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Blog: Food and the WI

Blog: Food and the WI

Blog: Food and the WI

As someone interested in food and drink, it’s likely that you’ve heard of the WI. You might have sampled some WI jam, been to a WI event, or even attended a WI meeting or local event. As stereotypes go, the image of the WI being all jam and Jerusalem is hard to shake off, but what you might not know is the important history about why this particular label has metaphorically stuck since the first meeting in 1915, and the role that WI members have played since then in shaping our communities and the influence they have had on the food that we all eat.

With over 220,000 members in 6,600 WIs across England, Wales and the Islands – Scotland and Northern Ireland have similar sister organisations but they aren’t directly associated – the WI is the largest women’s membership voluntary organisations in the UK. The charity is overseen by a Board of Trustees made up of WI members to ensure that the organisation is continually democratic, and every member has the chance to take a leading role through regular elections. Every WI is part of a local federation; there are 69 organised along the old county borders, and these form the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. The three tiers of the organisation are bound together by a constitution that sets out clearly how they interact with each other, and for the purposes of the organization.

Founded in 1915, the WI has gone from strength to strength since the first meeting was held in Llanfair PG on Anglesey on 16 September. Unsurprisingly, the first meeting concentrated on feeding the nation, an initial commitment that continues to this day. Whilst this issue was indeed pressing at the time, the organisation was not formed with the express desire to provide food during the war years, but as an educational charity to revitalise rural communities and provide women with much-needed educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities, and to campaign on issues that matter to them. Whilst the aims of the organisation have since broadened, the roots of the WI remain firmly in providing opportunities for women, and food remains a leading issue for many members.

With war looming, much of members’ work in its first fifty years concentrated on doing what they could to keep the country going and improving lives for those in their local communities – and beyond. During WWI and WWII, WI members – still primarily only in rural communities until the late twentieth century – really came into their own in terms of working for the common good, and members organised markets and bottled and preserved thousands of tons of fruit and vegetables that would otherwise have gone to waste to ensure the food security of the nation. In 1940, the Ministry of Food gave the NFWI a grant to administer the National Fruit Preservation Scheme, recognising the preservation skills of members and firmly attaching the jam label to the WI. 500 Dixie hand sealers and other jam making equipment were sent over from America for members’ use, and they got to work. Between 1940 and 1945, over 5,300 tonnes of fruit was preserved; nearly 12 million pounds of fruit that might otherwise have been wasted, providing food for the nation. The first NFWI Chair, Lady Denman, was asked to become the honorary director of the Women’s Land Army, confirming the organisation’s vital links with farming and food.As the war waged on, members were involved in post-war planning and, by the end of the war the organisation started to look again at its campaigning strengths and meeting the educational needs of its members, whilst still promoting cookery skills in preserving, making the most of what little food was available after the war years, and teaching everyone to make do and mend.

Over the past 100 years, WI members have campaigned on a host of diverse topics from asking for better information on the spread of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and calling for clearer food labelling, to the introduction of breast cancer screening and legal aid protection for victims of domestic violence, but there have always strong rural roots throughout. More recently, the WI worked the NFU to explain to the general public why dairy farming matters during 100 regional Great Milk Debates that toured the country to ask what can be done to safeguard the future for Britain’s dairy farmers. This action saw 15,000 members taking part in the original debates and there is still a huge strength of feeling amongst members to call for change. At the 2016 Annual Meeting, members once again turned their attention to food and voted to call on all supermarkets to sign up to a voluntary agreement to avoid food waste, to pass surplus food on to charities and help to address the issue of increasing food poverty in the UK. Campaign actions will be announced in autumn with members gearing up over the summer months to act.

In many ways, the WI is both exactly what you think it is, and nothing like you expect it to be in that members are of course interested in cookery and craft, education and local issues, but for so many members, making a real change in their local community is one of the key reasons why they joined their local WI in the first place, and then remained a member for most of their lives. The members who worked to preserve thousands of tonnes of fruit then went on to call for a better future for the women who came after them, and for that we should all be grateful. Jam and Jerusalem may be bandied around as something to laugh at – and rest assured, WI members have a much better sense of humour than they are often given credit for – but it is a label of which members are rightly very proud; of the skills developed to ensure so much food could be saved, and for the role thousands of members were able to play during a time of great uncertainty during both world wars, when women in the UK simply knuckled down and did what they could to help. Thankfully, through the WI, members were able to make a huge difference through hard work and determination both during the wars and after, and for that, everyone should be grateful.

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Photo: Gemma Dewson