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November 9, 2021

Action on food

Scratch a little beneath the surface of COP’s official Blue and Green Zones and there is a massive programme of events, talks and activities to be discovered. Nourish Scotland in collaboration with its many partners has put on a particularly impressive programme of events related to food and climate justice. The world’s food system and the injustices caused by it – the emerging humanitarian catastrophe of Afghanistan yet another example – has been one of the big themes of COP and that focus has provided a new platform for the many community initiatives around Glasgow that are tackling food poverty. 

Angela Catlin, Georgina Hayes. The Ferret

On a crisp November afternoon in Maryhill, Glasgow, a small group of mask-clad local residents begin to gather just outside Wyndford Nursery School.

Situated in the north-west of the city, Wyndford estate comprises 1960s and 70s-style council flats – mostly run by a housing association, some as high as 26 storeys. Other residents pass by, many hand-in-hand with their young children.

Before long two teenage girls arrive, armed with crates full of hot food. Chantelle and Dion, both 17, have lived in the area their entire lives and have spent the last year and a half preparing and delivering meals for their neighbours.

Now apprentices for the G20 Youth Festival – a postcode-based project with an ethos of empowering young people and helping others – the girls were inspired to start a community feeding project when lockdown struck.

“We were delivering to doors, delivering to people who couldn’t get out – like the elderly and people with health conditions,” says Delma Egan, one of two adults joining Dion and Chantelle, as she offers boxes of freshly cooked spaghetti bolognese to waiting residents.

Despite COP26 taking place mere miles away, pledges by world leaders and corporations at the SEC feel worlds apart from the activism taking place in Maryhill. There has been criticism of the failure to address issues about food insecurity and its links to poverty and climate change.

Securing better food systems across both the global south and north, many argue, is at the heart of climate justice.

“I think they don’t know the way poor people live. They’re so out of touch,” Egan says.

They see first hand that food insecurity is an issue right here in Scotland. Every Monday night, G20 collects food from Co-op stores and young people help cook it at their youth club the following morning, before heading to Wyndford that afternoon for the street food project.

“We were really busy during lockdown, we were making up to 120 meals a week and delivering them in the community for free,” Egan explains as people fill their bags with cardboard-packaged hot meals and groceries. “People were getting through on social media to say they were really struggling.”

Glasgow has suffered a particularly difficult pandemic, having endured the harshest Covid-19 restrictions in Scotland for the longest period of time, measures which often affected vulnerable communities the most.

In a bid to get word out of the help on offer, Chantelle and Dion would hand out leaflets and leave them in the closes of flats. “These young people have grown up in Maryhill so they know everybody. That community connection is so important,” says Egan.

Born and bred in the Gorbals, Delma joined G20 two years ago after a spell as an addiction worker with adults. Alongside doing one-to-ones with young people, she also helps run a family support group on Thursday nights where “the mothers and grannies of the young people come to shout and share about their week”.

Now that the pandemic has tapered and people can get to shops, around 20 people still show up every week for the food. An area historically associated with disproportionately high rates of poverty and health inequalities, there’s a “real need” for the extra support.

“There’s folk who come here who are obviously in active addiction, like any scheme in Glasgow,” she says, waving at a man passing by.

“We also get asylum seekers, and people with severe mental health issues too. We’ve got a transgender person who comes who’s lovely – a whole variety of people and everybody’s welcome.”

Research has frequently revealed that the majority of foodbank users often feel fear and embarrassment, while need for the services has increased by 128 per cent in the last five years across the UK as a whole, largely as a result of welfare issues and challenging life experiences such as ill health.

However, a Durham University study also found that some of these feelings of stigma were overcome when people realised that others they consider to be like themselves may also rely on food parcels.

Egan explains: “With us, we usually get a good laugh out of the people when they come – there’s interaction. They’re especially proud people, Glaswegians, and many feel shame going into a food bank.

“But I think because this is out in the fresh air and they’re popping by rather than going into a building that says ‘food bank’ on it, there’s no stigma. We invite people over and we’re out in the open,” she says, adding: “I’m working class, my parents are working class, we speak their language.”

But while COP26 is far from people’s minds here that isn’t to say that being environmentally conscious isn’t at the heart of this operation. The hot food containers are cardboard and waste goes to a nearby allotment, used to source fresh produce for the hot meals – from potatoes and carrots to green beans and kale.

“We took over the allotment a year ago. One of the young people found it and now we’ve got three plots,” says Emily Cutts, director of the Children’s Wood, a gap site transformed by the local community in the west-end of Glasgow despite threats of eviction from high-end property development bids.

“Young people have been quite negatively viewed in the community with police on them all the time, but after the pandemic people were saying well done,” she says.

“There’s so many strengths but so many barriers. School hasn’t worked well for a lot of them, but they respond really well to the outdoors. We’re now trying to train them up to get green jobs.”

Six miles east in Provanmill, an area of major deprivation in the city, St Paul’s Youth Forum is similarly committed to sustainable, dignified community solutions to food insecurity.

