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Community / From fruit and veg to lobster and wild mushrooms: councillor completes local food challenge

Alex Armitage did not eat any imported food or ingredients during the month – and lost nearly a stone in the process

A 'Foula' salad.

LOCAL Green councillor Alex Armitage has completed a month-long challenge to raise awareness of the variety of Shetland’s local produce – and about reducing dependency on global food systems.

In what Armitage called a “creative challenge”, he only ate locally produced food during the month of September.

As the month was ending, he told Shetland News: “It’s been amazing. I can’t believe it’s been a month since it started. It’s actually been a bit of a struggle in some respects, but mainly it’s really interesting just to see the variety of fresh food you can eat.” 

Making ricotta at home.

For the first week, Armitage struggled because of caffeine withdrawal, as he was no longer drinking coffee.

He said the first week he was “walking around in a haze” and added: “It was hell for the first four days – absolute carnage.”

However, after the initial struggle, he recognised health benefits, including having more energy and finding it easier to get out of bed in the morning.

The Shetland South councillor also added that he has felt “more measured” with his approach to life and put it down to the lack of sugar in his diet. Armitage has also lost 6kg while completing the challenge.

The month has been a learning experience, which has seen him make his own ricotta cheese, mead and yoghurt. The only sweet thing he could eat was honey from Frakkafield. 

He followed the plan so strictly that he could not eat locally made food if it had ingredients from off the island.

This eliminated lots of locally baked goods from Shetland bakeries, and Shetland butter.

The butter from Shetland Dairies is salted, with the salt coming from south. However, Armitage contacted the company, and they made him up a batch of unsalted butter so he could complete the challenge.

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Armitage said he deliberately chose September as it seemed the easiest month to eat only Shetland food with all the fruit and vegetable harvests. He has been lucky enough to receive plenty of food and produce donations from people who have polytunnels and Polycrubs. 

He said: “A lot of people have heard about what I’m doing, and have donated things like carrots, greens, and peas.

“One of the most wonderful things is that people have offered me such a variety of vegetables. I got a food box from Foula, and another from Fair Isle, and managed to get lemons from someone in Whalsay.”

There was also plenty of food to be found in the wild, as a walk in the Westside produced a bounty of mushrooms. Armitage also went fishing regularly, adding that he has got great at filleting fish. 

Coming out of this month, Armitage has said he now intends to get his own Polycrub, calling them the “way forward”.

He said the primary challenge throughout the month was not having the convenience of making a quick meal after a long day, stating: “The biggest struggle is getting home and normally I’d have a snack or a slice of toast, a cup of tea and a biscuit.

“But you can’t do that. You have to cook something because you can’t eat raw tatties. So, it’s been hard when you get home and you have a really busy day at work, and you then have to work hard to cook something.”

Some of his fallback meals have been fish, tatties and vegetables, which he called “monotonous” at points. Armitage is also a paediatrician on top of a councillor, and found the time investment into sourcing, harvesting and cooking his food an enormous commitment. 

Armitage added some surprises in the month came from his donations. He said: “I don’t eat a lot of meat anyway, but I got a meat box from Fair Isle with some lamb shanks.

Celebrating his birthday with a cake – with no flour or sugar.

“My biggest surprise was getting a message from a friend in Foula who wanted to give me a food box. So I went along to Tingwall Airport and they’d sent me a live lobster.”

While he initially thought the challenge may see his food bills rise, since locally sourced produce can sometimes be more expensive than items on the shelves of Tesco or the Co-op, Armitage said: “I’ve spent so much less money than I thought I would.

“If you’re going to have a Shetland only diet and eat just local food in general, you will spend more money at the supermarket. But I’ve learned there’s such a large informal economy in food here – especially in September.”

The primary reason for doing the food challenge was to raise awareness about how much people can eat with local produce.

Armitage is concerned about climate change, and the effect this will have on the global food systems. He said: “As a politician, I want to look ahead to the future, not just looking at how we’re going to feed ourselves this winter, but how will we feed our kids in the future?”

“My philosophy about this has been that we’re going to have to look back and rediscover some things we’ve done in the past, but there’re new inventions like Polycrubs that will allow us to grow a wider variety of food.”

Armitage added he would love to see Polycrubs becoming more commonplace in housing schemes across the island and is happy to see them being used in schools.

He added: “All these innovations are creating a new system for us to rely on. And one day when the global food system crashes, I want us in Shetland to have a Plan B, and an alternative option to rely on.”

The councillor also celebrated his 41st birthday while completing the food challenge and made himself a cake using honey, oatmeal, eggs, and butter, all from Shetland.

He could not use flour, so he separated the eggs and whisked the whites to get more air into the mixture before topping with ricotta cheese and Polycrub fruit. 

When asked about the food he was looking most forward to eating once the challenge was over, he said he could not wait for a slice of toast and peanut butter.

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