Muirhouse mums organise own food festival

Sammy Conquer with some healthy offerings. Picture: Toby Williams
Sammy Conquer with some healthy offerings. Picture: Toby Williams
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MOUTHWATERING smells wafted from the stalls and tents of a bustling food festival where guests had paid handsomely to watch TV chefs rustle up posh nosh and to sample the pick of exotic produce on display.

Outside looking in, Muirhouse mum-of-three Sammy Conquer wandered past the colourful entrance to the Meadows festival.

“It was so expensive,” she recalls. “I walked by thinking it smelled great but I couldn’t possibly afford to go in.”

Getting in would set her back nearly £50 if she wanted the full VIP experience – more than her whole week’s shopping budget.

Even then, it’s unlikely much inside would be relevant to life back in Muirhouse, where shops selling game birds, blinis, quail’s eggs and truffles are thin on the ground. Indeed, there’s not even an independent butcher left within striking distance of most Muirhouse homes.

But Sammy, one of a group of like-minded determined mums, was only too aware of the links being made between eating fresh, well-cooked food and healthy living. With her area branded one of the poorest in Edinburgh, it seemed obvious that if anyone might benefit from being introduced to clever cooking tips and fresh tastes on a tight budget, it surely had to be Muirhouse and the surrounding area.

Now thanks to an inspirational display of “mum power” – the kind that would delight celebrity chef and healthy-eating campaigner Jamie ­Oliver, right – the women have created a food festival of their own, tailored for an area gripped by poverty, health problems and unemployment.

Rather than offering up the latest gourmet sensation or Michelin star titbits, their down-to-earth plan is to inspire local families to swap unhealthy choices like ready meals, jars of sauces, pizzas and “chips with everything” dinners for a much healthier, home-cooked approach to meal times.

The result – not unlike a scene from Oliver’s Ministry of Food series in which communities gathered to share cooking and healthy eating tips – is unveiled tomorrow, when the mums from Muirhouse, Pennywell and West Pilton hold their second Yummy Food Festival.

Unlike the uptown Taste of Edinburgh festival featuring chefs and fancy food, their event is free.

The hope, explains Sammy, 27, of Muirhouse Gardens, is to encourage families to stretch tight weekly budgets in the right direction, improving the quality of the food they eat and their health. It’s an “eat well, stay healthy” message that could hardly be more relevant: recently it was confirmed that 29 per cent of children in the area that covers the city council’s Forth ward, which includes Muirhouse, Pilton and Granton, are living in poverty.

Looming changes in benefit payments mean many will soon find they have even less money to spend, while earlier this week a new survey revealed families’ essential living costs have soared by 25 per cent in five years, with food costs increasing by 17 per cent.

“There are big poverty issues here,” says Sammy, sitting at a table at North Edinburgh Arts Centre, busy putting the final touches to the festival along with cousin Jamie Conquer, 27, a mum-of-two from Pennywell, and Muirhouse mother-of-one Lisa ­Morrison, 25.

“People don’t have a lot of money. If they didn’t learn how to cook at home, they probably didn’t learn at school either. All I remember from home economics was being shown how to make a pizza using toast as the base,” she adds, as the others nod.

“There aren’t any proper food shops left around here either,” she continues. “You can buy stuff in tins or maybe get onions or carrots, but when a single banana costs 80p, and an apple is 50p, people don’t buy them. Rather than waste money trying to cook something that might not taste very good, a lot of people just buy microwave meals or ready-made sauces which aren’t really very healthy.”

Fellow festival organiser Jamie agrees that while many appreciate the healthy eating message, circumstances are often stacked against them – ­especially when buying ingredients can involve a long trek to the supermarket, usually on foot to save the bus fare.

“When I was working it was cheaper and easier to just chuck a pizza in the oven or heat up fish fingers because you think you haven’t got time to cook,” she adds. “But now I make more home-made meals, the kids eat more and they eat healthier. Because they are helping me cook, they are learning too.

