Our Story Weaver, Kaska Hempel, talks to Iain McKenzie, a volunteer and Vice Chair of Inverness Foodstuff.
The story is first in a 5-part series of weekly interviews with a variety of grassroots organisations involved in climate, biodiversity and social justice action across Inverness.
Interview, recording and sound production: Kaska Hempel
Kaska Hempel (Narration): Today we are embarking on a third in our explorations of place through a series of conversations with Everyday Changemakers involved in community climate action. Last year, as you may know, we’d a wee visit to Isle of Arran with Madeleine to show the wonderful diversity of work done under the umbrella of Arran EcoSavvy. And I took you around some of the flourishing community gardens in Dundee to show how they’re growing into a network with impact beyond their own growing spaces. We’re now working with local partners on a couple of audio tours based on the podcasts so soon you’ll also be able to listen to the stories when you visit those places yourself.
In this series I’ll be taking you around Inverness in five interviews with people from Inverness Foodstuff, Eden Court, Aultnaskiach Altnaskiak Dell, Holm Grown and Friends of Merkinch Local Nature Reserve. This is just a taster of all that’s happening in the capital of the Highlands and by no means an exhaustive list but it is representative of the wonderful variety of work and people making a difference on the ground – from food growing, to tackling food insecurity and waste, from urban green spaces to community engaged creative projects.
I arranged the meet ups around our Inverness SCCAN Gathering in September, and to continue with a theme of a cycle tour from my Dundee visit, I booked my trusty bike to come along with me on the train. To find local folk to speak to, I cast my net beyond the usual suspects listed in SCCAN database and looked to our sister networks.
Highlands Good Food Network led me to Inverness Foodstuff and my first interviewee – Iain McKenzie. He suggested we get together at the Cafe Artysans so I did not have to travel far from the station once I got off my train around lunchtime. Despite its yummy offerings, it turned out that the cafe was way too noisy for our chat, but the lovely manager came to the rescue and offered us a quiet corner in one of the training rooms behind the scenes…
Iain McKenzie: My name is Ian McKenzie, and I’m the Vice Chair of Inverness Foodstuff. And I live here in Inverness.
Kaska Hempel: What does Inverness Foodstuffs do?
Iain McKenzie: Well, we started eight years ago, whatever that would be, 2015. It started through one of the local ministers, and she pulled a few folks together.
Um, so she’d looked at trying to pull together. Um, an ability to feed people who were unable to get food for themselves. And it started with about half a dozen volunteers providing meals two days a week. And we borrowed a local cafe, um, a volunteer’s cafe.
So we cooked the food in Ness Bank Church, and we dragged it across the city into another little cafe. And we served it there a couple of days a week.
It was, yeah, it was really rustic.
Kaska Hempel: Tell me about a favourite place or a thing about the project that you’re involved with.
Iain McKenzie: I said to you, we started doing it a couple of days a week, and we really have grown. now, we pretty much lease Nessbank Church Hall, um, most of the week. And we’re providing now, um, three course meals.
And we’re doing it all with vegetarian food, which is a real interesting bit. Nobody ever, um, suspected that. Now, that wasn’t a philosophical decision in the beginning. It was purely and simply the regulations for environmental health to store any type of meat, which were just more than we could manage in a rented space.
We needed so many fridges and freezers. We didn’t have the space. We didn’t have the money. So we decided not to do meat. And we only did vegetables. Um, and that’s what we still do. And lots of people said then that, that homeless folk would never take vegetables all the time. I don’t think anybody notices that it’s a vegetarian meal.
It really does tackle the whole issue of food waste as well. Um, I mean, I think for most of us as householders in Scotland, we buy way more vegetables than we ever eat.
Um, and supermarkets make that easy for us because they package it in bigger packets than most of us would want. And so much of it just goes bad and it just goes back into landfill. And, and our ability to actually soak up a significant amount of waste vegetables is, is, I think is, a brilliant thing. And to be able to do that and feed people in need at the same time is something pretty special.
I think that is what is special about the project.
Kaska Hempel: Do you have like a special moment or memory?
Iain McKenzie: Um, I think one of the things that we’ve started from the beginning is our use of language becomes really important.
So, we tend not to separate people out into staff and volunteers. And users or clients would be normal language. We actually just call everybody participants because we all participate in the same project.
