Euan Leitch joined SURF as Chief Executive in May 2021 following 8 years with the Built Environment Forum Scotland. He is a longstanding supporter of SURF and its cross-sector collaborative approach to addressing inequalities. At BEFS Euan delivered a strong programme of strategic policy work that included promoting and fostering the productive links between the built environment and community regeneration, diversity, resilience and the maintenance agenda. A priority for Euan is ensuring that communities experiencing the consequences of deprivation are actively involved in responding to the climate emergency.

Why did Scotland’s Regeneration Forum hold its annual conference on the topic of community food growing? At the start of 2023 we considered the cost-of-living crisis as a theme but decided our colleagues at Poverty Alliance were already doing an excellent job in focusing on this and, in the immediate term, giving households in poverty more money is the answer. But we were aware that the extreme pressure on household budgets drives pursuit of the cheapest foods which are often neither good for our individual health nor planetary health.

Even before the current energy crisis UK household budgets spend only 11% on food, compared to 33%, 60 years ago. This has not resulted in improved household budgets as other living costs, primarily housing, have taken up our spend. The demand for cheap food needs not be seen within the context of the affordable housing crisis.

As a policy focused organisation with an eye for the strategic long-term view we wanted to look at what areas of community led activity were addressing this. Henry Dimbleby’s Ravenous and Avocado Anxiety by Louise Gray provided some inspiration, salutary yet positive. We have witnessed the benefits of community growing across SURF’s Alliance for Action sites in Dunoon, Girvan, Govan, Langholm and Peterhead, and learned from SURF Award nominees at Horshader Community Grows, Every1’s Garden at the Maxwell Centre and the garden at North Edinburgh Arts. These projects are delivering benefits way beyond plant produce, with most intentionally working on social cohesion, environmental benefits, climate change, combatting loneliness, healthy diets, mental health, and employment skills to name but a few. It is evident that community action on growing spaces leads to wider community led regeneration activity in the places they operate.

In July 2022 the Scottish Parliament passed the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act which requires the Scottish Government, health boards and local authorities to produce good food plans to affect these outcomes:

  • (a) social and economic wellbeing,
  • (b) the environment,
  • (c) health and physical and mental wellbeing
  • (d) economic development,
  • (e) animal welfare,
  • (f) education, and
  • (g) child poverty.

We saw an opportunity to demonstrate how communities across Scotland were already delivering many of these outcomes, frequently by volunteers, and always underfunded. The SURF audience is wide, from community groups to funders to policy makers to key agencies, enterprise agencies and government – both local and national. We wanted to provide a platform for the people leading in community growing projects to demonstrate that those other parts of the regeneration system need to pay attention to the multiple benefits that lie in increased understanding and funding of this sector. Some projects are small but with large social impact and others are growing in size with community led farming contributing to veg boxes and the wider food system.

I’ve worked across many varying issues in my career but I can think of none that tick as many vital boxes as the community growing sector. For Scotland to be a healthy nation, the community growing sector requires coherent, long term strategic support as without it the national food plan will not deliver.

You can find presentations from speakers at bottom of the event page. I hope you enjoy the following series of responses from conference attendees, and are moved to action – I planted winter potatoes in our shared back green at the weekend, and the tenement got together for a crumble made from the 7 apples our tree bore.

This blog is the first in a series of follow on blogs from the SURF Annual Conference. Read the next blog from SURF’s Policy Manager, Derek Rankine, here.