“Changing the food system one carrot at a time.”
Growing Communities is a fruit and veg scheme with a difference . . . What I love about Growing Communities is that they care so much about where stuff comes from. They’re doing everything possible to create food systems that are fair to people and to animals, and which are sustainable both now and – essentially – for the future. In their own words:
Over the past 20 years or so, we have created two main community-led trading outlets – an organic fruit and vegetable bag scheme and the Growing Communities Farmers’ Market. These harness the collective buying power of our community and direct it towards those farmers who are producing food in a sustainable way – allowing those small-scale farmers and producers whom we believe are the basis of a sustainable agriculture system to thrive. Growing Communities believes that if we are to create the sustainable re-localised food systems that will see us through the challenges ahead, we need to work together with communities and farmers to take our food system back from the supermarkets and agribusiness.
I met Richenda Wilson, at Growing Communities’ weekly Farmers’ Market in Stoke Newington, north London to find out more.
wscf: People often assume organic food is an expensive option. And, of course, it can cost more to produce food using organic methods, and/or working to high animal welfare standards. How can we convince people it’s a cost worth paying? And how can we make sustainably produced food accessible to people on varying levels of income at the same time as making sure that farmers, and other producers, still earn a decent living?
Richenda: Organic food isn’t always as expensive as people think, especially if you cut out distributors and retailers and buy directly from farmers and producers. Stallholders at the Farmers’ Market keep 87.5% or more of what they make on the day. And this makes it more viable for them to sell affordably and still earn a decent living.
It’s quite possible to eat more sustainably and more cheaply at the same time. A plant-based diet, where high welfare meat is an occasional treat, can be much cheaper than a meat-based diet. Avoiding food waste saves money. And cooking for yourself is often less expensive, and healthier, than buying ready-prepared meals.
It’s also important to remember that the value Growing Communities offer in providing stability for small farms, developing urban agriculture and creating jobs in Hackney is something that’s hard to put a price on.
People can have very different attitudes towards food. Is there a risk that organisations like Growing Communities are perceived as part of an unwelcome process of gentrification? How do you tackle this? How do you make Growing Communities inclusive? Or at least as inclusive as possible?
We’re proud that we appeal to a really wide range of people in the local community. Some 24% of people who shop at our market consider themselves to be from an ethnic minority and 35% of people joining our fruit and veg scheme members describe themselves as ‘low income’. Not necessarily on benefits, but perhaps what’s been called ‘just about managing’. And there’s a wide age range. We find that a lot of people who join the fruit and vegetable scheme are from countries where cooking is an important aspect of the national culture.
When it comes to the Farmers’ Market, location is key. We started off in a school playground on Stoke Newington Church Street, behind a high brick wall. Now the market is in front of a church on Stoke Newington High Street, with just a low railing around the area, and on several bus routes. So, physically, it’s much more accessible and that’s had a really positive impact.
Why is it so important to take our food system back from the supermarkets and agribusiness?
Agribusiness and global supermarket chains put profits over people. And the unrelenting quest for profits is putting British farmers out of business, and destroying soil as well as livelihoods. It’s been estimated there are only 50 harvests left in the ground using conventional, carbon-intensive farming methods. But organic farming replenishes the soil; it improves it to safeguard harvests for future generations.
What impact do you think Brexit would have on farmers in general and, particularly, those farming sustainably? Positive or not? And why?
Brexit will probably make things harder. British farmers rely on migrant workers, many of them from Eastern Europe and many of them highly skilled. But we’ve heard reports from farmers that it’s harder to attract the people they need; some migrant farm workers have gone back home saying they don’t feel welcome in the UK anymore.
Another problem for us is the ‘hungry gap’. This is the time of year – usually around April to June – when previous harvests have been eaten and the new harvests aren’t ready yet. So we rely a lot on European fruit and vegetables to maintain quantity and variety. It’ll become harder and more expensive to source produce from the EU. But it makes no sense, from an environmental point of view, to import from the other side of the world, especially if the produce is brought the UK by air.
Do you think one aspect of this is that we’ve all got used to food being so artificially cheap that we just need to be willing to pay a little more? Then farmers can pay local people a living wage rather than rely on migrant workers who may earn less than British workers would accept (or could afford to live on)?
Yes definitely. Farmers should be paying their workers fairly, and retailers should be paying farmers fairly and, as consumers, we need to be prepared to pay more for our food, while also learning to cook with cheaper ingredients. And perhaps if we paid a bit more, we would think twice about wasting so much of the food we buy. But that’s easier said than done. Some farmers may turn to mechanisation to keep their products affordable. But, of course, that results in loss of jobs.
I’ve noticed that increasingly local shops seem to be branding themselves as organic without actually necessarily doing anything much differently than they always have? Does this have an impact on farmers and producers who are genuinely seeking to have a low environmental impact? Do you think consumers have a responsibility to be a little bit sceptical about claims to be organic or high welfare and so on? And how do you stop people from feeling it’s all so overwhelming that it’s easier just not to think about it at all.
Shops claiming to sell organic food when a lot of their stock actually isn’t definitely has an impact on small organic farmers and producers. Some of the packaged foods might be organic but it’s rare that the fresh fruit and veg in those small shops is organic. I suppose I’d say: always read the label, look at the box, check the shelf or ask the staff. But, yes, it can be overwhelming trying to make good shopping choices. A lot of people on our veg scheme say they love the fact that they can rely on us to make those decisions for them – sourcing the best produce available from local organic farmers every week.
What do you think are the key trends at the moment when to comes to sustainable foods?
There’s more recognition these days that local and organic food tastes amazing. Fruit and veg varieties are grown for their flavour and ability to thrive in local conditions without artificial inputs, whereas the current dominant food system tends to favour varieties that look flawless or can survive being shipped over long distances, often at the expense of taste.
We’ve always seen a lot of interest in sustainable growing and production; but now there’s a definite focus on sustainable distribution as well, and buying from retailers that trade fairly and put people and planet before profits.
People are increasingly paying attention to where meat comes from too – avoiding factory-farmed eggs, milk and meat in favour of animals raised to high welfare standards and without routine use of antibiotics.
Veganism is on the rise too, but a vegan diet doesn’t always mean the food is more sustainable, especially if you eat a lot of ingredients that are grown or produced very far away. Unfortunately, avocados and almond milk don’t come from local farms!
What are Growing Communities most significant successes to date? And what are the goals for the future?
Our veg scheme now supplies organic, local fruit and vegetables to over 1,000 households in Hackney. The Farmers’ Market feeds another 1,500 households and has enabled around 30 small farms and producers to survive and thrive. Our Start-up Programme helped other communities around the UK to set up similar veg schemes to ours. They now make up the Better Food Traders.
We have two successful organic urban farms: the Patchwork Farm, made up of nine small market gardens in Hackney, and Dagenham Farm, on an ex-council plant nursery in East London. Not only are they productive sites, growing award-winning salad, but they also teach growing and cooking skills to local adults and children.
Our Big Lottery-funded Grown in Dagenham project is training unemployed lone parents in how to grow, cook and sell food, bringing huge improvements in their confidence and expanding their horizons. The film below shows what the first year’s trainees gained from their experience on the farm. We’re looking forward to welcoming a new team of trainees onto the farm this spring.
Now we’re looking into the potential of an award scheme for ‘better food traders’, to bring other box schemes, farmers, markets, shops and retailers into the fold, and to help make it easier for everyone to make good shopping choices in the future.
You can find Growing Communities’ Farmers’ Market in front of St Pauls Church on Stoke Newington High Street, London N16 7UY between 10am and 2.30pm every Saturday.