Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society

In Conversation with Vivienne Swan, Sustainable Food Places Coordinator at Edible Edinburgh


Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

Could you start by introducing yourself and your role

My name is Vivienne Swan and I joined Edible Edinburgh in April 2021. I’m employed as the Sustainable Food Places, coordinator. Sustainable Food Places is a program managed by Sustain and the Soil Association. My role is part funded by Sustain and City of Edinburgh Council with support from Edinburgh Community Food who host the role.

The Edible Edinburgh Food Partnership was set up in 2015 as a community planning partnership with the aim of bringing together cross sectoral interests to establish a food plan that would address challenges related to becoming more sustainable within our food system in the city.

The council is a strategic partner and we are chaired by a councillor who’s taken on a leading role. I think perhaps an example of why that’s beneficial is when you start to look at how you may want to address some of the challenges related to increasing food growing space in the city. For example, we have a very long allotment waiting list, that has increased over the pandemic and addressing issues like raising awareness about food growing, seasonality and the origins of some of our food can be facilitated effectively through the public sector and through having these conversations in a public space.

Perhaps the best example we’ve had recently is Lauriston farm where the local councillor, had a strong interest in the community and was also able to negotiate and support the voluntary efforts of a small cooperative towards seeking a long term lease at a peppercorn rent for the space that is owned by City of Edinburgh Council. It is a protected space that had been leased to a commercial farmer for some time but the land was primarily used by local people for walking dogs.

In my role as a Sustainable Food Places Coordinators, I’m part of a UK-wide network of cities that are working to create sustainable food networks. The cities that we kind of look up to a model and encouraged by would be Bristol and Brighton and Hove which have both been awarded the gold standard. Bristol has a very strong public focus through supporting community kitchens, food hubs, trying to reduce food poverty and increase equity. Bristol also a focus on buying local, reducing waste and grow more local.

Sometimes my role feels a bit sometimes all over the place as I move between trying to pick up on small business interests and small business take up, other times, looking at behaviour change, that is a massive thing and takes a generation to achieve some changes. But, there are small wins that keep me motivated.

Could you tell me a bit more about what Edinburgh has done to achieve this award?

We’ve publicly upped the game in areas like school catering where our catering manager and the team are very much focused on connecting to local suppliers and programmes, as well as supporting local, seasonal campaigns and projects like Peas Please, Meat Free Mondays. A lot of our work as a city is about increasing awareness and improving the offer. For the Silver award we’re supporting a programme called Food for Life Served here which is about empowering schools to make sure that they are increasing vegetables in their menu, looking at more planet friendly diets. We were also supported with some grants for food growing in schools last year.

For achieving silver it was about bringing together stakeholders from across the city including small business, NHS and community groups to maximise our impact. I think a lot of it is about how we managed to collate some of the work that’s already in progress. At the moment I’m developing a Sustainable Food Directory for business. Glasgow and other cities have databases and directories where you can find out how to get sustainable food, including free food. I’ll be honest, it’s been slower than I’d liked it to be, but the intention is that the directory promoted and highlights the sustainability credentials of local businesses. So it supports retailers and businesses that are making those efforts to be more sustainable.

There are three kind of broad working group areas we have within Edible Edinburgh:

Health: which is about eating healthy food, being able to access healthy food, reducing our dependence on food banks and looking at food justice and a cash first approach.

Sustainability: which is all the green stuff. It is what’s happening at Lauriston and also our expansion in community gardens, what community gardens are doing, the benefits of good mental health and wellbeing. also if we are able to, with some professional support, pull together the cost savings benefits as that’s when it starts to have traction.

Economy: when I came in last year, that was quite a vibrant group. Mostly small business, people involved in cargo bike delivery, people kicking off new businesses, new approaches. This group has faltered a bit so I’ve got a lot of work to do in terms of trying to inspire more sign ups to the Sustainable Food Directory.

Pic Greg Macvean 25/02/2022 – Edinburgh Council
Edible Edinburgh Inspiring Food Event at Edinburgh College, Granton Campus

What have been the key challenges in gaining that Silver award?

Covid and inclusivity
I think one of the key challenges is managing to maintain the relationships during and post-COVID when we haven’t been able to meet in person. I think it’s also that challenge of creating a more inclusive partnership and supporting new organisations to join.

Making sure the partnership is useful
I think part of the challenge is also ensuring there’s a relevance and added value in taking the time to convene an infrastructure, because some of this is happening anyway so we need to make sure we are adding to the value of that network and the activities of its members.

Mobilising public sector assets
At the moment there’s also a further challenge, I would say is the extent and scope of resource and time from, from public partners. So if you look at public partners, NHS are obviously extremely challenged. However, if we look at NHS and council together, with Edinburgh Leisure and key institutions in the city like the university, that is massive estate. It’s a massive number of employees and it’s a massive number of customers, be that people in care homes, in hospitals, children in schools, students at universities. I think it’s that’s the bigger scale prize that could evolve in the partnership if we get the right leadership.

