Source of pride: Alf and Ewan Young explore ‘The Fife diet’ in their book The New Road

Mike Small at Blasda Food Feast 2011
Mike Small at Blasda Food Feast 2011
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Scotsman columnist Alf Young and his son Ewan embarked on a week-long journey round Scotland earlier this year to chart projects which demonstrate new ways of living. In this extract from their book The New Road, they sample the ‘Fife Diet’.

On a gloriously sunny day, we travelled to Burntisland, to meet Mike Small, founder of the Fife Diet. Mike, originally from Edinburgh, studied political philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, and then did a degree in social ecology in Vermont, in the United States. When Mike Small came back from the US, he found work that matched his qualifications and interests hard to come by. He got a job with the BBC in Glasgow, in its growing new media department. He and his wife, Karen, were living in Dennistoun at the time, where they had their first son, Sorley. Mike was still restless. So he took up the opportunity of voluntary redundancy and the Small family moved to Burntisland.

Mike Small had already been contemplating doing something practical about turning the tide on the relentless globalisation of our food supply chains. Like both of us, he remains exasperated at that shocking story from 2006 about the UK-based seafood processor, Youngs.

It announced a cut of 120 jobs from its plant in Annan, by exporting fresh shellfish caught off the shores of Scotland to Thailand for deshelling, only for the packs of frozen scampi to then be air-freighted back into the freezer cabinets of UK supermarkets, a round-trip of some 12,000 miles. One of us, Ewan, lives near Ullapool where freezer trucks, waiting to load shellfish and crabs bound for the markets of Paris and Madrid, are a regular feature of harbour life. So what action can local communities take to counter this entrenched and climate-threatening trend? Mike contacted a couple in Western Canada who had committed themselves to what they called their 100-mile diet for a year. This Vancouver-based couple, Alisa Smith and J B MacKinnon, later wrote a book about the experience, called The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating.

The original idea had come about on a visit to their cabin in Northwestern British Columbia. Their food supplies for the trip were nearly exhausted. But they had dinner guests to feed. So they went out foraging to see what they could serve up. That meal of Dolly Varden trout, wild mushrooms, dandelion leaves, apples, sour cherries and rose hips, supplemented by potatoes and garlic from their cabin garden, so impressed their guests that, back in their Vancouver apartment, they decided to see if they could live for a year on food sourced from within a 100-mile radius of their rented flat. When the book of their year was published, it hit the non-fiction best-seller lists. It even spawned a television mini-series.

Mike Small’s wife had just given birth to their second son, Alex. Feeding two young children involves mashing a lot of foodstuffs up, so they embarked as a family on their own year-long experiment, starting in October 2007, to see whether they could eat food sourced from around where they lived in Fife, and to discover what that diet would feel like. They started a blog, chronicling their experiences, inviting others to follow the same localised diet for a year and share their achievements and exasperations through the blog. Then they decided to try something on a larger scale. They invited people in their growing network to join them for a communal meal in the village hall in Falkland. On the menu were big pots of stovies, one with meat, the other a veggie version. When they got to the hall there were between 50 and 60 people there. And also, to their astonishment, a BBC television crew.

There had been no advance publicity about the Falkland meal. An inquisitive journalist had picked up on the story from the Smalls’ blog. “We had this extraordinary realisation that what we were doing was actually newsworthy,” recalls Mike. In a world of supermarket dominance, increasing food miles and seasonal produce available on demand all-year-round, what Mike and Karen were doing was striking a very resonant chord. Each time they held another meal, more and more people wanted to come. Part of their rationale has always been strictly non-commercial, cooking for people to eat together, for free. As the network grew, other members volunteered to provide food and venues for the meals. Some local producers donated ingredients. The only funding the Smalls got in that first year was a small grant to provide creche facilities at the lunches.

The Fife Diet, still being run from a bedroom in the Smalls’ home, had developed real momentum and was getting noticed across the UK. Its founders had to decide on their next steps.

“It had all been driven by our understanding of the realities of climate change from the start,” Mike explains. So when the Climate Challenge Fund (CCF) was launched in 2008, to help communities reduce their own carbon emissions, it was the perfect opportunity to take their initiative to a new level. Initially they got funding for a year, then for a further two years. Recently they won funding, under the scheme, for a further three years. But reliance on such grant funding can sometimes feel like “a treadmill”, he tells us, one that can, especially in times of austerity, sometimes threaten to disappear altogether. In March, for instance, just before we met, Mike and his team were getting ready to wind the whole thing down. Then the new award, providing funding through to 2015, was confirmed.

That means a network that is currently over 4,400 strong, can go on growing. Mike Small expects it to hit 6,000 in the next two years. So what kind of programmes does this CCF funding allow the Fife Diet to deliver to its members? In essence it seeks to encourage people to do six things. Eat local. Compost more. Waste less. Be more organic. Eat less meat. And grow some of their own food.

The Diet team surveys their progress, computes what that means in carbon savings and reports back on progress made. “Thirty per cent of the UK’s carbon footprint comes from the way we produce and distribute our food,” explains Small. “The Scottish government aims for a 42 per cent reduction in overall emissions by 2020. We’re in 2012, so that’s a reduction of almost half in eight years.”

It’s free to join the Fife Diet. For people embracing it, results so far suggest their carbon footprints from the way they choose to eat are, on average, 40-50 per cent lower than the footprint of the average UK citizen. The initiative’s philosophy is not tell people how they should go about it. Rather it’s about offering suggestions and sharing experience, letting members find out what suits them and their family.

The diet provides members with plenty of ideas about how to cook interesting and nutritious meals from scratch with that veg and soft fruit and other locally-sourced ingredients, like fish, meat, cheese and bakery products, all of which can also be delivered. Apart from regular newsletters, members get a beginner’s guide, seasonal recipe books, lists of local producers and a perpetual calendar, indicating what’s available from season to season. There’s also information on cookery workshops and other events. The recipes they promote are an engaging mix of the kind of food your granny used to cook and other ideas that would appeal to the most discriminating foodie.

Full membership of the Fife Diet is restricted to residents of the kingdom. In such a diverse area, there are still communities it is trying to reach with its message. Each year it visits three new places, putting on events to show what Fife has to offer in terms of locally produced food and how membership can change the way families feed themselves 
in a more nourishing and ecologically sustainable way.

Finally there’s the question of public policy on how we grow, consume and distribute food. The Scottish government is putting together a food and drink policy framework. As its contribution to the debate, the Fife Diet is developing its own food manifesto that goes well beyond anything any political party has so far promoted. Among its 20 key proposals, it wants a moratorium on supermarket expansion, a soda tax, one on plastic bags too, and a GM-free Scotland. It also proposes that no child should leave school without knowing how to make a pot of soup, a community right to grow, decentralisation of our food infrastructure, sustainable public procurement of food for schools and hospitals and other public services, farm apprenticeships and work experience through the creation of farm corps and garden corps. It’s radical. It’s challenging. It’s a long way from celebrating because exports of Scotch whisky have hit another record high and the Chinese are now buying our salmon.

• The full version of this extract can be read in The New Road, Charting Scotland’s Inspirational Communities, written by Alf and Ewan Young, published by Argyll Publishing (£5.99). The New Road is from a three-part Postcards From Scotland series, also featuring The Great Takeover: How Materialism, the Media and Markets Now Dominate Our Lives and AfterNow: What Next for a Healthy Scotland? For more details go to