Ayesha is a Nutritionist and has worked with the Ripple Project as Community Food & Development Officer since February 2019. Ayesha manages an array of food activities around the hub at the Ripple Project that promotes access to food in a dignified way, believing that everyone should be food secure, have access to adequate and nutritious food.
As a Nutritionist, the first thought that came to my mind when I heard the theme for SURF conference this year, was that of course food is central to living, and growing our own food is not only beneficial for our physical and mental health but also good for the environment and community engagement. I think this first response was so subconscious, arising from my exposure to food around childhood where every form of human interaction from birth to burial was weaved around food and all my summer holidays were spent growing and tending after kitchen garden. Food was considered as a binder in sharing happiness and grief, in times of conflict and resolution, always. When Euan (CEO SURF) opened the conference and mentioned Food and Housing in the same breath, how we are having to choose between food and or housing, that they have a direct relationship, made me consciously think how deeply we are in this crisis and what can we do from food perspective.
Our health is a complex puzzle. Our life activities and events change from day to day from birth of a new life to death of our loved ones, not to forget our worries about war, pandemic, climate change and sometimes the worry about paying bills or even next meal as the JRF (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) summarise in their cost-of-living tracker, summer 2023 report. The report states that 5.5 million low-income households have had to cut down on or skip meals because they can’t afford food. Now, that is very distressful and from my nutritional therapist point of view such kind of stress has far more repercussions on our health than was previously understood, from physical, physiological, mental to emotional health and I firmly believe that part of the solution lies in empowering communities, bringing people together.
Most of the speakers with their experiences of working with communities from down zero to building flourishing multicultural, buzzing hubs, larders, and community gardens has proven that ‘Food’ is a social glue, communities thrive. Again, the power of FOOD. We need to harness this power at a bigger, greater level. The Ripple Project is also one of the kind, but we also have more emergency food insecurity concerns.
I always thought that growing food is important but never thought of it as more than a hobby or an activity to engage people, surely not at the level of urgency but when Karen and Lou from ‘Get Growing Scotland’ emphasised the urgency of growing food in the community – gardens, allotments, schools, local parks, acquired derelict land and accelerating the process by getting local authorities involved, penny dropped… wow moment. This enthusiasm led me to read recent research published by the Sheffield University which was also mentioned by Lou. The study demonstrates that household fruit and vegetable production in allotments and gardens can provide approximately half of the annual supply of vegetables and 20% of fruits, also people involved in the study ate 70% more fruit and veg than the national UK average and the fruit and veg waste they produced was about 90% lower than the average UK household. ‘Where there’s muck there’s magic’ Lou mentioned enthusiastically, I agree, there sure is. Any barriers we can think of? Yes, access to space and that’s where local authorities and government come into picture. Although I was slightly thrilled to hear about the £41 million Scottish Welfare Fund mentioned by Joe Fitzpatrick MSP, Minister Local Government Empowerment and Planning, Scottish Government.
I now understand and support Mary Brennan’s (Dean of Education, University of Edinburgh) appeal to take part in local consultations and put our vision through to the local authorities, to realise our bigger dream of Scotland as a Good Food Nation.
I was thrilled by all the optimism, and we can do it attitude, and experiences whilst thinking about my role as a Community Food Development Officer? Does any of this resonate with me? I work in a community centre where I am involved in dealing with urgent food insecurity. Everyday I come across one or more community members looking for a food bank voucher, food parcel or access to food either fresh or in any form. They are looking for emergency benefit advice, on the verge of homelessness. It breaks my heart, but I understand in that moment all they need is food to survive, not to join a walking or knitting or garden group. Certainly, if they are able to pull themselves together with the right support, they would be interested but I say ‘would’, because not all of them return to join regenerative wellbeing projects. Some do, and not everyone needs emergency support, but the numbers have risen over time, I guess we can blame it on cost-of-living rise but also housing, addictions, and mental health issues that are so common to pockets of deprived communities. Obviously, we need a comprehensive all systems approach but guess what, as always lack of funding and trained manpower to deal with these complex vulnerable situations.
I can imagine a future where people participate in local food initiatives, where food acts as enabler to building strong, thriving, independent communities supporting our local economy and reducing carbon footprint wherein everyone can turn to each other with love, care and hope just like the sunflowers that Daniel Serridge beautifully illustrated through his story, and for that to happen we need a robust long-term plan, coordination and crosstalk between third sector organisations, policy makers, funders and politicians and I think SURF is doing just that.
This blog is the fourth in a series of follow on blogs from the SURF Annual Conference. The next blog will be added on the 26th Sept.