Every Little Helps. Shirley Gibb looks at how people in their communities are challenging the big food industry agenda.
On a bright, mild morning, a walk round a very attractive garden makes a good start to the day. Neatly organised raised beds, fruit bushes and apple trees make clear that this is a productive project, and the carefully laid paths and beautifully constructed fences, gates, hot boxes and wormery are tangible signs of the work that has gone into the transformation of the area.
And the work is a labour of love – almost all done by enthusiastic volunteers. This is a community garden, one of many initiatives currently springing up aimed at getting us back to basics with the growing, eating and cooking of food.
The garden I visited is part of The Royal Edinburgh Community Gardens, which have been been created in South Edinburgh on fifteen acres of land that belong to the NHS. Sue McKendrick is one of the volunteers involved in the project, and she explained the thinking behind it.
“We want to encourage local people to get involved in the growing of their food. But also we want the garden to be a place that strengthens community feeling and provides companionship.”
The group Sue belongs to that uses the gardens is the Shandon Local Food Group. Shandon is a busy area in the centre of Edinburgh and the group is typical of many, where people want to embrace a lifestyle based more on locally produced food and home cooked meals. Part of Sue's involvement is running courses at the Community Gardens.
“We advertise in our local area, but anyone is welcome. So far most of the courses have proved popular and many have been sold out.”
The Shandon Group was started three years ago by a small group of residents. They delivered fliers and eighty people turned up at their first meeting. Sue is Chair of the group, and is very pleased with its' progress.
“For a voluntary, grassroots organisation we feel we have been very successful. We now have 300 people on our mailing list, and our call to “Shop Local, Shop Shandon” has produced good results. We hold seasonal community meals at our local pub and bistro, sometimes using food from the community garden. Other events include March and September Local Food Fairs, a meal on the move garden crawl, and cookery courses. We have plans for a bikers allotment brunch, gardening/nature play for 2-5 years old and farm visits.”
The growth of interest in healthy eating over the last few years has been huge. Not only groups like Shandon, but also Farmers' Markets and Box Schemes (the delivery of boxes of organically grown produce from local farms) have multiplied.
One initiative that has been instrumental in encouraging interest in environmentally friendly issues is the Transition Movement. It is a world-wide community-led process where any town, village or neighbourhood can access help towards leading a more sustainable lifestyle. A map on their website shows Transition Towns in Scotland from the Isle of Eigg to Stonehaven, and from Orkney to Moffat.
Transition is not only about food based projects – transport, energy, education, housing, waste and the arts are all involved. But possibly because growing and cooking food are activities everyone can access easily, these seem especially popular.
Linlithgow is a Transition Town in West Lothian, and its food activities have included grow your own and cookery skill classes, planting community orchards, a pilot food co-operative, and various events promoting local food. One Transition Linlithgow project that proved extremely popular last year, was when the organisation took over a town centre flower bed, and turned it into an attractive display of fruit and vegetables. It was so successful they were invited to do the same this year, and volunteers have again worked hard to make this happen, this time using the display to demonstrate the various and creative uses of containers and raised beds when growing your own.
Another project Transition Linlithgow is keen to get off the ground is a community bread club. The popularity of good, home baked bread has already contributed to the success of the Dunbar Bakery in East Lothian. A cooperative, and very successful, venture, it is part of a drive to regenerate the local high street.
Here in Edinburgh we have Earthy, a shop that only stocks goods that conform to one or more of three criteria: organic, locally produced and fairly traded. Earthy has recently opened its third branch, which, in a city where supermarkets abound, surely proves that many shoppers want to move away from corporate trade.
As well as locally run, voluntary projects there are also many government and council led ventures. One such is the Get Going Programme, run by Edinburgh Leisure in conjunction with the NHS. Lianne Cunningham, coordinator of the scheme, explained what it's about.
“Get Going is an NHS Lothian-funded weight management programme for overweight and obese children and young people and their parents/ carers. It is is delivered by Edinburgh Leisure, using coaches who are trained in physical activity, healthy eating and behaviour change. The programme is supported by dietetics and clinical psychology.”
The rise and rise of community food initiatives, and the many government and council backed healthy eating projects, are signs of a huge change in people's ideas about food. My children are now adults, but when they were young anyone interested in nutrition or the politics of food had to go shopping with a book on E numbers (food additives) in one hand, and a list of boycotted products in the other.
Things are still not good. The supermarkets continue to dominate the retail sector, and though they now feel obliged to pay lip service to healthy eating and ethically sourced products, websites like corporate watch and ethical consumer tell a different story.
But at least alternatives are appearing, and in many places it is now possible to learn about and buy nutritious food, without recourse to the morally and environmentally dubious big companies.
In this article I have concentrated on projects in my area, but wherever you live there are likely to be similar initiatives. Here are some websites to consult if you want more information, or to get involved.