‘Don’t pretend the barriers aren’t there, recognise them and overcome them’ 

Barbara Bray has enjoyed a hugely successful career in the food industry and tells Olivia Midgley why the sector needs to up its game to attract the talent it needs for a sustainable future. 

Recognising the barriers to personal and career goals and working proactively to overcome them is a principle that Registered Nutritionist Barbara Bray truly believes in and says without it she would not be where she is today.  

With 20 years’ experience working in the agri-food sector in the UK and Europe, Middle East and Africa, Ms Bray has enjoyed various roles within food production firms, including at UK manufacturing giant Bakkavor and more recently working as a consultant to help food companies find ways to introduce sustainable nutrition practices into their businesses. 

In 2017, having completed a Nuffield Scholarship focussing on vegetable production for specific nutritional needs, her services to food nutrition were recognised with an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.  

Growing up in Darlington, Country Durham and having friends with families rooted in food and farming, it was a sector which she knew she wanted to pursue a career in. 

And even though she was steadfast in her vision, she came up against some resistance from her peers. 

“When I was doing my A levels and I said I wanted to work in food manufacturing people almost looked down their nose as if to say why do you want to do that? Why would you want to work in a factory? There is no glory like being a lawyer or a doctor,” she says, adding the industry was often stereotyped and needed to work hard to address its image problem.  

“When you work in that environment you see it is vibrant and exciting. We need to be better at communicating this and change our approach.”

“You can be creative and you can progress your career. It was a really good grounding for me, learning how to work with people, motivate them, achieve something in a tight timescale and on budget – important skills for life.” 

She says the pandemic, which has brought food and farming systems into sharp focus, could be the ‘re-set’ the industry needs. 

“Food and fresh produce graduate scheme MDS saw applications double during the pandemic, partly because people realised how vital the sector is but partly because the barriers to working in food were taken away because there were no other options to work in sectors like hospitality,” adds Ms Bray, with skills and talent a key area of interest as part of her Oxford Farming Conference directorship. 

“What we must do now is retain that steady flow of people and promote agri-food as a great place to work in. 

“Food affects and impacts every single person in the country, it’s not like eating is optional, so why are we not exposing people to the range of different careers that are out there and facilitating or making it easier for the food industry to get the best people? The sector is often hidden from view.” 

She added the pandemic had brought social inequality to the fore, using the example of people from lower socio-economic groups struggling to work from home without a spare room or families on lower incomes being unable to afford healthy, nutritious food. 

The crisis had also highlighted many businesses’ inflexible working and she hopes the Covid re-set would enable companies to learn lessons and effect change. 

“Businesses can have a large role to play in this. Business hasn’t been people centric it has been driven largely by profit, at the expense of environmental sustainability and people sustainability in terms of ethics and working conditions.”

“We need to tackle these things rather than just glossing over them.” 

Talking of the levers businesses can pull, she used examples of firms giving employees access to shops so they can buy quality, affordable food or organising delivery boxes. 

“Maybe you can’t pay your staff more but can you do things to help people get food more easily. We need to look at people’s circumstances.” 

And the Government also has a role to play. She blamed a lack of joined-up thinking, pointing to the 16 different Government departments in England which impact food policy.  

“Poor health is linked to poor quality of life and we have to look at food policy in the round, not just have an obesity strategy because the majority of obese people are from lower socio economic backgrounds and ethnic minority groups,” Ms Bray adds. 

“Social care policies and those around universal credit and housing are not setting people up for success but then slating them when it doesn’t work.

The re-set could also be the catalyst society needs to tackle the inequalities faced by marginalised groups, with a focus on diversity and inclusion coming to the forefront in recent months.  

But it is not helpful for minority groups to ‘pretend the barriers aren’t there’.  

Forming, nurturing, and leveraging relationships with mentors, sponsors and advocates is critical to this, she says. 

“I see this a lot with people of colour who think that by having the right qualifications is all that it is going to take to progressing their career but actually it is building relationships – that is what helps you build and progress your career.

“We all know that chap in the office who has got very few qualifications but because of a goods support network has succeeded in building a career based on good relationships rather than competency.

“When I talk to people in my ethnic group it is all about doing that course or getting that qualification but they just keep missing the point about putting themselves out there and learning to network and look for allies. 

“That applies to a female trying to break into a predominantly male group sector or a young person starting out or anyone from an ethic group or with a disability. 

“When you’re not in that category you don’t see the barriers, but if you are it’s not useful to pretend they’re not there. 

“I was definitely a victim of this, saying the barriers don’t exist, I just need to get on with it but actually you just set yourself up for more challenges. Learn to engage with people so they can work with you.

And tackling barriers head on has helped open doors. 

Without her drive and determination to pursue a career in food she would not have asked her school careers day to invite a food scientist to speak – a meeting she describes as a pivotal moment in her life. 

And without being encouraged to swim ‘even though my hair wouldn’t’ fit in a swimming cap’ she would not have experienced the love she has for wild swimming today. 

“I think you can get excluded just for not being in the right place at the right time,” she adds.  

“When people think about inclusivity they think about including people in things they already do and like, not thinking wider about how we can involve people with things that fit in with their lifestyle, sharing things that they enjoy doing. 

“A good example of aiding inclusivity is on one occasion when I was working at a company, we had an away day and each of us had 10 mins opportunity to teach our colleagues something we like doing.  

“So I chose to teach people a dance that I enjoyed and it was good to see people all enjoying and sharing something their colleagues liked doing and it broke down barriers. 

“A key part of diversity and inclusion is finding those things that people can have conversations about and getting to know one another.” 

Written by Olivia Midgley