What does Scottish food mean to you?
In this week’s episode of The Food Programme we’ve been looking at the divide between the quality produce that comes out of Scotland compared with the poor diet of many Scots. We consider the Scottish government’s radical food policy of attempting to bridge the divide by connecting health improvement with quality food production, tourism and environmental policy. It’s a joined-up approach that seems elementary until you look at Whitehall, where the ministries responsible for trade, health and the environment jealously guard their boundaries, and where the ministers in charge seem to change portfolios regularly, long before they’ve mastered their subject.
But once you’ve identified food and drink as key drivers of the economy and as the royal road to good public health. What then?
On the Isle of Skye, there are a large number of food businesses who are hoping the new policy will help develop a network that’s already working to supply the islands hotels, restaurants and bed and breakfasts, but that has barely touched any of the local supermarkets. When you stay or eat (as producer Maggie Ayre and I did one night) at one of the three MacLeod hotels on Skye, you see the full range and quality of foods produced on the island: salads, vegetables, soft fruit, fudge, chocolates, ranched scallops, farmed mussels, smoked fish, honey, langoustines caught daily in the Minch, mushrooms and oysters. Plus there’s meat, game and cheese which come over daily from producers on the nearby mainland. The network depends on a daily Food Link van. It was bought with a small grant eleven years ago when it carried £6,800 worth of produce annually. Now it’s over £90,000.
But in Scotland’s ‘rust belt’ there are few tourists to help kick start a new way of eating or provide a market for small producers. The high streets of the towns that once produced Scotland’s wealth are now lined with chippies, burger bars, curry houses and fried chicken joints - all of them with long menus of what they deep fry.
But things are changing. We went to Shotts, a small town between Edinburgh and Glasgow that was once a centre of the mining industry. Now a lot of people are unemployed and what jobs there are bring in low wages. But at the heart of the town is the Healthy Living Centre, a community run enterprise that’s less worthy and much livelier than it sounds. Local produce is sold (and charged 10% above wholesale) in the shop attached to a bustling café where for lunch I had the best lentil soup I’ve eaten in a long time. There aren’t yet any hard figures on how this local enterprise has changed the dire health statistics, but completely unscientifically we noted a lot of clear-skinned, healthy looking people in the centre. And sales of fruit and veg have been rising month by month.
On the outskirts of Edinburgh we went to meet sister and brother Jo and James Macsween who run Scotland’s best-known haggis company. They support a government that can educate people on the links between quality food and health, as well help them manoeuvre their way through EU and Whitehall legislation. Right now EU subsidies make it cheaper to turn beef fat into biofuel rather than sell it to haggis makers (or other food companies). This is driving up producers’ costs at the same time as the supermarkets are attempting to cut the price they pay for the finished product.
Macsween, like a lot of companies, are getting help on this from the Department for Rural Affairs and the Environment, run by Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead. Everyone we spoke to while making the programme told us how important it was that the minister with responsibility for food, farming and fishing - and for the joined up food policy being really joined up - was a man who understands the food business and who’s made it his central interest almost since he became a member of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. When I interviewed the cabinet secretary, his grasp of the importance of food to the economy and the way that quality food production can transform public health and the environment gave me hope for Scotland’s food culture.
So what do you think? What does Scottish food mean to you? How might government policy encourage Scots to eat more local produce and fewer deep-fried pizzas? And is Scotland's radical policy one that might work for the whole of the UK?
Sheila Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.