It makes it a much easier move from being a recipient of our service to becoming a volunteer in our service. And so there’s a significant amount of our volunteers were originally people who came to use the service. That’s amazing. And that for me is really exciting.
Kaska Hempel: That’s so exciting. It’s just people, isn’t it?
Iain McKenzie: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s one of the stories that came out. We did a thank you night for all of our volunteers. Um, and we had three women in particular who came and told us that they had come as service users.
They had seen that we were doing some cooking classes, and they attended all of our cooking classes, and they’ve all moved into becoming volunteers. And the three of them sitting, given a testimony, I suppose, of how it’s changed their lives. And it’s given them a focus and a purpose. It’s got them out of bed.
It’s helping them deal with issues that they’ve got going on in their lives. And that, for me, just says, Yeah, that’s what we came here to do. It’s brilliant to hear the stories.
Kaska Hempel: How did you become involved in it? The food waste part of it and the social justice part of it, and how, how did that fit in together for you?
Iain McKenzie: I lived away from Inverness for thirteen years. I worked abroad in the rainforest, actually. When I came back to Inverness in 2017, I was looking for some things to do. Um, and somebody actually took me to Nessbank Church for lunch one day and I just pretty much fell in love with the place as soon as I got into it.
I’d, I’d worked in homelessness from when I was 17, and it reminded me back of that sort of roughness of the stuff that I did when I was when I was young and in homeless projects in Edinburgh. It was that whole lack of structure, the lack of routines. That actually just makes it feel like family, it’s that informality of, as I said, it’s that, it’s that merging of borders between who we all are, that actually we’re just people, and we’re at different parts of a journey and bringing that together.
That’s how I got into it, and, yeah, I just started going back more and more; they asked if I would join their board of directors, so that’s what I’ve done; I’m a trustee down there just now; and, yeah.
Kaska Hempel: When I say “food insecurity”, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?
Iain McKenzie: Frustration, actually, because I think one of the errors that we keep making in Scotland at the minute is that we keep trying to divide poverty up into little parcels.
So, we talk about fuel insecurity and, food insecurity and school insecurity. They’re all the same thing. It’s all poverty. And we’re sitting here, I think we’re the sixth richest country in the world at the minute. And yet we’re still sitting with hundreds and hundreds of people, thousands of people are sitting in levels of poverty.
And that just distresses me. It really distresses me. We just keep cutting it up like, you know, if somebody’s in fuel poverty, that’s their only problem. If somebody’s in fuel poverty, then the rest of their life is in poverty as well, you kind of pick out one and two bits like that.
So food insecurity is part of a much bigger picture, and until we tackle poverty and deprivation, it’s not going to change.
Kaska Hempel: Can you comment on how that links into climate emergency?
Iain McKenzie: It’s this whole business of how can we possibly have so many people being hungry.
And so much food going in landfills, it’s just, it doesn’t even match. And it’s a real frustration that we can’t actually make these things happen. So I’m really pleased that people like, um, FairShare have stepped into the market and they’re they’re not handling waste food. They’re handling surplus food. There’s a significant difference between surplus food and waste food
We actually engaged with the manager of the big Tesco stores here in Inverness, and he told us that all it takes is for a couple of cooking programs and TV to come and talk all about cooking fish.
And their sale of chicken can go down by 20 percent. And that’s not anything the supermarkets can control. But then when the supermarkets go to restock their shelves, they buy 20 percent less chicken from the suppliers. So, the suppliers are left with all of this food. And that’s where a lot of FairShare can actually get in and get the fresh foods from suppliers.
That’s even better because it’s got longer dates on it. So the use of surplus food is absolutely crucial, and I’m so pleased that organisations like FairShare get into that. We then also get a lot of the waste food, and that’s the stuff that supermarkets share with us. I’m sometimes a bit cynical about how supermarkets use charities to actually clean up their act, and they can reduce their amount of waste so they look like they’ve improved their footprint by dumping it on us, but sometimes the dates are so late that we can’t use it either.
Um, so we’re starting to try and become much more innovative and make contracts up with chicken farms and pig farms so the food is going actually to them, and then they give us donations back of some of their products as well. That’s another project. It’s a community fridge up in Dingwall that’s actually got the deal with a chicken farm.
Kaska Hempel: Okay, yeah, yeah. You mentioned you travelled. So, what’s your favourite part of the world that you visited or lived in?
