Islanders living on Uist and Barra are facing a daily ‘hunger games’ struggle to buy basic fresh food, with eye-watering prices, empty shelves and a dearth of choice.

A new study into food availability on the Hebridean islands has revealed how buying even every-day fresh items such as soft fruit has become a game of chance, hinging on transportation of goods, weather, and even how far the local shop is from the ferry terminal.

And even when fresh items do hit the shelves, they are either snapped up immediately leaving shelves bare or have short use-by dates which mean they can be mouldy and inedible.

In some cases, the struggle to buy certain fresh foods is having a detrimental impact on islanders’ health, with people following medically prescribed diets and children with food-related allergies said to be struggling to find suitable replacement food products in their local shops.

The research has also laid bare the shockingly high prices faced by island shoppers. A sample shopping basket of 17 products spanning fresh foods, store cupboard essentials and frozen items considered to be the foundation of a healthy diet, was almost 30% more expensive when bought from islands’ shops compared to a major online supermarket.

CASE STUDY: “The children are always in the cupboards looking for something to eat”

The report, Our Right to Food, was compiled by islands’ charity Tagsa Uibhist (‘Uist Support) with food policy and practice organisation Nourish Scotland, and set out to examine the affordability and accessibility of basic fruit and vegetable items in Uist and Barra.

It found a key issue was the distances islanders had to trek to reach their closest shops, with journeys that could stretch to 50-miles round trips adding to the costs of their weekly shopping bill.

It also found that once there, stores’ relatively small footprint means they are classified as ‘convenience’ shops so are automatically stocked with mainly easy to heat but nutritionally bereft items like pizza, fizzy drinks, sweets, alcohol and ice cream.

More affordable brands and shop’s own labels are either in short supply or not stocked at all, in favour of higher prices premium brands.

One mother of two from North Uist, said: “I can get plenty of pizza, chocolate and wine, but it’s harder to buy ingredients for a meal.

The Herald: Lochboisdale Harbour on South UistLochboisdale Harbour on South Uist

“It can feel like there are 50 varieties of ice cream, but the only frozen vegetables are peas.

“Then, because there’s not much else to buy apart from pizza, the shop algorithms that decide what to stock it with thinks we all love pizza here, so they keep sending us more when what we really want is fresh ingredients that we can cook with.”

She added that her own efforts to follow a medically prescribed diet aimed at resolving long-running digestion problems had to be ditched because it was too hard to find the food she needed at local stores.

“It was incredibly specific - no onions, garlic, gluten, for example.

“I’d spend ages planning what I was going to eat, get to the shop and then not be able to buy it. It all became too stressful, and I decided I had to just stop.”

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In a letter to the researchers in response to the study, Karen MacLeod, NHS Western Isles Nutrition, Dietetic and Catering Services Manager, said: “In my clinical role I see a number of children who have food allergies and intolerances, and it can be so difficult for them to get suitable replacement food products in the local shops. 

“It is bad enough here in Stornoway, but the ones I see in Uist and Barra are even further restricted which can be very difficult for a child to get all that they need.”

The research was carried out between October last year to March this year, when ferry timetables were in disarray, with a knock-on impact on deliveries of fresh food to the islands.

However, the researchers say those issues simply exacerbated an already festering issue, which has led to many islanders investing in large chest freezers to stock with frozen food bought following long journeys to the mainland intended to get them through the so-called ‘hunger months’ of January, February and March.

Others without transport or unable to afford the journey were left having to pay excessive prices, with evidence of rising numbers of food bank users.

Alex Mackenzie, Local Food Development Manager at Tagsa Uibhist, who compiled the report, said: “The research was carried out when it was definitely the worst of times with the huge disruptions of the ferries being cancelled, timetable changes and events which have impacted on the global food chain.

“But these problems only added to an already precarious situation for islanders.”

Uist’s linear geography, which extends 60 miles from Berneray to Eriskay with a population of approximately 4,500 people, was said to make buying and delivering food particularly difficult, with many households located a considerable distance from the nearest shop.

“This in contrast to just two or three generations ago, preceding the islands being linked by causeways, (when) there would be a merchant’s shop in every community,” it adds.

“Barra faces similar challenges within their food system as they are also reliant on a Calmac ferry, in this case from Oban, to transport produce onto the island.”

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It has called for support for islanders who want to grow and rear their own produce and highlighted the irony of the islands’ reputation as a rich source of lamb and fish, only for much of it to leave for processing elsewhere.

As part of the study, the report asked 24 volunteers to shop for 17 basic fruit and vegetable items such as apples, chopped tomatoes, pasta sauce, onions, frozen broccoli, bananas and fruit smoothies.

Only six of the 17 items were deemed to be ‘easily accessible’, found in 75% or more shops.

One of the shoppers commented: “There is one compartment for frozen vegetables, the rest is pretty much chips and ice-cream. Given the issues we have with cancelled ferries etc., surely it would be logical to have a decent supply of frozen fruit and vegetables?”

The research also found the cost of buying all 17 items in island shops was £26.64 which compared with £20.80 for a Tesco online shop: equating to a £6 difference. 

It concludes that islanders are “disproportionately disadvantaged” when it comes to affording and gaining access to basic fruit and vegetable items.

“Uist and Barra residents are not gaining the nutritional benefits of fresh produce, particularly during the autumn and winter months, due to the reliance of long food supply chains, and with transport disruptions this further impacts on the quality and freshness of these items.

“Compounding these dietary inequalities is the fact these island communities are also significantly disadvantaged by the price of these goods and shoulder the burden of an ‘island premium’ which far exceeds a ‘rural premium’ on food items.”

It has called for “immediate and progressive action by national and regional authorities” to help tackle the issue.

Alasdair Allan MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, said: “The fact that local supermarkets are classified as convenience stores can often limit the range of nutritious options, and problems when the ferry does not sail add to complications. 

“Tagsa are to be congratulated for highlighting some of these real issues, which contribute towards the food poverty which some people face in an area which already struggles with fuel poverty.”

Pete Ritchie of Nourish Scotland said: “This community-led research has highlighted the alarming food price premium which islanders are facing, along with being dependent on an unreliable ferry for access to fresh food.

“It also comes up with practical proposals for change, both by working with existing retailers to improve their offer and investing in food production on the islands, creating greater resilience and a boost to local economy.”

A spokesperson for NHS Western Isles said: “The Scottish Government Report ‘The cost of remoteness’ indicated that food prices for a household on the islands with two children would be between 13% to 27% higher than an urban area. This is consistent with the survey findings and report from the Uists.

“There is currently an application from the Outer Hebrides to the Scottish Government Cash First Fund that includes supporting food banks to transition from charitable donations and provision to supporting households with direct payments and access to financial inclusion services to boost income.”

Finlay MacRae, head of operations for CalMac, said: “Delivering essential services such as food supplies is an absolute top priority and we always ensure that these are delivered by any means at our disposal. This can be challenging when there is poor weather or periods of technical disruption, but during these times we will use alternative routes to deliver any food supplies presented as cargo on board.”