“I spend around £25 to £30 a week on food,” she adds. “If I buy the right things I can make home-cooked, proper meals every day. We still have a takeaway now and again, but normally it’s home-made soup, stews, that kind of thing.”

This year’s Taste of Edinburgh 
festival, normally held at the Meadows, has been scrapped after last year’s event was washed out. It typically involved television chefs and the big food companies.

However, the Yummy Food Festival at North Edinburgh Arts Centre, in Pennywell Court – the latest chapter in the mums’ two years of work towards improving eating habits in the area – is far more “home-made”.

Their Ministry of Food-style campaign began when Sammy, her sister, Mo Conquer, 29, a mum-of-three, and a handful of other mums decided to compile a cookery book of locals’ favourite “under a fiver” recipes to feed a family of five.

Ideas flowed in, including easy-to-make healthy option chips – made in the oven and given extra kick from spices – prawn linguini, meaty stews, unusual soups, a recipe of Turkish rice balls made with minced pork and rice then steamed, and another for a healthy baked potato, filling removed, mixed with cottage cheese, raisins and almonds and then popped back in the oven to bake.

Inspired, the mums turned their hand to baking their own bread, eventually churning out fresh products for local events. They even took their newly bread-making skills to show children in local nurseries. Now there are plans to expand into a business under the banner The Yummy Bread Company.

“This stems from a health project aimed at encouraging healthy eating, but it’s been the women themselves who have driven it all forward,” says Lisa Arnott, community healthy lifestyles coordinator, who has been supporting the mums. “At the end of the day, it’s about them sharing skills and passing knowledge to other people and then them doing the same.”

Lisa Morrison, 25, of Muirhouse Gardens, agrees being involved has radically altered the food she now enjoys with six-year-old son Kaden.

She says: “I didn’t really know about cooking. I didn’t get involved at school and didn’t learn to cook at home. Now I make a lot more soup than ever and I make my own spaghetti bolognese which before I wouldn’t do. I probably spend less on my food shopping now than I used to, because the stuff I make goes further.”

That’s a result that the “yummy mummies” – including mum-of-two Angie Louden, 27 from West Pilton and Muirhouse mums Tracey Sayers, 26 and Sam Jones, 34 – want to see copied across the north Edinburgh area.

“People have grown up not learning how to cook at home or at school,” adds Jamie, who regularly cooks with nine-year-old twins Caitlin and Kal.

“Hopefully this will show them that it’s not hard to do. And the best bit is that it’s really a lot of fun, too.”

High levels of disease

SCOTLAND has one of the worst health records in the western world, with high levels of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes.

Genetic factors play a part, however poverty and poor diet are also known to contribute.

Diabetes UK Scotland has warned that people in poorer areas are more likely to get type 2 diabetes – the kind commonly linked to lifestyle. Once people in deprived areas have it, they are twice as likely to develop complications.

Research from the charity also shows those living in poorest areas of Scotland are 64 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with the condition compared with better-off communities. Heart disease has also been connected to poverty and poor diet, while there is evidence that eating more fruit and vegetable decreases the risk of developing several types of cancer.

Television chef Jamie Oliver has been involved in a number of campaigns aimed at encouraging communities to share their cooking skills with a view to fostering healthier eating and a shift away from ready meals towards home-cooked food.

His Ministry of Food series in 2008 tried to get an entire town to share recipes and ditch processed ready meals for home cooked food. And his Pass It On campaign was aimed at teaching a group of people recipes which they could then share with others in their community.

• The Yummy Food Festival is at North Edinburgh Arts Centre, 15a Pennywell Court, from 12.30pm to 5pm on Friday. The event features free cooking demonstrations, recipe challenges, home-baking, gardening displays, cooking workshops and children’s events. Among those taking part will be former Scottish Chef of the Year Neil Forbes, of New Town restaurant Cafe St Honore, representatives from the Botanics who will advise on ‘growing your own’ and nutrition students from Queen Margaret University demonstrating how to make soup on a budget.