Growing Communities

When researching the many elements to the improvement of the UK’s food security we came across CSAs, the community supported agriculture schemes that allow keen growers to supply great quality local fruit and veg to their community. Established schemes are producing up to 200 veg boxes a week, all year round.

Then we discovered Growing Communities, the North London based enterprise that has the power of 5 CSAs on steroids! They supply over 1,500 veg boxes, employ 23 people (mainly part time) and have developed some impressive “how to” models. Their core members thrive on the drive and energy they started out with; no surprise, then, to learn that they have been going for 20 years.

growing community staff

I spoke to Marketing Assistant Rachel Dring to find out more.

She explained that selling organic, ideally local food is at the core of what they do with a large percentage of what they sell coming from a radius of 60 of their base in Hackney. A small amount of urban food production is supplemented with produce from organic farmers, most of which are from Kent, Essex, Cambridgeshire and East Anglia.

Like most enterprises, Growing Communities started small, sourcing food locally to sell on, and then adding a farmers’ market in 2003 that swelled their customer base and reputation. 17 years on and over 30 organic farmers and food producers sell their produce at the weekly market and through the veg scheme.

Lady at Farmers market

This London-based venture was also interested in increasing urban food growing and in 1997 their founder Julie Brown literally got on her bike and cycled around the borough looking for small, unused plots of land that could make vegetable patches.

She approached the landowners, and, in this way, more growing sites slowly came to fruition. Today it is known as the patchwork farm, a lovely description that brings all the small plot holders together.

In 2012 they gained the lease on an ex-council plant nursery in Dagenham and transformed it into an organic farm. Its size meant employing a professional to manage growth and production on the farm and the process of producing 5 tonnes of food a year became a magnet for keen volunteers who were willing to learn about how to grow food. A grant from the National Lottery Reaching Communities fund meant they could provide paid traineeships and run a year-round learning programmes and events that got children, young people and local parents involved in the farm.

Over the years they have turned many novices into experienced organic growers to take over plots of their own.

Sohefa in the glasshouse

The model established by Growing Communities is clearly one that should be replicated across the UK and I had to ask Rachel if she supported this. Indeed, they do; in the last couple of years, implementing their practice across the UK has become an important part of their work, and they mentored and supported several other veg schemes to launch.

She told me how the indefatigable Julie Brown and friends have started two mutually supportive ventures. Launched in 2019, Better Food Traders (BTF) is an accreditation scheme that promotes organisations who meet basic principles for ethical and sustainable food retail. These criteria are simple, as is the certification process. The BFT panel must be satisfied that the food sold is farmed sustainably, that its trade is fair to farmers and transparent to customers. The recent pandemic has naturally slowed the accreditation process and they already have over 20 organisations across the country keen to take part.

The Better Food Shed was also set up around this time. Julie and her team were keenly aware that for local fresh organic vegetables to catch on, serious logistical improvements needed to be made so that larger amounts of produce could be efficiently transported across London.

At least 14 local community organised veg box schemes now operate within the M25, the majority buying produce from the same farmers close to London. The Better Food Shed acts as a wholesaler, taking orders from the smaller communities and using a centralised distribution. The difference here is that it’s a not-for-profit business set up specifically to support values-driven box schemes. When profit is generated by the Shed, it is given back to the box schemes through price reductions. This allows farmers to deliver one bigger order to one place. As a result of the venture’s efficiency, the food’s carbon footprint is reduced as food miles go down. The larger order size allows the farmers to offer better prices as a reduction in the cost of delivery means they can still make a profit. It also means the smaller growers can feed their smaller volumes into to this system, opening them up to a larger market for their produce.

Most importantly perhaps, it identifies a model that other food growers may be attracted to.

harvesting veg

Supported by the Sustain Alliance, Growing Communities has produced a detailed online guide on how to set up food growing sites in the city. The free “Urban Farming Toolkit” is essential reading for any communities thinking of moving into this area.

As my hour-long conversation with Rachel came to a close, I looked down at my notes. They were all over the place with so much to capture!

“I will send you some links” she said as we parted.

Within half an hour her name was back in my inbox with all the information she had mentioned and more.

Competitive pricing will be a crucial factor in moving away from the supermarket dominated model of fresh food purchase that has jeopardised UK farming. Growing Communities are the first to admit they are not there yet . I have to admit they are doing a remarkable job in leading the fight to make it so.

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