February 12, 2014
Something you rarely hear about in the third sector is an organisation, especially one that has been phenomenally successful, deciding to call it a day. Often when voluntary organisations come under pressure because of funding cuts, the response is to pursue other sources of potential funding just to keep ‘the show on the road’ – quite often resulting in ‘mission drift’. Seems that this is not a route for the much vaunted Fife Diet. Next year it has announced it will be abolishing itself. Job done. Move on. Next challenge.
Has something gone awry at the Fife Diet, the pioneering project that encouraged more people to grow and eat local food and reduce their carbon emissions footprint – and which, with 6000 signed-up members, is one of the largest food projects in Europe?
Its founder Mike Small has announced it is abolishing itself next year when the current round of backing from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund – which has given the Fife Diet almost £800,000 since it was founded in 2007 – is exhausted. It was easy to jump to the sad conclusion it had not worked out.
The announcement turned out to be a characteristic low-key display of theatricality from Small, who succeeded in tantalising those of us who have followed his journey from unknown activist to respected food hero.
Small asked people to sign up to eating food only from Fife for a year and to share their experiences, and nurtured the idea to the extent it has become a real force to be reckoned with.
With the backing of the Government and his growing band of supporters, he has been a thorn in the flesh of the global food industry and the centralisation of the food chain, championing local food economies in Fife and forcing us all to think about food miles, growing our own, allotments, seasonality, organics, community gardens and school meals. Indeed, the Fife Diet Food Manifesto of 2012 was the first to suggest every primary school child should know how to make a pot of soup before they leave school.
He caught my mood of despair last week when Tesco announced its plan to target primary schools and teach children about where their food comes from, and he led the challenge to the Scottish Government to tell the supermarket where to go.
The centralisation of dairy, meat and flour production remain huge challenges, and when we spoke a few days ago he complained that unless we all commit to a radical shift in how we produce and consume food, he will reach the limits of what he can do.
Yet he hotly refutes the suggestion he is throwing in the towel. On the contrary, he says he feels victorious and is preparing to publish a “serious” study of the positive impact the project has had on carbon emissions, the economy and on the health and wellbeing of people in Fife.
He promises all three elements will be significant, and even suggests it is up to the Government to use the Fife Diet as a blueprint to extend it across the rest of Scotland.
He argues that the £800,000 of public funding has been well justified, pointing out the Fife Diet has consistently exceeded the targets it was asked to meet. It keeps good company: Scotland now boasts a veritable map of local food networks, such as Nourish Scotland, Ayrshire Food Network, Locavore Glasgow; and the first community-owned farm, bakery and greengrocer in West Linton, Dunbar and Edinburgh respectively (Fife Diet has also reached west, having helped set up a community garden in Maryhill, Glasgow).
Small says he always foresaw the end of core funding and, seven years on, feels well prepared to go it alone, as it were, with an empowered community of foodies ready to sow the seeds for the future.
At next Saturday’s AGM he will discuss plans for the launch of the Fife Food Co-operative, part-funding for which he hopes will come from the People’s Postcode Lottery.
Although this support would be much less than he has received from the Government, he says a measure of his success is that he does not really need funding any more.
The Fife Food Co-operative will be large-scale, where the might of his membership will provide leverage on buying power to purchase, say, 300 chickens or a field of oats at a reasonable price for redistribution locally.
He is also preparing a revised food manifesto. This will address the new and unwelcome arrival of food banks in Scotland, which he sees as continuing the culture of dependency and powerlessness in the face of big business, which is anathema to the principles of the Fife Diet. It will also highlight the continued lack of transparency in the meat chain in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.
He describes himself as a “friendly critic” of the Scottish Government. Given that his career to date has been nurtured in no small part by it, and runs in parallel to its own ground-breaking National Food Policy where local sustainable food, and community empowerment, is at the heart of its plans for changing the way we grow and eat food, I wonder if he can maintain his momentum.
I do hope so, for then he would prove beyond reasonable doubt that it really is possible to give power to the people.