“Food is inherently political – it’s the one thing that unites us all.” Those were the words of the fabulous Mags Hall, one of the founders of Common Good Food and a stalwart of the Fife Diet on Wednesday night. I chaired a discussion event that we put on in Common Weal Edinburgh North and Leith to talk about food and its connections to politics and the ideas of the Common Weal. It was a fascinating evening, with much food for thought.
Our two billed speakers for the night were Mike Small from Fife Diet (and Bella) and Pete Ritchie who runs Nourish Scotland. Both were caught up with the new life of spring – Mike had to take the childcare duties for the night as his wife’s best friend went into labour, and Pete is in the midst of lambing so had to go and see to a ewe who was in trouble. It was a rather nice reminder, I thought, of our oft forgotten connection to the land.
Spring aside, we were delighted to welcome Mags Hall as a last minute stand in for Mike. Her engaging talk was a brilliant race through the reasons behind setting up Common Good Food, stories of the Seed Truck and its magical mystery tour, and films of local folk in Fife getting to grips with land, growing, processing, cooking and eating its produce. Check out the films we watched here.
What struck me from Mags’ talk was just how powerful food is, both politically and personally and for people and place. What they’ve been doing in Fife – with community gardens, cultural events, cookery and so much more – is bringing together local people with each other and with knowledge, skills and passion for growing food. As Mags pointed out, food is the one thing that unites us all – we all need it, so we have that in common, but it is also something that brings folk together. In those two sides to food lies its power.
I loved that Common Good Food is talking about food as a right and as something that citizens participate in creating, demanding and using. Food should not be a consumerist, privately owned, privately controlled industry from which a few enormous supermarkets make eye-watering profit.
Pete Ritchie from Nourish Scotland continued and built upon this thread of individualism and consumerism and our relationship with food as a society. For him and for Nourish, there were three core strands of thought;
- Food should be a right, a public good enshrined in law, rather than a marketised or charitable activity. Instead we have a situation where a million people across the UK are dependent on food banks to make ends meet and where even people working in minimum wage jobs find that they can’t afford even the basics of a healthy diet. As Pete put it, it’s not a solution to the problem of food waste to give it to poor people, nor is food waste a solution to poverty. The fundamental problem is poverty, not a segregated food system that makes corporations feel warm and cuddly.
- There’s a very clear problem with food and health and with an obesity crisis increasingly associated with low income households. Yet the thing we have to realise is that the problem with obesity is not a failing of individuals but a rotten system. As Pete illustrated, if you’re food insecure (if you don’t know where the next paycheque is coming from to put food on the table), you end up feeding your children things that will get them full but that’s cheap. Often those foods are full of the things that cause obesity.
- Food and the environment. Pete told the audience that the food system is the biggest global driver of climate change. Our food habits are driving international production, transport, consumption and waste, all of which has an enormous effect in worsening climate change. Conversely, climate change is making it harder, particularly for people in the global south, to grow food for export and to receive a price for it that they can live off. These issues are cyclical and hugely damaging.
The discussion developed into all sorts of avenues – from behaviour change to primary schools and supermarkets tax evasion to land ownership. But the aspect that caught my attention towards the end was a discussion about class and food. One audience member talked about work she’d done with communities where people had moved out of poverty and changed their food habits, looking on home-grown and home cooked food as being a symbol of the poverty they’d left behind and celebrating their newfound ability to purchase ready meals and “guilty treats”. Yet Mags compared this with the persistent resistance she encounters from folk who feel that growing your own veg is a very middle class pursuit.
As a Green, I’m very aware of the image that many people have of folk in the Green movement – the organic fairtrade quinoa munching hippy with a penchant for expensive veg. Having grown up first on home grown tatties and then on shop bought tatties and tinned tuna when Mum and I lived on very little, I know that ultimately, the choice to buy organic and locally grown food is dependent on the same things as every other choice – money and power.
If we’re to sow the seeds of change in tackling poverty, health and climate change, we’ll need a lot more of both to be shared around.