One of our previous chair’s ambitions was to look much more closely at the land and estates around hospitals. Places like the Royal Infirmary have a massive site and huge gardens that are really important for patients and visitors and that space could be maximised and include more people. So there’s a case to be made for much more coordinated approach to what happens to public spaces and to maximise that space to benefit more people.

Creating ambition

Thinking about our food plan, should we aim for 80% of food to be serviced on public sector menus to be plant friendly in two years’ time? We need to start asking those ambitious questions, around what Edinburgh wants to have a reputation for and how we want to be using our resources. I think we need to be getting some of that thought around the table I don’t think it’s about being overly nationalistic or competitive but by building local pride will help change happen and make that change more sustainable.

Lack of resources
If you look at Leith, a very dense population, lots of vibrant community action, a very mixed demographic and a lot of people are active. You’ve got Leith community growers on Leith walk who use small pockets of land. That enthusiasm and energy and drive could achieve so much if it was channelled and better resourced.

Prioritising accessibility and facilitating behaviour change
There’s also been a commissioned piece of work to look at the feasibility for a permanent indoor market in Edinburgh and the architect is looking at a number of possible sites and also exploring the potential for a temporary popup market to make it more accessible for different communities. Different places want and need very different things so there are a lot of communities in Edinburgh including low-income households and you’ll find food pantries (which have been developed as a cash first way to try and move on from food banks). So you want to create a service that is accessible and as affordable as possible. There’s also a challenge around trying to change people’s behaviours which takes a long time.

What would you say were the main threats Edinburgh faces over the coming months and years in terms of building sustainable food networks?

Well, apart from the fact we’ve got political and economic turmoil, I think the cost of living crisis is the major challenge for households. There is growing activism around the Right to Food which is so important and the question of how can we reduce dependence on food banks when the people who are struggling are in work. Promoting a cash first approach will be increasingly important and there needs to be a much bigger emphasis on paying people a living wage.

What do you think cities and partnerships like this one can do to tackle these challenges?

We need to be better at bringing to the public attention the way decisions are made and expose a bit of this to public scrutiny.

I think ourselves, as partnerships have to take some responsibility for making the connections and building up a case around tackling these issues. There is an immense need for us to think about food security when we have a globally fragile situation. And, although we are a small nation state ourselves, we still do need to think ahead what kind of future food system we want and need to have in Scotland.

It could be that we’re never necessarily going to be able to publicly procure food for public institutions from local suppliers but we should be looking at doing more . So, I think what we can do is ask more people what their vision is and how could we achieve that together.

How much scope do you think there is to produce food within cities?

There is definitely potential, although, if I’m being honest, we’re probably never going to have that urban food production at the scale necessary to feed the city. I know that myself from my experience of allotments, you are really able to provide a high portion of sustainability, but you increase a dependence. I think the most important thing that urban growing can bring is an increased understanding of where our food comes from which is hugely important.

One thing I’m keen on ensuring as we move forward in the partnership is that we don’t distance ourselves from the private sector. Supermarkets aren’t nasty businesses as some of our third sector, social enterprises might think. Their model may not be perfect but we need to recognise that supermarkets are where the majority of people do their food shopping and for people on low incomes, some of those products are the only things they can afford. In Scotland we led on the minimum unit pricing for alcohol and on the plastic bag tax so let’s look at ways of making healthy products more accessible for people.

So yes, I’m very aware of the need to work across all sectors and all partners to make our food more sustainable.

What advice would you give to other cities that are looking to create more sustainable food networks?

  • Take stock of what is already happening

There needs to be a prompt, clear starting goal and it could be the way you start is looking at what is already going on in this area. Looking at what’s going well and exploring how that could be supported or expanded. I think starting with some small steps but also starting with clear ambitions. 

  • Taking a bottom-up approach

A bottom-up approach is always going to be more effective and sustainable compared with top-down measures. It’s so important to get that balance of views because at the moment it does feel top down. I think it can also be quite difficult if you’re looking at a key area like sustainability where a lot of people have their own little niche, their own interests and focuses that they think are the most important thing to tackle.

  • What works in one community doesn’t necessarily work for others

You need to put in the work to understand places and communities to be able to design effective strategies to deal with issues like access to sustainable food.

  • Being realistic and practical

There is a difficult balance between setting that forward-looking vision and thinking about the practical steps you need to achieve that. You need to be realistic.

The final thing I would say, looking ahead. The reason why we need to have a collective voice is that food should be a priority on our sustainability agenda, rather than being an add-on. Food and the impacts of food on the planet and on people’s everyday lives are so significant in so many ways. At the moment it does not feel like we are being listened to which is such a shame because there is so much going on and so much potential. The only way to grab attention is through measurable goals that show businesses that they are doing something, like the food directory. So much of this work relies on a few passionate individuals driving it forward.

See Vivienne’s keynote presentation on Edible Edinburgh to Greener Kirkcaldy here.


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