Edible Places

1 May 2018

I would never say that we are food growing experts but we have been getting very hands on with getting residents on a few of our projects into growing their own produce. I have been blown away at how powerful it is an activity; from just getting people interested in joining to the delight of planting something and seeing it grow into something you can eat, harvesting it and then eating it. Courgette cake, chutneys, homemade tomato ketchup, passata which formed the base for bruschetta were all highlights but I also wanted to take step back and think about the power of edible places in contexts where people are not predisposed to food growing. These projects might be a smaller version of the Incredible Edible movement (which I love by the way) but we also approached this much more stealthily or maybe quietly saying let’s spend time together and just be outside together and while we are there let’s talk about food and where it comes from, what we love about it and build a new relationship with it. We even created a recipe book with a group of residents because there was so much conversation about ideas for meals.

There are a many ways of approaching the debate around the power of food growing: exploring food provenance because so many people have lost a connection with where food comes from and how it is grown; permaculture principles with a focus on the impact of growing on our ecosystem and using as little resource as possible without ; and the benefits of organic food and the benefits of people getting outside and gardening to name but a few. Interestingly food provenance now pops up on the Food Preparation and Nutrition GCSE but is still something that so many people, particularly those living in cities are not aware of.
Often on our projects the first two are a tangential benefit, no less valuable, but tangential because sometimes approaching these things with a direct argument makes people feel like you are placing a value judgement on them. Organic food can make people think it is expensive and there is a level of privilege attached to being able to think beyond the immediate of future of urgent bills to pay, food for the family and the rush of getting a household to all the places they need to be that we don’t like to acknowledge.

However, an activity, an opportunity to meet people, social and take a pause from the rush and bustle is something that does appeal, particularly if people happen across these activities because they appear along routes that people always take and therefore spark curiosity. People of all ages, all experiences and all backgrounds have really got involved, some because they already grow food and want to share expertise, others because they are just intrigued by what is going on, but the joy of eating has been a big puller together of people. Us humans have a complicated relationship with food and how we use it to fuel, comfort and reward ourselves but most people from anywhere in the world have an understanding of the power of a celebratory meal and bringing people to eat so using food growing as a step along this journey has proved very valuable.

Another nice segue from food provenance is that it opens the floodgates to a diverse dialogue of topics and personal stories, even if people involved in the garden don’t eat the food grown themselves. Food growing has sparked conversations on; ‘We used to grow that at home’, ‘I remember the first time I tried that’, or ‘I have a great recipe for using that’. We found that regardless of whether they like the food or not, everyone has an opinion on it!

We did a project last year focused on health and our first engagement taught me a really important lesson in how vulnerable people feel when messages appear to be telling them off and instilling guilt about what they are eating or what they are feeding their children. The same is true of exercise, or promoting getting outside more which makes people feel defensive of what they are or aren’t doing. All this made me think that if you focus on activities that people want to do and build an audience then all the other benefits, ideas, learning and sharing can happen without you pushing the learning, health and ecological messages.

It looks like Edible Cities have got some great events coming up to fuel our interest in growing and pick up some new ideas but I think for now we will still be keeping our approach one of stealth.

And if one is ever in doubt of the power of small things Pam Warhurst from Incredible Edible Todmorden is worth the 14 minutes it takes to listen to this Ted Talk, the huge breadth of benefits are nothing but inspiring.