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Feeding the city

Matt Sellwood profiles a Hackney organisation that is trying to change the way the London borough gets and eats its food

November 7, 2009
6 min read

Some 15 years ago, a small-scale box scheme started up in Hackney, feeding around 30 families. In 1997, that initiative started to develop into Growing Communities, an organisation that now feeds 1,000 people a week through its box scheme, hosts the only weekly organic farmers’ market in the UK, grows food on sites across Hackney and trains people in vital agricultural and food preparation skills.

Growing Communities is much more than the sum of those parts, however. Explicitly opposed to the current food production and distribution system, it sees itself as ‘growing the new society in the shell of the old’ and helping to model what a grass-roots, community-led, not-for-profit food production system might look like in the future. Through its 12-point ‘Manifesto for Feeding the City’ (see box, next page), the organisation lays out the principles that those involved believe are necessary for a fair and ecologically sound food system in the UK, and particularly for large urban areas such as London.

The organisation sources its food both through existing organic producers and through the development of its own patchwork of urban agriculture sites within the borough of Hackney. With around 25 producers hosting regular stalls at the farmers’ market, which has a customer base of an average 1,500 local residents each week, Growing Communities provides a much needed revenue stream for those small UK farms still competing with multinational supermarkets and agri-business. Meanwhile, its box scheme sources salad from Hackney-based ‘microsites’, as well as food from further afield. It generates nearly £10,000 from sales of Hackney-grown produce, from a total land area of only half an acre.

Constituted as a not-for-profit company, Growing Communities is run by a volunteer management committee elected from its membership. The membership is comprised of all subscribers to the box scheme, as well as those who donate to the organisation. In contrast to some other grass-roots food schemes across the country, it believes that members should have control of its operations through the management committee, as opposed to control by workers. As a result, while its structure is flatter than many commercial box schemes, it is not a workers’ cooperative but runs with a mainly traditional staff structure. It employs nearly 20 people, all of whom work on a part-time basis, as well as a number of volunteers.

Urban food strategy

Rather than simply attempt to grow as much food as locally as possible without analysis or strategy, Growing Communities has drawn on its years of experience in urban local food production to produce an achievable ideal of what food distribution might look like in the future. This ‘food zone strategy’ (see diagram, next page) informs the areas on which Growing Communities concentrates, and provides a way to measure the success of its efforts.

While the organisation currently enjoys success in sourcing food both from the urban and ‘rural hinterland’ zones, ‘peri-urban’ land remains a significant challenge. Despite the availability of urban fringe land within the M25, very little agricultural activity remains within this area of London. As a result, Growing Communities is currently looking into the possibility of kick-starting food production within the peri-urban belt, specifically for distribution within Hackney.

As well as expanding its own operations, Growing Communities is also looking into replication of the initiative across London. Having originally started as a small vegetable box scheme, the organisation is in a good position to advise other groups across the capital about the pitfalls and opportunities that await anyone attempting to repeat its success. Instead of leaving provision of local food to profit-orientated companies, Growing Communities hopes to catalyse more community-led, not-for-profit schemes in boroughs across the capital – having shown already that it can be done.

Part of the movement

Well aware of its wider connection to the environmental and social justice movements, Growing Communities attempts where possible to link its food production and distribution to a wider political agenda. Not only does its weekly box scheme newsletter often focus on critiques of the existing food system, but the organisation goes out of its way to make itself more accessible to lower-income residents of the borough. In June of this year, both the farmers’ market and the box scheme began accepting Healthy Start vouchers, the government scheme for low income families with young children.

In addition to this, the organisation seeks to create employment opportunities through its apprentice growers scheme, which teaches the skills necessary for urban agriculture and then allows hands-on experience on the Hackney based microsites. And the organisation is very activist-friendly – Climate Camp received a few boxes of Hackney-grown salad last year as a small token of Growing Communities’ awareness of its links to the wider movement.

Of course, there have been numerous challenges for Growing Communities, and many of these continue to exist. Any initiative that is seeking to challenge and subvert the power of institutions as large and as powerful as supermarkets will always encounter difficulties, particularly as it begins to grow large enough to make it onto their radar.

Even an organisation the size of Growing Communities, however, seems to have been largely overlooked by regional and national government, and has often been seen only as a concern of Hackney Council’s parks department, rather than as a wider exemplar of local economic health, environmental sustainability and social inclusion. Only many such organisations, networked and learning from each other, will be able to significantly challenge the status quo of food production in the UK.

As Kerry Rankine, who works at Growing Communities, says, ‘The most important lesson that the organisation can teach is that members of a community, working together, can achieve a real shift in people’s priorities and thinking. From a small start, the organisation now provides employment for scores of people, food for thousands, and hopefully inspiration for many more.’

Matt Sellwood is the Green Party candidate for Hackney North

Growing Communities’ 12-point manifesto

The food involved should:

Be farmed and produced ecologically

Be as local as practicable

Be seasonal

Be mainly plant-based

Be fresh or involve minimal processing

Be from small-scale operations

Support fair trade

Involve environmentally friendly and

low-carbon resource use

Promote knowledge

Foster community

Strive to be economically viable and independent

Be produced honestly, transparently and promote trust throughout the food chain

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