Iain McKenzie: Yeah, I’ve only lived in two places. I’ve only lived in Scotland, and I lived in Honduras in Central America. So, my wife and I went out and built a children’s home in Honduras.
I’d gone out to visit Honduras a couple of times, and we really saw. Huge amounts of poverty out there. I mean, real active people starving to death, poverty. And we came to the conclusion we can either come back and complain about it or we could go and do something about it. So we did. So we packed up and went out. We went out there for five years and stayed for 13.
Kaska Hempel: You obviously enjoyed it in some way. What was the favourite part of it, being there? Or was there a favourite part of being there?
Iain McKenzie: I suppose knowing that you’ve actually been part of saving people’s lives is really exciting. I think of one little girl, um, we’ll call her Carla, that came to us. Her mother had remarried, and the new father refused to share any food.
With this woman’s daughter from a previous relationship. The only thing he actually did for her was he dug a grave when he was waiting for her to die. And, um, she came to us when she was eight years old, and she was only 37 pounds in weight. I’ve never seen anything like it. We couldn’t even get her to drink water.
We couldn’t find a vein to put an IV. She was so dehydrated. And we sat just giving her a teaspoonful of water every 15 minutes. And then, you know, just, just took her on and took her on. And, um, she’s just turned 19, and she’s at university, um, studying to be a teacher, and she’s actually just had her baby.
Kaska Hempel: Oh my God.
Iain McKenzie: And that stuff just breaks my heart, as you can see. What a privileged life, privileged, privileged life I’ve had to be part of things like that.
Kaska Hempel: Thank you for doing that work. Yeah, it’s really inspiring.
Um. So, Inverness, it’s the heart of the Highlands. Well, the capital of the Highlands anyway. Um, what are the unique challenges of the type of work that you do in Inverness?
Iain McKenzie: I think one of the biggest issues up here has still got to be the insecurity of accommodation. Um, the lack of housing up here, the lack of housing in Highlands, is really very different from a system in Edinburgh. Um, we’ve got entire communities up here. That have been brought up as holiday homes and they’re sitting being occupied for 8, 12 weeks a year.
And that’s got a huge knock on effect because, you know, families tend not to buy from their local store, they bring the stuff with them from their big supermarkets. So the kids are not going to school here, so they’re not buying from the local shops. So it’s a real detrimental effect on the communities.
And, of course, it also means that houses become unaffordable.
There was a big article in the local paper a few weeks ago here. There was one property for rent in the entire Inverness area. And we’ve got over 8,000 people in our house and waiting list in Highland. And it’s madness. We’re sitting there with houses that are unoccupied for 30, 35 weeks in a year, and we’ve got people sleeping on the street, we’ve got people living in pretty crappy, um, HMOs and things, and the solutions there.
Kaska Hempel: Now, let’s look on the bright side. What is the advantage of the kind of work you do, um, being based in Inverness?
Iain McKenzie: Inverness is a beautiful place. I mean, within five minutes from here, you can be into some of the most beautiful mountains and lochs that you could find anywhere in the world. Um, it’s absolutely spectacular place to live. It’s vibrant. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in the whole of Europe. So it is growing.
We’re building more and more houses. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to support it with schools and doctors and things, but it’s a beautiful place to live.
I think people are really accepting in Inverness. Um, we had a pride march a few weeks ago. Um, and I went on the pride march with some people. Um, and we’d expected people to be protesting against us. Um, and we never saw any of it. In fact, the entire length of the march, there was people along the side of the road applauding. And, uh, I just cried most of the way around it.
Absolutely spectacular thing to see. And, uh, yeah, I love Inverness. I love the people of Inverness. I think they’re great folk.
Kaska Hempel: What gives you hope?
Iain McKenzie: Oh, that’s a hard one. What gives me hope is that there are people who are still out there willing to help. There’s people who are still willing to give their money, give their time, give their energy. To work and support people who have got less of any of these things in their lives. Um, and I think that’s, that’s the only thing that can ever give me hope, is to actually let people see there is another way.
Kaska Hempel: Brilliant. What are you going to be having for tea tonight?
Iain McKenzie: Fish pie.
Kaska Hempel: Uh, and the final question. We’re sort of trying to imagine the future, and if you could try to imagine that we’ve all done everything that we could, um, to stop the climate emergency, stop all the other emergencies and create a better, fairer world for everyone. Picture in your mind Inverness, and if you can share one memory from that future with, with everybody.
