Good food should be available to everyone. There's no reason Scotland can't do it

Good food should be available to everyone. There's no reason Scotland can't do it

YOU are what you eat, as the time-worn phrase goes. And it’s true. There are few things as important to us as the food we eat.

Yet, as the cost-of-living crisis bites, a lot of families are finding it harder to make ends meet and to afford good-quality food. Prior to the pandemic, almost one in 10 people across Scotland were food insecure, and, with the punishing effects of Brexit, austerity, and the instability of the last two years, that number will have increased.

What we eat has a big impact on both our physical and mental health and our ability to enjoy a good quality of life.

But it is far harder to get that benefit when the cost of food is escalating and far too many are having to choose between feeding their children and heating their home. This February, grocery prices rose at their fastest rate in over eight years.

Before I moved back to Scotland in 2010, I lived in New York. It was obviously very different to my community in Forres, but, even in such a built-up city, many of us felt the same desire to eat well and to grow and share our own food. While I was there, I worked with community activists and city councillors to create more community gardens for people to come together and grow food.

Particularly in big cities, where many lack access to green spaces and gardens, growing spaces are vital. Without action and support, these big cities can easily become food deserts, without easy access to good food close to home. So it is heartening to see so many community food-growing initiatives in Scotland’s cities.

The challenge is to make good, healthy and nutritious food available and affordable for everyone. Not everybody has the time, money, access to resources or inclination to grow their own, or even to find and buy from locally owned producers. And even the best volunteer-run community growing projects would be challenged to meet the scale of food we need to produce.

In the move to convenience, big-chain supermarkets are undercutting local shops and businesses and fuelling a race to the bottom. Yet, so much of the food on supermarket shelves is filled with sugar, fat and salt – those moreish tastes that keep us going back for – more.

Many of these products, which are often developed by multinational companies, are often full of empty calories and lack any real nutrition. Their focus isn’t on keeping us healthy, it’s on ensuring the highest possible profits for their shareholders.

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This is where the idea of the Good Food Nation plan comes in. The idea is simple: by working through our public kitchens in schools and hospitals, for example, it’s possible to ensure everyone has regular access to high-quality meals.

Many local authorities are already doing great work in this area. Eighteen councils in Scotland hold Food for Life Awards, meaning they serve fresh, organic, local and high-welfare food at more than 2000 sites across Scotland. But there is much more that can be done.

In Parliament, I’ve been scrutinising the Good Food Nation Bill. If this bill becomes an Act, it will require the Scottish Government, local authorities and health boards to produce their own Good Food Nation plans.

The purpose of these plans, ideally, would be for the public sector to procure and provide genuinely nutritious, sustainable, locally produced food through their public kitchens.

The Scottish Food Coalition, made up of 45 civil society organisations, has done a great deal of research and thinking on how the Good Food Nation plans could have the greatest positive impact. Well-conceived and delivered plans would give more people access to good food and nutrition. They could also help to build local resilience, shorten supply chains and keep money in our local economies.

But another big beneficiary would be the planet. With a greater emphasis on locally-produced food, we can help to tackle the climate emergency by reducing our carbon emissions through sourcing our food closer to home.

By investing in procurement through our public kitchens, we could support local crofters, farmers and businesses to sell their produce at a consistently large enough scale to expand their operations and generate good-quality jobs in rural areas.

The technology and the desire is already there. The only thing missing is the support of government, local authorities and health boards to bring it all together.

Across Scotland, and particularly in the Highlands and Islands region which I represent, we have seen a massive growth in the use of the game-changing Polycrub. These are robust versions of polytunnels that are more than capable of withstanding all the wind and rain that our northern weather can hurl at them.

They are a simple but effective idea that allow farmers and crofters to reliably grow fresh fruit and vegetables at scale. Since their creation in Shetland, Polycrub use has expanded around the world, including as far away as the Falklands. This innovation has made it possible to grow fruit and vegetables in harsh and unforgiving climates.

In Scotland we have a chance to make an important change and set a positive precedent for others to follow. Every nation can be a good food nation.

Ideally, the Good Food Nation plans will require the Scottish Government, NHS and local authorities to work together. It is an important and innovative idea, and one that will benefit people, communities and our environment.

None of this will be easy. But, if public kitchens start to procure locally produced food, it will give our producers the confidence to invest in their businesses and help to grow our local and national economies.

Nobody and no plate should be left behind. We all benefit from having good food and nutrition every day, and there is no reason why Scotland can’t provide it.

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