Pioneering women in food: How food ‘actionist’ Dee Woods is shaping policy and building empathy into the food industry

For this year’s International Women’s Day in a new article series, we’re recognising the women in food breaking the moulds in the kitchen, and in the fields and on the fishing boats… 

We spoke to seven trailblazing women – Asma KhanVandana Shiva, Helen Browning, Caroline Bennett, Dee Woods, Alice Robinson and Sarah Grady – who are each pushing sustainability, regeneration and ethics forwards within their industries and making space for other women to do so, too. 

We find out how their work is changing the face of the industry and women’s place in it, the challenges they’ve faced along the way, and what more there is to be done…

Dee Woods’ story

Dee Woods works on too many inspiring and worthy projects to describe their work as one thing, but in their own words, Dee describes their overarching aim as “building empathy into the food system”, which “starts from the grassroots”.

Dee tries to bridge the empathy gap, and approaches their work through intersectionality, by considering multiple issues at one time. For Dee, focusing on just one issue isn’t enough. It’s an “understanding of how our food system intersects with social systems, with our personal and emotional cultural life,” they explain.

As such, a lot of their work revolves around food sovereignty, diversity and inclusion and participation of marginalised communities, particularly communities of colour within farming… and work around land justice with young people.

To give an idea of just a few of Dee’s roles, they include being the co-founder of Grenville Community Kitchen, which is working to reimagine our localised food systems. They’re also involved in the politics of food, working with the London Food Board and the Land Worker’s Alliance, where they’re the food justice policy coordinator, as well as working with Land in our names (LION), a collective that looks at land justice.

Although for Dee, their work is strongly defined as being a ‘food actionist’, instead of a ‘food activist’, as the former is very focused on making action happen, and solves problems.

Dee also does a lot of work campaigning for women’s work in food (and other) areas still to be recognised. “Women do work that isn’t recognised within the food system,” they say. “For example, most farmers’ wives aren’t recognised as contributing to the actual success of any farm in terms of everything from running the farm and animal care, to crop planning, to budgeting, you name it. We have so many growers, people, women and diverse genders who just aren’t recognised.

To help combat some of these issues women face, Dee has been working on gender policy guidelines, and now is working on writing a policy for the Women’s Environmental Network, on the just transition policy, which is supporting community led solutions for a socially just urban food system.

Although policy is just one string to Dee’s bow, their work has undeniably had a big impact on people. Dee even had a UN ambassador come up to them at the UN meeting in Rome to tell Dee they were a big fan.  Dee is a revered voice in the food world but thinks “showing up as myself as my authentic self and having that voice, inspiring other people to participate” has been their biggest impact. It’s clearly working.

As for the challenges Dee has faced as a woman throughout their work, they seems to have been mostly unphased. “I’m one of these hard headed people who doesn’t take no for an answer,” Dee says while also laughing. “I’ve shown up in spaces where I’m the only woman, and the only person of colour and I just do what I need to do and say what I need to say,” Dee adds.

Although, Dee says there’s still a lot to be done in this space. “We need more women, more people of colour within the policy space. I think most people are put off and think that they need some special knowledge or a particular degree. But you don’t need any special qualifications. None whatsoever. I have no qualifications, except from the University of life,” says Dee.

Dee also thinks that the government doesn’t look at issues intersectionaly, but would likely benefit from doing so. “You can’t just keep throwing money at an area to solve issues. Things need to be co-produced. You need to involve everyone to really work up solutions. So that’s the only way we’re going to come through all these crises.” 

Follow Dee: @Didara

International Women’s Day, marked annually on 8 March, celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, across the globe, who are dismantling discrimination, driving equal opportunities and empowering women and girls.

About the author

Emma Henderson

Emma Henderson

Emma Henderson is a freelance writer and editor and has been a journalist for 10 years, where for most of that time she worked at The Independent. She specialises in food and drink, covering everything from plastic free tea to sustainable fishing. She was the Editor of IndyEats, The Independent's digital food magazine. She writes widely about sustainability, ethics and greenwashing in food and beyond.

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