TAKING THE SCENIC ROUTE TOWARDS A GREENER, FAIRER SOCIETY
by Stuart Guzinski, Project Co-ordinator, Forth Environment Link
When the Covid-19 crisis hit last March, our weekly food shop hit a roadblock. With supermarkets struggling to keep up with customer demand, we took a local detour.
Taking the scenic route forced us to slow down, appreciate what’s on our doorstep and take time to discover the farm shops, markets, makers and producers right under our noses.
Coronavirus, whether through choice or necessity, changed how many of us shop for food; and that’s great news for the local economy, our rural communities and the environment if we can make those new habits last.
By eating what’s in season and locally available, we’re cutting down our food miles and doing our bit to tackle the climate change emergency.
Like other major crises over the centuries, food has been a catalyst to bring us together. Whether volunteering at a local food larder, staying home and baking banana bread or getting involved in community growing projects; food is occupying a bigger role in our lives than ever before.
Diversifying what we eat and how and where we get it, strengthens and re-localises our food systems, makes us less reliant on the big retail chains, preserves rural jobs and is good for the planet.
But reducing the journey from farm to fork, doesn’t just cut down our food miles. It connects us with the people who make or grow our food. There is a great word for this in Japanese – Teikei, which means food with a farmer’s face on it.
While local food isn’t a new thing, Covid-19 has thrown food - and inequalities within our food systems - into sharp focus. If we want a fairer food system for all, we must start in our own neighbourhoods.
Forth Environment Link has been at the forefront of the local food movement for over four years now. Determined to change the way people shop for food and give producers a direct route to market, the charity set up Scotland’s first Food Assembly in Stirling in 2016 – breaking new ground.
The click and collect farmers’ market gave customers the convenience of being able to order online and collect from one location and went on to become one of the UK’s most successful online markets, attracting over 2000 members.
When the French owned platform decided to pull out of the UK in 2018, the charity was quick to find a replacement to ensure customers could still buy local. NeighbourFood – an emerging Irish online e-commerce platform with a similar ethos, where producers keep 80% of the profits (compared to around 25% in supermarkets) – came to the rescue.
Since 2018 Forth Environment Link has supported the roll out of NeighbourFood markets across Scotland; helping build hubs for local food at the heart of our rural communities.
Thanks to the charity’s support and funding from LEADER, there are now six successful NeighbourFood markets running weekly local food collections; from Balfron and Killin in Stirlingshire and Peebles in the Scottish Borders, to Falkland in Fife and the Carse of Gowrie and Blairgowrie in Perthshire.
The initiative has injected nearly a quarter of a million pounds into the rural economy – and continues to give over 110 of Scotland’s food and drink producers, a reliable, local route to market at a critical time for the industry. If it wasn’t for the weekly markets, many of Scotland’s small food and drink producers would have lost all of their sales channels overnight when hospitality and face to face selling shutdown.
During the height of the pandemic small producers saw their orders soar, as locals struggled to access food through their normal channels. While that initial surge in interest has settled down a little over the past year, there’s plenty of evidence to show that many people aren’t returning to their old food shopping habits – in Balfron and Blairgowrie order numbers are still three times higher than they were pre-lockdown.
But a successful market is much more than just about profit– it’s about supporting people to access food, one of our basic needs. During the pandemic, the NeighbourFood network rose to the challenge of food shortages - supplying thousands of people with local food, much of it grown or produced within a 20-mile radius; and market hosts also worked incredibly hard to mobilise volunteers and organise deliveries of food to people shielding or self-isolating in their local communities.
In Peebles revenue from the market was used to run a daily ‘meals on wheels’ service to people shielding, isolated, house-bound or vulnerable due to Covid-19. Between March and October, they delivered over 11,000 meals.
Lockdown taught us that click and collect markets like NeighbourFood play a vital role in serving their communities, helping both consumers and producers. The network was able to supply fresh food to people and provide local businesses with an income only because it acted in community rather than commercial interest; and was supported by an army of volunteers who rallied to the cause.
BUILD BACK BETTER
Covid-19 has shown that our local food systems can be incredibly resilient; but they need our ongoing support and investment if we want them to be around in good times and in bad.
The re-localisation of Scotland’s food systems can play a pivotal part in Scotland’s post Covid-19 green recovery, helping tackle climate change by reducing food miles and helping the transition towards fairer more resilient society. Not just building back but creating something even better than before.
With a climate change emergency, inequality widening and Covid-19 disrupting food supplies, can ‘quaint’ local food save the day? NeighbourFood Founder Jack Crotty thinks so. He said: “When we buy the tastiest food we can, the rest falls into place. Local food is fresher, it’s in season and it’s going to have higher nutritional value. It’s supporting the environment, the local economy and building a more resilient food system that’ll still be available the next time supply chains are disrupted. Ultimately, it is good value for the fair price paid, and encourages people to value food more and waste less, making the alternatives we have become used to seem like a lesser quality choice.”
Despite the hardships of Covid-19, we’ve have had a glimpse (and taste) of a different way of doing things, that benefits people and planet. So slow down and try the scenic route, you might just like it so much that you decide to stay.