Have you noticed how the words ‘Fairtrade’, ‘local’ and ‘sustainably sourced’ are more and more common on food and drink labels? As a central part of our everyday life, economy and ecosystems, food can be a major lever for positive social and environmental impact, and the University of Edinburgh has considerable weight in the Scottish food chain.
By Oriane Brunet
In the face of rising global population and climate change, people around the world are working with communities, organisations, businesses and governments to make healthy, sustainable and ethical food more widespread. This food revolution is happening in Scotland too, with the Scottish Government’s ambition to become a Good Food Nation by 2025, and fantastic commercial and voluntary initiatives thriving across the country.
I was delighted to be able to draw the links with the wider foodscape at the University of Edinburgh as Sustainable Food Assistant supported by Bright Green Placements. My ten-week internship had two aims: to organise the annual Freshers’ Food Festival; and to evaluate the food offering at Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) in terms of sustainability and social responsibility.
From the outset, my team at the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability (SRS) and EUSA agreed on the term ‘good food’ – food that is tasty, healthy, good for the environment, and good for the people who make it – to talk about the food we wanted to promote in a way that people from all backgrounds could relate to. Raising awareness about the issues around the production, consumption and disposal of food is the first step to shaping a good food system. The next step is making good food possible by involving actors throughout the food chain to take responsible action.
Behaviour change research on sustainability and healthy living commonly reveals a value-action gap, that is the fact that people think one thing but do another. That’s because our decisions are emotional as well as rational, and our behaviours are shaped by our social groups and environment. Therefore, behaviours shift most easily as part of a wider lifestyle change, such as going to university. Moreover, food is a particularly engaging way of bringing people together and opening conversations about provenance and quality because it is a universal source of joy, linked to taste, socialising, culture and healthfulness.
The Food Festival, SRS’s largest event during Freshers’ Week, aimed precisely at introducing new students to some 20 good food businesses, organisations and societies who help make good food an easy everyday option. Over 900 visitors attended to sample vegetarian and vegan foods, learn how to cook with seasonal ingredients under the guidance of chef Neil Forbes – member of Slow Food and the Sustainable Restaurant Association, and talk about what food they would like on campus.
The University and EUSA also have an important role to play in supporting good food as they provide meals, snacks and drinks to some 40,000 students and staff, and they are major clients for local and national suppliers. Both the University’s Accommodation Services and EUSA already follow a number of sustainable food practices, such as reducing food miles, using free range eggs and fish from non-depleted stocks, and providing a range of fair trade, vegetarian and vegan options. Their challenge is to cater for palates from all around the world, busy schedules and varying budgets.
I worked with the student representatives, and sustainability and commercial staff at EUSA to identify opportunities to promote good food at their cafes, bars and shops. I met EUSA’s chefs and catering staff, researched their suppliers, and visited the processing plant of their fresh fruit and vegetables supplier, Ivan Woods Ltd, a family business in Fife that works with local farmers and uses renewable energy. A key action for EUSA this year will be to better communicate the sourcing and nutritional value of their food on their website and in their outlets. This will allow EUSA to attract a wider range of customers hungry for healthy, sustainable and ethical food, and expand their offer in the future.
This placement has been an excellent opportunity for me to learn how to communicate information and build consensus between people from different backgrounds on food as an important matter for sustainability and social responsibility. The Department has also given me a fantastic example of a positive office environment where colleagues build friendships through shared meals, lunchtime games and weekend outings. I will take this learning with me as I travel to learn about the good food movement in Peru – the home of potatoes, tomatoes and peppers!
To see more photos from the Fresher’s Food Festival visit our Flickr page.