It’s not about the food: community food hubs, and why we need them
Nourish Scotland, by Pete Ritchie
The food system in Scotland is manifestly unfair and unsustainable. Across all income groups we eat too much sugar and fat and not enough fibre. Too much meat – especially processed meat – is not good for our health; and it’s disastrous for the planet in terms of deforestation and climate change.
People on low incomes spend proportionally three times as much on food as the top 10% of Scots, but still can’t afford to feed themselves and their families well and are much more likely to have food-related health problems.
The food and drink sector accounts for one in seven jobs in Scotland, and far too many of the low wage and insecure jobs which make life a struggle. Meanwhile most of the farm subsidies go to the bigger more prosperous farms, while the environment budget gets squeezed.
Globally, we rely for our food on an increasing share of other countries’ land, and the food system is the major cause of a 50% decline in the world’s wildlife since 1970. Food accounts for between 25 and 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions, and although household food waste has fallen a bit, across the whole supply chain one third of our food is wasted. Most of the chicken, turkey and pork we eat comes from factory farms.
We know the problems: and when it comes to recommendations there’s a familiar four part structure.
1 Government – Holyrood, Westminster, Brussels needs to change the way the system works through policy, regulation, taxation and subsidies.
2 Businesses need to reformulate, raise welfare standards, waste less, treat suppliers fairly, look to the long term. Farmers need to work with nature, not against it.
3 We need better social security and better jobs, to make it easier for everyone to afford good food.
4 And of course individuals need to make better choices: we consumers need to get better at navigating our obesogenic industrialised food environment, better at reading labels and better at cooking.
Nourish agrees: all these things matter, though educating consumers is clearly a weak strategy on its own – since according to the Food Standards Agency 15 years of campaigns have had zero impact on the Scottish diet. But there’s something missing: community.
Scotland has just passed the Community Empowerment Act, recognising what communities can achieve when they get organised. There’s been some great work through the Climate Challenge Fund, helping communities make a difference. Behind that, there’s a strong tradition of community development in Scotland, exemplified by the Scottish Community Alliance and underlined recently in the Big Lottery’s strengths-based, people led approach.
So what can a community development approach bring to tackling these big food issues? First, it can help us think straight. Since the start of the recession, two approaches to tackling food insecurity have become the norm.
Charity-run food banks solicit donations of food and money from the public and provide food parcels to individuals who are referred to them by official agencies. Another system takes surplus food from supermarkets and distributes it to charities – and in some cases to food banks.
Both these approaches are charitable, well-intended and valued by the beneficiaries – but they are not community development. A community development approach to improving the way we do food in our community would have a number of features:
· People find their own language for defining the problem and why it’s a problem for them.
· People recognise and build on the strengths and assets of the community
· People are involved in leading and managing whatever gets done: and that may mean struggling with structures, governance and inclusiveness
· People start from an expectation of dignity, decency and entitlement as citizens
· People are engaged in collective action, working together to improve things for others as well as themselves
· People hold government and institutions to account, and advocate for change in law, policy and practice.
So what does that look like in practice? Maybe it’s a community meal once a week. Maybe it’s a new social custom to invite someone living alone to come and share a meal. Maybe it’s the community deciding to grow the veg for the school meals, or running a campaign to improve the food in the local hospital. Maybe it’s a ‘destitution cupboard’ where some people can help themselves to food if they need it, or put food in when they can afford it. Maybe it’s running a food co-op, or connecting with a local farm, or opening a community shop or café. Maybe it’s getting together to buy rice or coffee from a community on the other side of the world. Maybe it’s a campaign against zero-hour contracts.
Initiatives like this, and many more, are already out there in Scotland’s communities – but much more is possible. Nourish wants to see this lively but often quite isolated activity develop into a national network of community food ‘hubs’ . These hubs could be physical walk-in places providing some of these practical services, or organisations like housing associations, community food social enterprises, or development trusts. For each hub, whether it covers a ward in a city or a big rural area, their job is to use and support a community-led approach to food – to ask ‘how can community action on food strengthen this community?’.
Broomhouse Health Strategy Group – Addressing Food Poverty in SW Edinburgh
The Broomhouse Health Strategy Group has been working for 25 years to improve health and wellbeing in SW Edinburgh. The volunteer-run fruit and vegetable shop has been at the heart of the organisation since it began, open every weekday morning. The shop sells up to £400 worth of fresh fruit & vegetables, milk, eggs and dried staple goods each week.
The shop is a highly valued social hub for the area, sharing news of services and listening to the needs of all the community. The shop is creative in encouraging cooking from scratch, selling 17 varieties of £1 Soup Bags (all the fresh ingredients & spices, plus easy recipe) as well as 11 varieties of Meal Recipe Bags (eg £1.50 Tomato pasta inc. 400g pasta bag). It is ideal for those on low incomes, selling everything loose in the quantities required.
Any profits the shop makes are put into promotions eg. half price soup bags. Core funding for the overheads, and the Volunteer Support Worker salary come from Charitable Trust funding, and NHS funding.
Through listening to local needs many cookery services have developed over the years for adults and children, building on the availability of affordable fresh food.
Local people are central to the planning and delivery of all our services. We engage with a very broad range in the local community not just through our shop and range of services, but through the shop volunteers and trustees who are all local people.
Because it’s not about the food. It’s about kids growing up healthy. It’s about mums and dads not being worried about running out of food. It’s about people making connections, enjoying themselves with food, trying something new. It’s about worthwhile work. It’s about caring for other people, and for the environment. It’s about feeling ‘we can make a difference’.