Iain McKenzie: As often, to prove the positive, I would start with a bit of a negative, people ask me a lot about how did I settle back into Scotland, having been away. And I think the way I often describe it was when I left Scotland in 2004. I would have said that we were on a journey to becoming a much more inclusive and accepting society.
And when I’ve come back, it looks to me like we missed the station. And we’ve moved into becoming a much less accepting, a much less tolerant society. And I’m not quite sure how that happened. Now, I suspect that we could wrap it up in the way that Brexit and independence arguments were held. That they generated a huge amount of anger and hatred that I don’t recognise in my country.
Um, I, I see people jump very, very quickly from disagreeing with you to being angry and accusatory with you. And I don’t think that was the Scotland that I’d envisaged. So, The Scotland I would like to see ten years from now is a much, much more tolerant, accepting, peaceful, less angry society where we actually get along and it’s okay to disagree.
It’s okay to have a different opinion. It doesn’t make one of us wrong. It just recognises that diversity of people, the diversity of our experience, of our beliefs.
And actually, it’s just okay to be different to me. That’s okay. In fact, I really hope people are different to me. I didn’t want to see lots of me around here. I just want to actually get on with folk.
Kaska Hempel: Well, thank you so much. I was just going to ask why you suggested this cafe to meet up in.
Iain McKenzie: Anything I try and do, I would always try and direct it towards the third sector or social enterprise. Yeah, there’s three organisations around. Particularly in the delivery of food.
There’s Inverness Foodstuffs. Highland Third Sector Interface have got a cafe called 1668. And here at Artysans. And I think all three of them do absolutely tremendous work, slightly differently. Cafe 1668, they’ve got a project that’s in the custody suite. So actually supports young people and women who are first-time offenders and try to divert them into other routes. And they use their cafe a lot for doing that, um, for training volunteers. They also use a huge amount of waste food.
Artysans has been much more about young people coming out of care, people who have had poor mental health for a while. Um, so they provide a lot of training and employability opportunities here. So most of the people who are working here are people who are going through some sort of training. This is run through an organisation called the Kalman Trust. Uh, and again, I just think all three of them do absolutely brilliant jobs, slightly differently, slightly different emphasis, but they all work closely together.
Kaska Hempel (Narration): Iain and Inverness Foodstuff is just one of the many faces involved in Highland Good Food Partnership. An organisation very much after our own heart, the partnership supports and inspires local people to come together to create a food system that is better for the planet, better for people and better for producers. I’m linking their Highland Good Food podcast in the show notes so that you can find out more about their amazing members and projects they’ve been up to.
Going by Iain’s recommendations, Cafe Artysans and Cafe 1668 are definitely worth a visit for a bite next time you’re in Inverness. Another place for great food, especially if you’re looking for something specifically vegetarian or vegan, is Velocity Cafe and bicycle workshop. They’re a SCCAN member and run a range of active travel and cycling projects. In fact, the Inverness active travel maps hosted on their website were indispensable in helping me plan my cycling interview visits that very weekend. Velocity also play an important role in another regional grassroots initiative – Highland Community Waste Partnership. It’s worth popping into the cafe simply to find out about all that’s going on at the active Inverness community climate action scene.
It was Velocity’s Climate Project Officer, Isabel McLeish, who recommended I speak to my next Everyday Changemaker, Louise Marshall at Eden Court, which, as their website informs me, is Scotland’s largest combined arts organisation. After Iain and I said our goodbyes, it was time for me to leave Artesanal and cycle a short way across the Ness Bridge to head for the unmissable jaunty shape of Eden Court’s theatre and cinema complex on the river’s opposite bank. You’ll be able to catch my conversation with Louise next Monday.
Inverness Foodstuff https://invernessfoodstuff.co.uk/
Highland Good Food Partnership https://highlandgoodfood.scot/what-do-we-do/
Highland Good Food Podcast https://highlandgoodfood.scot/podcast/
Cafe Artysans https://www.cafeartysans.org.uk/
Cafe 1668 https://www.highlandtsi.org.uk/cafe
Velocity Cafe (videos) https://www.velocitylove.co.uk/films
Active travel maps Inverness https://www.velocitylove.co.uk/active-travel-maps
Highland Community Waste Partnership https://www.keepscotlandbeautiful.org/highland-community-waste-partnership/