Food as a Relationship

25 of us came together for a gathering for small Scottish food producers in The Yurt, at Whitmuir Community Farm on Thursday 11 July 2019. Many travelled far, from all over Scotland including from Sutherland, and Dumfries.

We came together to discuss ‘Food as a Relationship’ by which we meant: the challenge of how we can really link people to their food and the urgency around not doing more of the same.

Three speakers brought their stories as their ways of attempting to tackle some of these challenges and we thought about historical contexts that ‘explain the basics of the Scots’ insane relationship with land and food’. All this together highlighted how things could be different and the essential ingredients for a society in which people have a meaningful relationship with their food. These are some of our powerful learnings from the day:

Linking people with their food is about restoring trust of the kind that exists in an artisan production process: making food with your hands, touching the produce, whilst engaging in the important task of feeding ‘visitors’ (not ‘customers’). LochArthur (creamery, café/shop near Dumfries) as a living example of this model. It accommodates a learning-disabled Camphill community and the shop/café was developed as a gateway to ‘meet’ the local community.

LochArthur is a true ‘social enterprise’: a place where ‘profit has an (ethical) purpose’. The three ‘ bottom line’ values are the three P’s: sustaining the welfare of the People involved, looking after the Planet (environment, with its diverse and healthy wildlife and evident in its produce), as well as generating a Profit understood as a surplus margin essential for maintaining and developing the organisation.

That model is also key to rural regeneration: LochArthur used to be an estate with a couple in the big house, a caretaker and a farmer (=4 people). It now sustains 8 learning disabled people and 40-45 other employees, and has a shop/café which brings together 100 or so regular visitors of the community.

Selling the food you grow through local shops and supportive community networks, and more recently perhaps through a partnership model, is deeply unfamiliar in Scotland. Transparency and trust (again!) are key values in this. Whitmuir Community Farm creates learning spaces and gets local communities involved as attempts to recreate an honest relationship with food and to restore the broken links in our current food production processes.

Scotland’s food history helps explain why it is so difficult to make a living from small-scale food growing in Scotland to date and how it has resulted in the Scottish bad diet. Some ingredients in that story are: The pattern of current Scottish land ownership, big issues around tenancies and food growing, clearances in the Highlands and enclosures in the South leading to forced rural de-population and later industrialisation / urbanisation encouraging larger-scale food production, artificially enhanced with lime and urban manure, leaving the masses dependent on others to feed themselves, and turning food into a commodity to be bought and sold for profit by private businesses. The slave trade gave access to sugar (that became a huge and growing part of everyone’s diet), and the departure of the landless left a population who no longer have the skills. (And religion tells us not to enjoy good food.)

E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973), ‘small’ would be better rephrased as ‘appropriate size’ (in line with context): a reflection on economic ‘growth’ being only sensible if people remain central in plans.

Production methods are key to a healthy environment, as they are reflected in the products and health of the people who eat it. Organic produce, defined as holistic health, should be available and accessible for all, by right, and not an expensive niche section on supermarket shelves and Farmers’ Markets.

At the heart of the problem of industrial food production of bread, is that cereal is a commodity on the stock market, and financial motives drive farmers’ activities down to the size of the grains, the harvest date, daily toxic inputs, the machinery used to grow and process it. All is done to maximum scale/profit and at the expense of nutritional value, diversification and gut (and resulting mental) health.

Food should be a civic matter, with rights enshrined in law, not because of romantic notions but vital for nutritional and environmental values. Scotland the Breadcampaigns for a long-term target of widespread local availability of different regional grains, grown without toxic input and sold locally without middlemen.

Individuals cannot be held responsible for doing the right thing: the ISM (Individual, Social and Material) model of change used by Scottish Government points at the need for there to be social and material alongside individual motives and encouragements for behaviour change.

‘Local’ is not always the best criterion or the full story (there are 35,000 hens in one shed just up the road). Trade with food producers outside Scotland will always be necessary as we cannot grow everything ourselves and it would not make sense to try to do so.

Organic certification is highly problematic. Transparency is also about processes: not just ‘ingredients’ need to be listed to break ignorance about where food comes from and what it is we eat.

Allotments (90,000 people on waiting lists) and other urban growing (e.g. verges in suburban streets – a well-known Australian example) is an important contributor to environmental health (e.g. also for pollinators) and in getting people linked back to food.

To help us put some of this into practice we ran a workshop on ‘Selling food as more than the stuff we eat’. We reinforced these learnings:

We are expert consumers ourselves and should do a mirroring exercise on our own services/products to test how we come across to others, then be open to what is off-putting / attractive, and implement changes.

It is helpful to try to describe what it is we (our business) do, exactly, perhaps differently from other businesses, with the understanding that It may be useful to define our uniqueness, and to set limits on this, to know our own aspirations.

It is not necessarily useful to see ourselves as competing. Collaboration might be to our advantage. E.g. a ‘village produce network’. But clarity and flexibility with partners is important.

Be mindful of disruptive forces, which sometimes force collaborations, by doing a SWOT analysis regularly and make adaptive changes.

We need to create a situation where customers can buy with minimum time and energy and ‘inattentively’ (e.g. standing orders that are hard to step out of…)

We concluded on the need for a collective identity for small food producers to save members, our consumers and suppliers a lot of work, to create trust and credibility, and to be instrumental in facilitating new routes to market.