Since we first held an event at the Edinburgh Larder Café in July 2015, it has become a frequent and friendly venue for our communal dinners. Its founder Eleanor Cunningham has gone on to set up a sister social enterprise, Edinburgh Food Social, teaching school children and adults about cooking with Scottish ingredients, in Gracemount, where TRJFP Edinburgh began. For the second in a series of interviews with the people who make TRJFP Edinburgh happen, I spoke to Eleanor after the first Edinburgh Food Social indoor market at the Biscuit Factory in December to find out what the thinking behind it all is.
Read the full interview, and the rest of the series, here.
Why did you start the Edinburgh Larder?
I set up the Larder to talk about Scottish produce and to do that right in city centre. The only people doing that seven years ago were Michelin starred restaurants, only affordable to a certain demographic. I wanted to make it affordable, and in a cafe environment, even if it was as a treat.
The social enterprise was just an extension of that, to make that food accessible to everybody. The aim, hopefully, is to say that everyone who lives in Scotland should be able to afford that kind of food (if that’s what they want to buy) and that they should have the skills to cook with it (if that’s what they want to do). So many people came to us saying “I don’t know how to cook from scratch, I feel like I’ve completely lost my confidence in the kitchen.”
With Food for Thought, we brought primary kids into the bistro and it hit home how important it is to be working with the kids. A lot of them said they hadn’t cooked at home for six months to a year. More and more schools are asking us to come and work with them and we’re having to work out how to finance that because schools don’t really have a budget for it.
And what response did you get?
They really enjoyed it, and got on board with it. A lot of them came alive. It made me think about how much of a lack of that kind of stuff there is in schools.
Why were they not cooking at home?
We didn’t ask specifically. I went to uni and I’d been forced to cook at home. Everyone at uni just made baked potatoes and ready meals. And that was 20 years ago, so how many generations of that skill have we lost? It’s a big, big problem. Cooking is a life skill, and people are moving into university and away from home without it.
I don’t think food should be brought into other subjects, I think other subjects should be brought into food. As a practical application of maths, but also history, geography… I think that’s why so many have lost the importance of food in our culture and society, they’ve forgotten how it links to our history.
At the Larder education was always a huge thing. It’s a way that so many people aren’t used to cooking anymore. A lot of people wouldn’t know where to start with putting together a soup from scratch. There’s no cookery classes like that. You have to stand back from something and think: “how am I going to make this easy for other people to understand?” And it’s not teaching everything, just some basic things like how to make a stock, how to combine flavours in a salad.
But once you include ideas about seasonality, organic, local… It’s quite complex.
I try to steer away from the complicated. It’s not about trying to encompass everything. If you talk to people about what’s in season, how exciting those ingredients are and how amazing they taste, hopefully the more they try of those kind of things the more they’ll want to buy them and think about them.
But kids don’t have buying power…
They do! If you walk into the shop and your kid has seen some advert for a big chocolate company that’s what they’ll want. But if they’ve been in a class and looked at a seasonal ingredient, that might be something they’ll ask for instead… That’s the idea, they’ll go home to their parents and start saying “can we have more of that?” And they have done that at Gracemount.
How do the parents respond?
Difficult to say. You don’t know what the home environment is. That’s why we wanted to offer the affordable cooking classes for adults as well. We’re doing that up at Gracemount. We’re offering two community lunches on Wednesday and Thursday.
We’ve got Climate Challenge Funding (CCF) but it will be difficult up there to create a sustainable model. Unless we get a big amount of funding to create something like a community cafe and food hub.
We’re working with Sodexo as well. There’s only so much of a scale you can do things on as a small business and if we really are trying to change the way things are done within the education system we need to involve large scale people with the logistical capacity to tackle those challenges. Sodexo are one of those. If we can work together to make that done in a good way, then…
Do you think that’s possible?
I hope so. I draw the line at supermarkets; they are causing a big problem within our food system and that needs to be tackled. But Sodexo said we’ll give you £2k towards the food truck because we think you’re doing great things. There’s a lot we’re learning from each other, I’ve had to kind of put my prejudices aside and think maybe we need to understand how things can be done better on that scale. Their ultimate aim is profit but it has to be with social enterprises as well – if you’re a loss-making enterprise, you’re going to close. People are needing to become a bit more creative.
How are you managing that?
The market has been a massive part of that. Because we’ve got an office here at The Biscuit Factory they’ve given us the space downstairs for free to do the indoor market once a month. We made quite a decent amount of profit on the first one. It’s an incredible venue. They’ve wanted to do a market for a while so it’s quite a coincidence.
What’s the aim of the market?
To make good food more accessible, even over the winter months, by offering reasonably priced stalls – £30 a day, which is a lot less than the other markets. I quite often visit Belfast market; it has this incredible vibe about it, everybody in the whole city goes there to shop.
I wanted to see something [in Edinburgh] that was a bit more inclusive and accessible and easy for the stallholders, and also to think about visiting places like the food banks and potentially offering people a different payment method on the door. It is a £2 suggested donation. It’d be nice to work out how to make it more accessible, maybe a tokens system where you can get tokens on the door and use them to get 10% more for your money at the stalls. We could give out some of those tokens for free by working with the food banks and so on.
It’s quite ambitious…
It is… That’s why I wanted to start out on a basis of do one and see how it goes. We’re setting up a training kitchen over the road as well – that was one of the points of having this space. If there are people that come who say well that’s great you’re saying we have access to fresh produce but we don’t know how to cook with it, we can then offer training over the road. Hopefully the future of that is we’ll charge £50 or 70 a day for people to come along and learn how to cook if they can afford that and then offer one or two places for free. We’ve got a little bit of funding, from Baillie Gifford.
Why do you see funding from supermarkets as a red line?
They are feeding into all the problems that we have in the food system. But it’s the only option a lot of people have. Everything – everything – about food has become about convenience. I don’t only think it’s about that; generally as a society we don’t respect our health and we see it as quite funny a lot of the time. We like to be self-deprecating. So that’s how a lot of people view health – or don’t view it. The less income you have the higher percentage of your salary is spent on food and then it is really difficult to make a decision based on anything except cost so we need to offer people alternatives. The government needs to get better by subsidising things and understanding how many of our health issues are contributed to by poor diet, and how much money the NHS would be saved.
There are no alternatives at the moment. If you don’t have much money, there’s no alternative. These food hubs people talk about are quite often not used that much. There needs to be more pressure put on supermarkets to do things in a different way – to stop allowing people to pay to have an end-aisle product at the height of a child’s eyes!
Only governments can force that by changing policy, and that is being discussed by the Food Commission at the moment. But it’s difficult. That was my hope, on a small scale, to provide an alternative.
Could it happen on a larger scale?
It needs to be more. You never really know the situation people are living in. There’s huge levels of thinking that needs to go into speaking with people in different situations. We need to adapt what we’re doing to talk to people about what they can cook when, for example, they might not have access to fridges and freezers. There’s loads of people coming to us saying they want to do something like that, they’ve just not found a channel to do it, so they’re working with us. There’s no end to what I think people could be doing because there’s situations all over the place where people need more help. The more people that are doing this kind of thing the better really. There’s loads of social enterprises that are setting up which is amazing. I think it’s really needed.
Interview by Charlie Hanks