The Salad Days of Growing Communities
Lizzi Testani - 03 October 2013
One of the often unsung benefits of organic food is the (often short) and transparent supply chains they produce. To celebrate Organic September, I decided to investigate how one woman put her exasperation with conventional food supply to good use by creating an exciting, grassroots solution for communities across London.
Julie Brown and some friends wanted to put people in the Big Smoke more closely in touch with where their food is produced to change the food system from the bottom up, so she started a box scheme in 1994 that has now blossomed into Growing Communities. The social enterprise will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary next year and currently employs 27 people, all working part-time to run projects, pack bags and sell produce.
Organic production is a key principle for Growing Communities. They have earned their place in the market through home-growing crops or sustainable harvest from the wild, without the use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides. Their techniques support practices which do not increase the amounts of artificial chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides in food and our environment, instead relying on sound soil and wildlife management and involving the highest standards of animal welfare.
For growers Paul Bradbury, Sophie Verhagen and Alice Holden, the week revolves around harvesting and packing salad for the box scheme. The salad leaves are harvested by hand from 3 market gardens and patchwork farm micro-plots and transported to the yard by bike trailer. The salad bags are then packed with the rest of the tonne and a half of fruit and veg into organic box schemes and bags – ready for the customers to collect. The rest of their time is taken up with planting, watering and tutorials for the Urban Apprentices or working with the volunteers and attending to the 101 necessary tasks. The market stalls are made up of small organic farmers and growers and local processors using organic produce sourced from local farmers.
Modestly, they are, ‘pretty grateful to have survived nearly 20 years as a small community-led trading organisation in the middle of the city!’, but Growing Communities has ambitions for the future. They hope to see small farmers and growers not just surviving but thriving and for there to be hundreds of community-led box schemes around the country. Their ‘Start Up Programme’ is designed to help facilitate other communities change the food they eat, supporting and encouraging local, sustainable farmers at the same time. There are now 6 community box schemes that have followed the Growing Communities model and are thriving, with 7 more in the pipeline!
Kerry Rankine believes that patience has been so important in the development of the business saying, “things always take longer than you think!” The box scheme grew slowly at first and now packs around 1,070 fruit and veg bags per week, reaching over 3,000 customers. Their customers are a varied bunch, united only by the fact that they all live or work in Hackney.
‘Small Change, Big Difference’ is the theme of Organic September 2013. The small change that an increasing number of Growing Communities customers make is to choose this local and community-led box scheme, whose profit goes directly to small farmers and organic producers. A big difference is felt as the scheme attracts more and more volunteers and makes an impact on local apprentices and ultimately, changes the face of the food system.
Growing Communities was the fruit and vegetables category winner for its Hackney Salad in the 2013 Organic Food Awards.
Lizzi is a Certification Officer for Soil Association Certification.