Over the next year, I’ll be exploring the UK’s burgeoning urban food growing scene for Kitchen Garden magazine. Every month I’ll report from a different town or city, as I seek out urban agriculturists and profile projects ranging from the small-scale and personal to the unusual, ambitious and commercial.
“The architecture, the people, the seafront, the history – all make Plymouth fascinating” enthuses Darran Mclane, who’s fallen hard and fast for the city since moving here last spring. Plymouth is also the only city with a Food Charter, set-up and run by the Soil Association, which makes it as good a place as any to begin a quest to document, in part, the food growing projects that are changing the urban landscape across the UK.
“It’s very diverse and affluent, but there are pockets of deprivation” continues Darran, who runs a project called Diggin’ It. It was crowned the ‘Best Producer of 2011’ at Plymouth’s recent Food Charter awards.
“Certain people have a very poor grasp of nutrition. Local and organic food often comes with an expensive sting – or people assume it does. Diggin’ It is about exciting and educating people about food, mainly school children. It’s about finding the right language.”
But Diggin’ It isn’t just about teaching people the value of local, fresh food and five-a-day, it’s also about growing that produce and selling it. If urban agriculture projects with short-term funding want to be sustainable and self sufficient – and practise what they preach to an extent – they have to find ways to make money.
Darran used to work for Riverford (the veg box giants) and has ambitions for Diggin’ It to grow a lot more crops. He subtly suggests that the project needs more land but that things are set to change, and Plymouth can expect them to have more of a presence in the city in the near future. For now, they have a shop in Stoke on the edges of the city, where produce can be picked to order. In November they began supplying Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall’s high profile new eatery in the Royal William Dockyard.
This more commercial venture feels like a feather in the project’s hat. “We’ve become well-known and have developed into the place for locals to buy fresh veg. People get very excited when they discover us. Yesterday I was at the Job Centre in town, delivering a presentation to the advisors there. Everyone said they wanted to come and volunteer. We’re about growing people as well as vegetables.”
John Dixon from Plymouth City Council tells me more about commercial opportunities in the town. “There’s a history of food growing in this area, and we want to acknowledge this – the famous Tamar Valley, for example, once supplied all Covent Garden Market’s strawberries.”
“The Tamar Grow Local project is promoting community growing and cooperative working, and also markets existing growers and helps them to sell their food locally. The project has commercial as well as community aims. We’re a well-placed city, and food has to be part of a sustainable city plan.”
And what about allotments? “Politically allotments are very well supported here, and people want more. We recently split some larger allotments into smaller, more manageable plots and also introduced shared, group allotments.”
Next stop is Traci Lewis, who works for the Soil Association and coordinates the Plymouth Food Charter. It’s a city-wide partnership of businesses, organisations and community groups, all with an interest in food and how it can be used to drive positive social, environmental and economic change.
“We’ve been looking at how to create and support a local food system. We started work in April 2010, when we carried out a city-wide consultation and then developed a three year business plan. We’re motivated by a desire to create a thriving local food economy for Plymouth.”
I ask Traci whether there is food inequality in Plymouth, as in other British cities, and whether urban food growing projects have any value in addressing issues like this. “There’s a 12 year difference in life expectancy from one side of the city to the other. There are ‘food deserts’, where people have limited access to fresh, healthy and affordable produce.”
“This access should be a basic human right, but our food system is increasingly controlled by very powerful global agri-businesses who have a lot of political power. The Plymouth Food Charter is here to help people make positive changes for themselves and their communities through food. Urban food growing projects engage people with food production and increase access to fresh local produce. They can also play a valuable role in building and supporting community networks.”
It feels like time to move on and see what a different Devon city is like. Exeter is about 30 miles north, on the opposite side of Dartmoor, and it is there that Exeter Harvest is encouraging people to get growing in their own gardens, however meagre they are in size.
“Our main project is our Incredible Edible Mini Gardens” explains Andi Tobe from Exeter Harvest. “We took a road-show around certain neighbourhoods, where we handed out containers, compost and seeds to get people started. People have been growing everything from herbs and salads on window ledges, to beans and tomatoes on patios.”
“We’re also working with a small number of groups around the city who are nurturing community growing spaces. One is in a pub! They have a courtyard and a flat roof, and have been growing salads and tomatoes to serve up to customers. They’ve held seed swaps there and have really sparked new interest in urban food growing.”
Exeter Harvest is half way through its funded period and leaving a legacy is on their minds. “We’re thinking about potential social enterprises that could develop, perhaps selling preserves and juices made from the city’s fruit. This would redistribute local food and reduce waste. So far we’ve harvested over 200 kilos of fruit from private gardens.”
“Exeter doesn’t have a food plan, but there is talk about one. We’re blessed with farmland around the city and there’s a growing desire to get local producers’ food into town. Urban growing here isn’t about self-sufficiency. It’s about a few little treats. It’s about recognising that it can be so much better if we have control over what we eat, and it’s about celebrating the value of fresh food.”