Ben Reynolds

Deputy Co-ordinator, Sustain – the alliance for better food and farming, London

Tell us about Sustain

Sustain is the alliance for better food and farming. We’re an alliance of about 100 organisations who share our aims around food and farming; including organisations such as the British Heart Foundation, National Trust, RSPB, CPRE, and Friends of the Earth – a whole range of groups that may have a health focus, or a farming focus, or focus on biodiversity or animals, to name a few areas.

The way in which we work with them is to find consensus over certain issues; we seek to identify gaps relating to important areas that these organisations are working in and add value. We work throughout the UK running campaigns, developing networks and writing research reports.

What does your job involve?

A big part of what I do is managing the staff that run our campaigns – such as the Real Bread Campaign, Children’s Food Campaign and the Campaign for Better Hospital Food.

I also manage the staff that are doing a lot of our London work – working to make London’s food system healthier and more sustainable.

There are certain projects which I am directly involved in, such as Sustainable Food Cities which is a new network that we’ve set up with the Soil Association and Food Matters. The aim of this is to help different towns, cities and boroughs around the country to take a more joined up approach to their food systems locally by creating local food partnerships. These partnerships include public sector, local businesses and community groups who together try to influence local food policies, support food enterprises, tackle food poverty and food waste amongst other things.

Some of the other things that I do include press work (radio interviews, writing press releases) writing and editing publications, staff recruitment, fundraising and communications. Until recently we haven’t had a fundraiser at Sustain, and we don’t have a communications officer, so in the past it has been up to each of the staff to turn their hand to that side of things; consequently many people that work here are a jack of all trades. Or in most cases masters of all trades!

You’ve been at Sustain for quite a while – how did you get to where you are today?

I’ve been here for 10 years, and before that I started off as a volunteer. Before that I was a medieval archaeologist – which is a bit of curious route! But that’s not uncommon here at Sustain, lots of people have come from different disciplines.

I think that some people who have worked here reach a point in their life and want to change their career; and maybe they start to see the varied problems relating to the food system and want to have a go at changing and improving things.

It is very interesting that over the last 10 years since I started working in this sector, food policy and food campaigning has become a much more specialised field. I don’t think that I would get my first job here if I had to apply for it today!

When we advertise jobs these days we get about 50 people applying for each position, many with great qualifications which didn’t exist years ago. Places like City University and SOAS have specialist food policy courses. We usually get about 10 applications from people who have either a degree or a Masters degree in something directly related to food. And that can help, but unfortunately it doesn’t even guarantee you an interview – experience is key. It needs to be relevant experience, and a good range of it, and voluntary experience is just as useful as paid experience in that regard.

Is the organisation growing as interest in the field of food policy increases?

We have grown. Although like everyone we have struggled with austerity. About 10 years ago when I started there were about 15 people working here, 5 years ago there were probably 30 people, and today there are just over 20 of us. So we are certainly bigger than we were, and definitely busier than we were! With food policy issues going up the agenda and increasing interest in the field, there are definitely more people looking to get into this sector, which makes for an exciting place to work.

But we are very busy – and with the tough economic climate it is more difficult to get hold of grants, and over 90% of what we do here is reliant on grant funding. The reality is that what we’re working on isn’t always the most attractive to funders, things like policy change as we want to make the biggest impact, tackle the root causes, and sometimes it’s harder to show your impact at this level..

Our volunteers are brilliant and we couldn’t do a lot of what we do without them, so we are very grateful. We’ve developed internships to formalise the roles, and we’ve found that a lot of volunteers respond better to this, as they want something specific on their CV.

Do you rely quite heavily on volunteers?

Yes we do, our volunteers are brilliant and we couldn’t do a lot of what we do without them, so we are very grateful. We’ve developed internships to formalise the roles, and we’ve found that a lot of volunteers respond better to this, as they want something specific on their CV. It means that we can be very clear about what interns will be doing and what they’ll be getting out of it. We get a lot of interest from a lot of brilliant people that want to volunteer with us, and it’s unfortunate that we’re not able to bring them all on board!