Located in – although not affiliated with – St Paul’s parish church, the project hosts a free, three-course community meal every Tuesday evening as well as a food pantry on Wednesdays. The menu tonight includes chicken curry and a spiced pumpkin loaf with custard.

Much of the produce served comes from a community garden that surrounds the church. Here there are several polytunnels as well as a chicken coup and pizza oven.

“Because it’s a very community-orientated place we don’t lock the gates, which means a lot of families can come up at all times of the day to see the chickens even if I’m not here,” says Joe Lowit, the forum’s community gardener. “We’ve never had any vandalism.”

Straddled by two motorways, Provanmill suffers pollution levels which are almost never at a safe level, and less than 50 per cent of residents own a car.

“There’s no Subway, there’s no train service, there’s a very expensive and temperamental bus service… which obviously makes it very difficult for people to access local, affordable healthy produce and that affects their general health,” Lowit says.

Like G20, St Paul’s found that demand skyrocketed during lockdown, and at its peak they were supporting around 260 people a week in just over a square mile.

“For a lot of people it was austerity, job losses, or a lot of old people where the only way to get any food in was to get on a bus to Asda,” adds Lowit. “Our food system, our transport system and our benefits system have all failed,” he adds.

A variety of local residents help with the garden, he says, ranging from nuns living nearby to first generation immigrants and asylum seekers.

“It’s really interesting because in Scotland we’ve been de-skilled a bit, so a lot of people are very happy to take veg from the garden if it’s things like leeks and tatties but there’s other things they wouldn’t know how to cook.

“Whereas quite a few of the local families whose roots are in Africa for example, they’ve come and shown me recipes from the garden that I never thought of. I thought pumpkin leaves were just for the compost, but they say it’s a delicacy.”

They also receive food from FareShare – a charity network that aims to reduce food poverty and waste by redistributing surplus food from shops and producers – although they haven’t been able to provide as much fresh produce as usual due to the supply chain crisis, he explains.

“It’s more dignified than a foodbank; you’re not just being handed a bag,” says Darren Rennie, another St Paul’s organiser.

“It all started with the community meal, and that way nobody would know who was struggling and who wasn’t. Some people would come just for the social interaction.”

Although when the project first started over six years ago “everybody was scared young people would trash it”, they managed to build the garden up “with a sense of ownership”.

“Every tree here was planted by a local young person, and we knew if we made them a part of it then they’d protect it and that’s what they’ve done,” he says. Almost every young person in the area has been given a strawberry plant.

“All the work I do in schools is about teaching children where their food comes from,” he adds.

However, they’re keen not to be “too preachy” about environmentalism: “We’re trying to reduce food miles, but most of the people who live here aren’t a huge part of the problem; they aren’t flying regularly, they don’t have lavish lifestyles.”

And while these community projects may seem disconnected from each other, a concentrated campaign is underway in Scotland’s largest city to increase open agriculture, improve education and address food insecurity in a holistic way.

The Glasgow City Food Plan, developed by a team involving the city council and NHS among many others, aims to shape Glasgow’s food system into something more sustainable and equitable.

“Around 80 different organisations helped introduce the plan after a two-year consultation,” says Abi Mordin, a food activist and strategic lead with the Glasgow Community Food Network and Propagate.

“We feel it’s been influenced by organisations where everything is in unison – anti-poverty associations, restaurants, the council, all got their heads together to see how we can address food system change in a way that’s healthy and fair.”

Goals of the plan include increased understanding of the food system, more opportunities for communities to cook and grow together, increased redistribution of surplus food, better availability of locally produced food, and improved health as a result of these measures.

“Another policy driver is around universal basic income,” she adds.

Energy prices are going up because a small minority of companies own it all, the cost of living is rising, more people are experiencing poverty – and food is part of that picture. That’s why we need to start making the connection between social and environmental justice.”

For Chikondi Chabvuta, Care International’s Southern Africa advocacy lead, the link between the two could not be more pressing for poorer nations.

“We’re already working with countries that are on the frontlines of trying to defeat poverty, and then when you have climate emergencies happening it affects the most vulnerable and marginalised the most due to existing inequalities,” she explains from COP26 as she visits Glasgow for the summit.

“For most of the countries in Africa, when they are trying to promote agriculture to sustain themselves, flooding comes that will take away cropping and then droughts mean there is little to zero rainfall. It devastates food production and how countries resuscitate themselves.”

However, just like in Glasgow, grassroots organisers are finding innovative ways to empower local people to take food production into their own hands.

“At the community level, we work with women’s groups to really harness how they are adapting and how they could put that to scale, whether it’s promoting seed banks or locally available resources, and also supporting them in setting up markets,” she explains.

Currently the organisation is offering support to around 50,000 women farmers in the region to self-sustain. For their sake Chikondi is “trying to keep hopes high” that promises from western leaders at the critical conference aren’t as hollow as many fear.

“We need that collective action, and it requires both rich countries and governments stepping up and ensuring that the resources that have been committed really are ending up in the hands of women that are most affected,” she adds.

“We need to actually walk the talk on bottom up, bottom led work.” And that’s a sentiment clearly shared by many here in Glasgow.