Alison Johnstone: Food for thought and a little thought for food

File picture: Donald MacLeod

File picture: Donald MacLeod

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IT’S time for a radical rethink on how we use and distribute the wonderful food that Scotland produces, says Alison Johnstone

WHEN we talk about human rights, we usually refer to freedom of speech, or gender and racial equality. In their recent report “Plenty”, the Scottish Food Coalition called for the Scottish Government to enshrine a right to food in Scots law. I support this call because I believe we need to start thinking about food in a completely new way.

We’re a wealthy nation, one of the wealthiest in the world. We’re also a food producing nation, famed for our exports of whisky and salmon. Yet food banks are in demand more than ever. Teachers are told to watch out for pupils suffering from malnutrition while almost a third of Scots are obese.

We all should have a right to the nutrition we need to live healthy, full lives, yet so many of us are either not getting enough food, or are getting too much food that’s bad for us. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The number one issue we need to tackle is poverty. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, supermarket deals for low quality, fatty foods might be the only option to get anything on the table.

While Scotland produces some of the best quality food in the world, it can be difficult to actually get hold of the meat, veg, tatties and berries grown here on our turf. Good quality food is too often a luxury product, rather than an everyday ingredient for all.

Supermarkets exert huge influence. They are driven by profit – profit that leaks out of local economies. Recently, one of the big retailers unveiled plans to sell “wonky veg” they had previously been dumping. But let’s not kid ourselves that the corporates have gone cuddly – they are desperate to revive their image, following the horsemeat scandal and public anger at the way they have squeezed suppliers such as dairy farmers.

Government and local authorities can help challenge the dominance of the big retailers by giving communities access to land and resources to grow basic produce, and standing firm against ill-considered planning applications that would see farmland covered in tarmac and concrete.

This week I’m leading a debate at Holyrood on Scotland’s Food Future, highlighting the Food Coalition report and the many community groups we have here in Lothian. From Edinburgh Community Food to the Pilton Health Project, from Leith Community Crops in Pots to the Edinburgh Food Belt, there’s great work happening on our doorstep.

I’m also highlighting the Cyrenians. I paid their food depot in Leith a visit earlier this month. The staff and volunteers work hard to make use of surplus food that big supermarket chains leave behind. I saw a cooking class they put on every weekday. Cyrenians never give out just food – people cook, learn new skills, build confidence and meet people.

It’s time we reconnected with food and it’s time for government and local authorities to enable a good food culture. After all, we are what we eat.

• Alison Johnstone is Green MSP for Lothian