to cook a sausage? The TV is crowded with cookery shows that gain great viewing figures - and some do put into practice what they learn. Others don't know where to start…

Is this where the WI can come to the rescue again? I'm not entirely sure what I'm hoping for here, but I'm hoping for something … I was when I joined, but now I don't want to keep it to myself. The most inspirational part of the history of the WI is that they didn't need to access government planning (although they have done that since). Instead, on an individual basis, ladies got busy in their own little kitchens and saved the nation…