Mark is the Senior Design Officer Climate Action Towns at Architecture & Design Scotland. An Architect with twenty years of experience in education, retail, commercial and residential sectors in London and Edinburgh. After recently completing an MSc in Environmental Management, Mark’s focus has shifted to how policy drives built-environment solutions and how we move to a climate-positive future where behaviour change is at the forefront of decision-making.

(Warning: may contain food puns)

Thursday 31 August saw the Climate Action Towns team travel to Kilmarnock to the CentreStage venue (Scotland’s largest community asset transfer) to feast upon the offering that was ‘Community Growing – entering un-chard-ed territory’ at SURF’s annual conference. And what a feast it was.

Climate Action Town’s is working with communities traditionally lacking in climate action. Community food growing has long been a recipe for an engaged town and through the experiences of the speakers we learned just how vital it can be to nurturing a healthy community. It was fantastic to hear such passion in the room for an area of life we take so much for granted (Author’s note: must get down to the shops at lunchtime to get milk and bread). The big takeaway was that community food growing is not primarily about the food but about engendering a sense of community, of place and of trust in each other whilst reconnecting people with real food. And growing some lovely courgettes – but garlic was a bit tricky this year.

The point was made by speaker after speaker: community food is good for your mental health and your gut health whilst also addressing climate and biodiversity. Food for thought, indeed.

There are community food schemes in some of the towns we are working in and through events like this we can share lived-experience examples of why it should be on, or at the top of, the climate agenda in their place. In Invergordon, there are a small group of dedicated volunteers running the Dandelion Project to deliver community grown food to the local population, and in Holytown we are supporting the development of a small community garden.

Eric and Sandra Spence from the Campbeltown community joined us at the conference as the community are about to embark on a community food growing project right in the middle of Campbeltown. Eric and Sandra are hugely enthusiastic community – focussed people but even they were bowled away by the passion and commitment on show at the event. The level of learning on offer and the connections in the room were a joy for a town setting out on a growing project. Eric said after the event.
‘I found the SURF Conference on Community Growing an incredibly edible’y’ inspiring event which gave me a taste of what can be achieved when a community grows together. This event has worked up our appetite for the development of sustainable community growing spaces in our own area. If I’ve learnt one thing, it’s that thyme is money.’

Eric Spence – South Kintyre Development Trust

The ingredients for a great day were assembled diligently by Euan Leitch and his team at SURF. Taking chard of the situation, Euan Leitch suggested this topic was maybe going a bit off-menu but there was a lot of merit in doing so. This was backed up by the Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning Joe FitzPatrick MSP’s overview of the Scottish Government’s commitment to Community Growing in line with the new Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2023 recently enacted to the statute books. A lot of funding mechanisms were mentioned in Mr Fitzpatrick’s speech that should enable Community Growing to flourish in the coming years.

The morning session focussed on the policy landscape – led by Mary Brennan from University of Edinburgh and moving it into the network element of community growing with the team from Get Growing Scotland. The panel discussion that followed was robust and covered such things as the civic pride element of community food projects; food as a connector and the fragility of the food system.
The afternoon programme followed a similar format with five speakers taking about their experiences in establishing community food schemes and networks in Wester Hailes, Larkhall and Glasgow. Sage advice was forthcoming and some of the takeaways were delicious – in Larkhall, as the community expands and the support agencies shrink, how do the third sector cope with an increase in demand for their services. Where is their cut of the Section 75 pie in all this?

Lettuce consider the learnings from the day? The value of community growing is establishing trust in a community and re-engaging people with their community – but that community growers are rarely paid a living wage. Funding is a hugely significant issue – the dedicated pot for Community Growing for the WHOLE of Scotland currently stands at £100k – though other funding routes may be available with some creative applications.

There were twenty-five excellent participants on stage and they cooked up a terrific case for community growing – as well as any event I have ever attended. Thank you to all of them and to SURF for such generous nourishment on a topic that needs to make it to the very top of the climate menu.

This blog is the third in a series of follow on blogs from the SURF Annual Conference. Read the next blog from Ayesha Mir of The Ripple Project, here.