Helping farmers put real health on our plates

Meet Dr Antonia Wrigley, Founder of The Real Food Campaign.

Camping in a rain-swept field in Spring last year, the founders of Whole Health Agriculture seriously questioned their decision to take up the opportunity to collaborate with fellow ‘real food’ fans.  What on earth had possessed us to agree to camp in blustery April for a start? Nevertheless, as the weekend unfolded we became filled with enthusiasm for the newly founded Real Food Campaign.

You know when you get that sense of having “found your tribe”? Well, this was it for us. Now, one year on, we found ourselves talking to the founder of The Real Food Campaign, medical doctor, Antonia Wrigley, to find out just what had sparked this campaign and what, exactly, was it all about.

“The Real Food Campaign really all started with the British Holistic Medicine Association (BHMA)”, said Antonia, who as a GP is also Vice-Chair of the BHMA.  If you haven’t already heard of them, the BHMA is a group of doctors, set up in 1985, who are passionate about taking a holistic approach to patient health.  “You could say we were a bit on the fringe of medicine but we do very much hold the view of the bigger picture” explained Antonia.  A look at the BHMA Mission Statements tells you that they look to promote sustainable, holistic and humanistic health care and health creation.  They do this by embracing and promoting the uniqueness of each individual and their desire for optimal health through evolving life stages.  The BHMA embraces all means of healthcare which integrate and encourage a sense of personal responsibility for one’s own well-being.  Their mission statements say that they embrace and promote inclusivity and positive connections with the self, others, the community, society and the planet.

In other words, the BHMA recognise that there is more to disease than just a bug.  If you had recurring headaches, they wouldn’t just suggest taking a paracetamol, but help you to look to nutrition, resolving stress factors such as workload or a difficult family life. They’d help the patient explore other options maybe involving complementary healthcare alongside lifestyle changes. They’d emphasise a need to take time to relax and sleep well. Members of the BHMA have very diverse interests, they look towards what medicine SHOULD become – about whole health through a complete change in our approach to life.  Antonia chuckled wryly, “unfortunately, we’re probably a bit too far outside the box for some medics” but, we thought, they need to be outside the box in order to find the inspiration needed to make these radical changes.

Antonia went on “Food has always been a passion of mine, even from when I was very young.” It made sense, therefore, for her to take an intercalated degree in Nutrition during her Medical Sciences degree back in 1990.

Antonia looks back at that time studying for a degree in nutrition with some disappointment. “The thinking back then was firmly embedded in the “all fat is bad, calories in must not exceed calories out premise.” Since taking her degree, Antonia’s study of food and its impact on our health began to grow. She described various food exploration phases, meandering her way through vegetarian, raw food vegan and low carb diets. Her reflection upon coming out of each phase was that “nature knows best”, each time she shifted her food choices Antonia was able to pull back and see the bigger picture of food.  Whilst she readily acknowledges that she is not an ‘expert’, Antonia considers that the Public Health England guidelines really needs an overhaul. She takes the view that food guidelines have been wrong for many years and as other nutritionists have pushed back against these views of Public Health England, people have been left confused as to what is “good” or “bad” for you.

“We have lost our traditional wisdom, our common sense about food,” says Antonia. “We’ve moved away from Real Food because of guidelines such as those on low fat. We distrusted butter and fatted, pasture-raised meat.  Nutrition guidelines have a lot to answer for and, in a way”, she went on “we’d have been better if we’d left things as our ancestors did them.”

So, how did these views unfurl into the Real Food Campaign? “It was never my idea” said Antonia, “It was David Peters, the Editor of the BHMA journal.  He was interested in an American collaboration between the Plantrition Project and the Rhodale Institute. Two fairly plant-based organisations worth reading up on as they inspired David to suggest a similar collaboration between healthcare professionals and existing organisation here in the UK.  Antonia knew there was something useful here, but it was 6 months before she found herself chatting to a retired GP who was particularly passionate about ‘real’ dairy and grass-fed meat.  He also wanted to engage doctors over nutrition but also with farmers. Antonia came away from this discussion with the germ of an idea that was to become The Real Food Campaign.

Fuelled by reading Graham Harvey’s Grass Fed Nation, she set up a weekend camping and invited as many like-minded organisations as she could find, from doctors to farmers, we were all there; and so, the conversations and discussions on collaboration began.

We still wondered, however, what the aim for the Real Food Campaign was. Antonia took a breath; we could see a perfect scenario about to be aired. “Ultimately, I want everyone in the UK to be eating Real Food, to understand what it is, to be able to afford it and access it.” Yes indeed, a perfect scenario alright!  “I want people to understand that what we eat, it’s quality and how it is grown or raised is vitally important to our long-term health.  It is NOT about the calories.”  Antonia sees the Real Food Campaign being part of the education process on nutrition.  They want to be able to influence doctors so that they can direct their patients to accurate and easy to understand information on nutrition.  Antonia knows first-hand that Doctors have a negligible amount of training on nutrition so it makes sense to provide what they and their patient’s need easily.

She continued describing the dream for the Real Food Campaign, “We need to work on the education of the public by using our Ambassadors”. These are people familiar with the Real Food landscape within their own community. They will be able to link people together such as GPs, growers, farmers and the consumers.  Antonia enthused, “I’d love to see cookery classes starting, linking people in communities together and forming community kitchens, for instance – that would be fabulous.”  The Campaign is still in its early days and Antonia is aware that conversations between interested parties need to continue so that it finds the best way forward. Currently, she is looking for interested parties, promoting opportunities for conversation through social media and generally working to see how the Real Food Campaign can best move forward by working with organisations already in existence.

The Real Food Campaign already has volunteer Ambassadors who will soon start to engage with local people.  “My hope is that people will view the Real Food Campaign as a vehicle for having these conversations about food with each other.”  You only have to spend 10 minutes on Twitter with #RealFood and you’ll see many people and organisations already working towards highlighting carefully prepared and cooked, well-grown and raised food, sold locally and mindful of the debt to the planet. “But”, said Antonia, “I don’t see anyone putting out good quality, current, accurate, unbiased information for both the public and their doctors with regard to food for health.”

Antonia’s first aim is to work on their website. It contains a wealth of information relating to Real Food, but she feels it needs to be clearer and easier for people to access.  Antonia intends for the Real Food Campaign website to become an accurate and easy to access resource for doctors and patients. Eventually, it will become a means for communities to grow networks made up of healthcare providers, farmers, growers and consumers to learn about local Real Food, how to prepare it efficiently and cook it. By starting the real food conversation within communities, the Real Food Campaign hopes to improve food awareness in a ‘Whole Health’ sense. By choosing Real Food, it affects not just our health but the health of our soil, the plants and animals which, as we know, are all one and indivisible.

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