Best Ethical Contribution: Fife Diet
Joanna Blythman, The Observer, Food Monthly
When Mike and Karen Small launched their fledgling experiment asking people to eat mainly local food for a year -the Fife diet -they met with incredulity. TV crews and reporters descended on the quiet town of Burntisland on the Firth of Forth in the spirit of checking out some outlandish cult. This being central Scotland, not Devon or the Cotswolds, commentators quipped about a diet consisting of ‘a packet of fags and a deep-fried Mars bar’. One newspaper columnist branded the project ‘flakier than a vol-au-vent’.
‘It got to the point where the Fife diet became newsworthy because it was considered slightly sinister;’ says the patently mild-mannered Mike. ‘The headline news seemed to be: ‘Shock horror! People have been caught eating food from near where they live!”
Such is Scotland’s ambivalence to its indigenous food that no sooner was the project up and running than critics were carping. Basing your diet on local food would be tedious and impractical, they said. It was self-indulgent to behave like you’re poor when there are lots of genuinely poor people around. The Fife diet was nutritionally irresponsible and might even impair the health of children. In short, it was doomed to fail.
But 18 months on, and with poetic justice, there are no reports of scurvy in the Fife population, and while 14 people originally agreed to participate, this has risen to 600. The concept of the Fife diet has spread virally as swiftly as the whisper of a free champagne party. This volunteer project started off with no money other than a £2,000 grant from a social fund, all of which was spent on arranging childcare at village hall suppers hosted by local food producers to publicise the idea. Yet the project lit a blue touch paper, igniting a latent desire among Scots to be more thoughtful about what they eat.
The presenter of a peak-time current affairs programme unilaterally put himself on a high-profile, year-long Scottish-only diet. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond then did the same for a week. The runaway success of the Fife diet rests on its collaborative approach. The word ‘diet’, with its calorie-counting connotations, is misleading. Fife is well endowed with local produce: meat, game, fish, ‘cereals. ‘It’s a celebration of local goodness, not an exercise in self-denial;’ says Mike. ‘We never said to people: ‘This is what you must eat’ but rather: ‘Eat food from this region as much as you can and then tell us how you managed it:’
Disappointingly for those who would label it a hairshirt exercise in 100% local fanaticism, a sensible flexibility reigns. Things like coffee, tea, chocolate, spices and lemons, which have no seasonal local equivalent, go into the category of acceptable deviations from the overarching principle, so you will still find smoked paprika, peanut butter and soy sauce in the Smalls’ larder. ‘If you really like something, then have it!’ says Karen. Organic food is regarded as a desirable bonus but not essential the goal is to support local food production, organic or otherwise. The considered verdict from participants who have been testing the food possibilities on their doorstep for 18 months now is that eating about 80% local food is both enjoyable and achievable. That’s a huge change, when you think that it probably accounts for only a tiny proportion of what most people eat.
How does the Fife diet work’? Before they embarked on it, like most of their neighbours the Smalls drove seven miles to the nearest supermarket, Sainsbury’s, to fulfil most of their food needs, dropping in occasionally to Lidl or a farmers’ market and topping up at the local Co-op. Their weekly household food bill- they have two little boys, Sorley, four, and Alex, 18 months -was about £100. Now they spend £50-60 and their food waste is nil. They have dumped the routine ‘stressful supermarket shopping expedition’ and made a £20 organic vegetable box, which is delivered, the backbone of what they eat, with £4 of eggs bolted on. Milk adds another £10 to their shopping bill because the boys drink a lot of it. A further £10- £20 buys some chicken, meat or fish an4 sausages or bacon from independent shops and small producers, enough to eat meat about twice a week. The freezer is indispensable for storing summer berries harvested just up the coast, and they have ‘dabbled with gardening’, growing a few tomatoes, runner beans, potatoes, herbs and salads.
The financial savings are huge, although the time spent on food preparation has doubled. ‘At first I found it very difficult I had a five-month-old baby, was breastfeeding and had no dishwasher, but then I made the adjustment. It’s a more intuitive sort of cooking. You don’t decide what you want to make then go out and buy the ingredients -you have to be creative with what’s there that week;’ says Karen, reeling off a list of dishes that have become staples: omelette with stir-fried kale, carrot rosti, Anton Mosimann’s parsnip croquettes and vegetables Polonaise, a turnip dish from Moro, leek and onion souffle, fish pie, croquettes made with leftover roast chicken, steamed purple broccoli with Swiss chard, hand-made pasta made with flour from a nearby mill, and home-baked pitta breads. Once a vegetarian, Karen resists the temptation of reverting to the wholefoodie brown rice and lentils option, which relies on imported food. ‘It’s too easy just to fall back on the same old thinking;’ she says.
So is the Fife diet boring, like the doubters predicted? ‘It feels like more choice, not less. Before, we just churned out the same things;’ says Karen. ‘We ate pasta with tomato sauce seven days a week!’
Mike, an ecologist and journalist, and Karen, an illustrator and photographer, may seem like the usual suspects in a progressive foodie venture, but the wider Fife diet community is a broad church. ‘At the beginning it was widely assumed we were all Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall types,’ says Mike, ‘but actually most of us are living on modest budgets!’ The Fife diet draws its participants from diverse groups: cost-conscious rural people who want to save money, older people (contacted through local Rotarian and church groups) who find the concept familiar and sensible, parents with young children who worry about what their offspring eat, and clued-up greens.
Now with a grant from the Scottish government’s Climate Challenge Fund, the Fife diet is looking like a credible and inspiring model for like- minded initiatives elsewhere. The great strength of this visionary project is that it addresses the big environmental issues of the day in a host of small practical ways, at village hall suppers of venison stew and vegetable stovies, via monthly newsletters, and on the diets buzzy website. Is a doorstep pint of conventional milk more or less preferable to organic milk in plastic cartons? If fish is locally landed, can we assume that it was locally caught?
It’s fashionable to talk about locavorism, but the Fife diet, in a spirit of shared exploration and experience swapping, has put a name and number to it. That’s progress.