The Food Leadership Programme: From Comrie Croft to Stanley’s Laundry

This blog post by Clem Sandison is the fourth of a series of reflections written by participants of the Food Leadership Programme, organised by Nourish from the 12th – 17th of July.

Stanley's Laundry

Waiting at Stanley’s Laundry.


Blogs are supposed to be immediate, about the present, right? So let me set the scene. It’s 6.30am, Pacific time zone. I’m in North Beach, San Francisco, home of the beat poets. I’m sitting in a rickety old red chair in Stanley’s Laundry eating a ricotta cheese pastry that I picked up across the street from the Italian French Bakery. It’s getting light outside, there’s a hum of washing machines and I’m trying to cast my mind back to Comrie Croft and the Food Leadership Programme. I’m trying to remember that trembling excitement we all had. The belief that with a set of shared values and collective effort on many fronts, we might be able to change the face of the food system in Scotland. But I’m in America and the smell of laundry detergent is putting me off my stride.

California is experiencing its worst drought for 1200 years by some counts, and yet I can still get water for a shower every morning, run the washing machine, eat out at nice restaurants, buy whatever food I want from Trader Joe’s. After all I’m here in the USA, land of plenty, a drought’s not going to get in the way of things.

Back to Comrie Croft just two weeks ago, where I was surrounded by a green temperate land, a place where it rains in abundance, in a country I’m very happy to call home. I was with a vibrant group of people with a passion for sustainable food, who all brought different knowledge and experience to the table. In that space we were all equals and over the course of a week we built a shared frame of reference, a way to look at the world, which all began with an understanding of Scotland’s food history.

Everything in the present is affected by the past and understanding where we come from, our history, informs everything else, right? So I’m in San Francisco, visiting family for the first time in many years, back in the country of my birth. The place where my parents first met in the 1970s. A place I might have grown up in, but did not. A place where I feel very aware of my European identity, my roots in Wales and Scotland. I draw little comfort from owning two passports and do not choose to linger on the threshold, my feet are firmly planted in Glasgow. But don’t get me wrong, there’s lots to learn from here.

The Edible Schoolyard Project.

The Edible Schoolyard Project.

Yesterday I visited the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley where food growing and cooking is part of the curriculum and there is large garden and purpose built teaching kitchen on site at the school. I wandered around the garden in the searing heat, looking at the familiar – apples, kale, potatoes, sunflowers – and the not so familiar – kiwis, passion fruit, figs. They employ a teacher specifically to look after the garden because they value the learning it provides across all curricular subjects. Then we had lunch and a tour of the kitchen at Chez Panisse – Alice Water’s pioneering restaurant that helped pave the way for organic, local sourced, seasonal dining.

It’s light now outside Stanley’s Laundry, some people are bustling to work, others are ambling along the street with nowhere to go, or stopping by the bakery for coffee. A few more people have put on their washing. The sound is soothing. I’m contemplating what to do with my day. Will it be dim sum in Chinatown, huevos rancheros in The Mission, pizza at Tony’s round the corner, biryani from a street food truck downtown, organic ethical fare from a worker’s co-op in Berkely? I’ve had all of these options in the last week. Changing the food system in Scotland feels a long way away. But that’s the reality check.

Humming washing machines.

Humming washing machines.

How can we recognise the contradictions all around us? How can we sustain the pleasure of food while we change the system? How can we bring other people along on the journey? How can we keep on track?

My internal monologue runs like this:

Right to food, regenerative agriculture, community crofting, micro dairies, short supply chains, public kitchens, shared meals, food for people.

While around me the world is happening like this:

Washing machine hum, red chair, neon lights, laundry detergent, concrete sidewalk, take away coffee, ricotta cheese pastry.

I’m looking forward to getting home so I can get started, but in the meantime I guess I’ll eat some tacos and black beans, since I’m here.