Recently, we had the celebration event for the end of the Dirty Weekenders / RSPB Young Roots project. This was a two year project which involved the Dirties and the RSPB collaborating to improve community run green spaces around Edinburgh. The event was held at Bridgend Farmhouse, one of the project sites where the Dirties have been working for the past 3 years.
As part of the event, Laura Goble, our person from the RSPB made the most of us being inside for once, and organised for us to have a “Kitchen Table Talk”. This is an initiative started by Nourish Scotland to find out what really matters to the people of Scotland when it comes to food. The Kitchen Table Talks aim to gather together ideas on this subject in preparation for the Scottish Government’s “Good Food Nation Bill”, which will be discussed in parliament later this year.
This post mainly describes what we talked about, with the hope that it will inspire others to think about the food system in Scotland and how it can be changed for the better. If you want to have your own Kitchen Table Talk, head to the Nourish Scotland website to download some guidance materials.
You’ll see if you look at the actual sheet we filled in, that I’ve taken a bit of license in developing our ideas further for this blog post, but hopefully it still mirrors our collective thoughts during the discussion.
I think we could split our ideas throughout the discussion into three basic themes, which cover most of the food system and mirror the general lifecycle of food: food production, food retail, and food consumption.
Our general thoughts were that currently, big food retailers dictate the system under which food is produced. Supermarkets prefer to buy from large industrial farms for many logistical and economic reasons, and supermarkets sell the majority of food in the UK, which means that food production is increasingly dominated by these large industrial farms. Unfortunately this means that often, the quality of this food is low and it often travels much further than we would like, or is necessary. Our suggestion was to try to basically decentralise food production, to give more power back to small commercial producers, co-operative producers and hobby producers.
We suggest that there should be more of an effort to convert urban brownfield sites and areas currently set aside for ornamental gardens into productive vegetable gardens, with the local community taking ownership of these areas rather than local councils. We think that this would encourage people to eat more healthily by presenting them with food that they have grown, and we think that the communal ownership of food that comes with sharing growing space would hopefully lead on to people sharing meals and encouraging others to eat healthily. Growing your own food is a great way to understand the origins of food, and to appreciate the effort that goes into producing it. Hopefully, by setting many hands to work in small hobby settings, the monetary cost of this food would also be minimal.
Along with this idea to decentralise food production, we thought it would be good to try and match the food produced in certain regions of the country with the climate. This which would hopefully improve nutritional yield from these foods and reduce the negative environmental impact that comes from intensive high input farming methods. It would also mean that local food could be produced at a more consistent rate throughout the year, by producing more varied crops with multiple harvests per year minimising the need for imports. Of course, all of our suggestions above would require more people actively participating in food production, rather than just being consumers, which is something not everybody is interested in or feels they have the time to do, even though there are obvious benefits from engaging in food production both for the individual and for society.
Our main problem with food retail was the amount of food waste generated by supermarkets from unsold produce. We think that part of the problem of food waste could be solved by sourcing more produce locally, meaning that supply can be more easily adjusted to meet demand. This links in nicely to our previous idea about decentralising food production and getting more people involved in the food system. A few of us talked about food sharing initiatives that already exist in Edinburgh such as Food Sharing Edinburgh and Disco Soup and how great they are. We also talked about dumpster diving, which some of us do, but I think we acknowledged that ideally, the slightly shady practice dumpster diving should eventually be replaced by more structured waste food sharing initiatives, that make this produce available to more people. I feel like in Edinburgh at least, most of the people that go dumpster diving aren’t the people who desperately need the food. Furthermore, even then, we acknowledged that food sharing initiatives should instead ideally be replaced by a lack of any food waste, which could come from improving the highly inefficient food retail system.
We also had a big issue with plastic packaging, which we think is currently excessive. Again, by decentralising food production and moving to more local fresh produce, plastic packaging could be reduced without increasing the risk of food becoming spoiled. We had the idea for a tax on food items that use excessive packaging, but one of the worries with this is that the tax would merely be passed onto the consumer in the form of increased prices, which could severely disadvantage some people who already have trouble paying for food. One of us mentioned a form of protest which I personally think is brilliant, whereby people in food stores remove any unnecessary packaging before leaving the shop and leaving it there, which sends a clear message to the food retailers that we don’t want all the packaging.
We would advocate for a move towards more communal eating, through supper clubs, work canteens, and community groups, potentially using ingredients grown in community gardens like the ones we described above. We think these regular meals would encourage people to eat healthily by encouraging cooking large batches of fresh food, and it would inspire people to cook more healthily when they do happen to eat alone, by exposing them to healthy cooking techniques and encouraging sharing of skills between households. Cooking at scale is almost always cheaper than eating alone, and it tends to reduce food waste on the consumer end.
What is stopping us doing all of these things?
All of the ideas above sound great, despite possibly being a bit utopic and naive, but they beg the question: “What is stopping us doing these things already?”.
With regards to food waste, we think that the current legislation surrounding food waste doesn’t help the situation. I think the interpretation of sell by dates as hard rules encourages a culture of liability avoidance amongst food retailers. We think this could be relatively easy to solve by enforcing anti-food waste legislation which encourages food retailers to make provisions for intercepting food waste before it gets to the bin and supplying it to food sharing groups. Relaxing sell by date policies in food stores would also help to stem the flow of perfectly edible food to the bin.
We think that education surrounding healthy eating isn’t adequately distributed across age groups, and this is preventing adults providing healthy food. Lots of education about healthy eating occurs in schools, but beyond school there is very little.
One of the big things that came up was the convenience of buying low quality, quick, cheap food. Basically, we are lazy about food. Fixing this problem is difficult as it requires a wholesale shift in behaviour towards food. We think we should move away from seeing food as a means to an end, and more towards food being a focal point around which other things happen. We want people to think more consciously about the food they eat. Possibly an easy way of solving this would be coercing food retailers to provide healthy and environmentally sound food. But then that’s a bit unfair to the food retailer, which might not feel like they should be responsible for making decisions for their customers. It really depends whether you think food retailers should be social enterprises or businesses.
At the end of our discussion, we tried to round everything up and decide which of the issues we described above are the most important to us, and also came up with tangible actions the government can take to improve food culture in Scotland. This is what we came up with.
The top 5 things we are concerned about:
1. Excessive food waste
2. Unnecessary plastic packaging
3. The current lack of transparency in food origins, transport distance, CO2 output.
4. Farmers do not receive a fair price for their product, as food retailers seek to maximise profit, discouraging farming as a profession. Especially farming quality food rather than quantity.
5. Supermarkets have a monopoly and are able to sell low quality, cheap food. Smaller businesses selling local produce are unable to compete.
The top 5 things the government can do:
1. Encourage local food producers / retailers.
2. Legislate to reduce plastic waste.
* e.g. introduce a plastic tax for over packaged items, applied at the retailer level, not the consumer level.
3. Cap profit margins on food items sold by food retailers.
* Again, potentially problematic if this affects the price that producers receive for their product.
4. Create a “Dig for Health” action campaign to encourage community food production.
5. Encourage alternative growing systems that are more suitable for small scale low input food production:
* Forest gardens
* Mob grazing of small herds of cattle/sheep/goats
Our kitchen table talk featured on the Nourish Scotland map