London’s Food Culture Programs Offer a Harvest of Fruit, Vegetables and Friendship | Access to green space

BBehind a row of local authority houses in Islington, north London, on a sunny Tuesday morning, the air is buzzing with insects. Landing bees bend the stems of a patch of lavender as 60-year-old Peter Louis cleans up the bloom with shears.

“I come here in winter probably once or twice a week; in the summer, probably about two or three times a week,” he says. Louis lives alone and has no job due to poor health. But at the project, he can meet friends, and even when he doesn’t, the work is a balm to his isolation.

“Since the Covid lockdown, I’ve been suffering from anxiety, stress and depression, and I’m a practical person: I have to do something, staying home won’t help me,” he says. “And at the end of the day, I feel really good. It’s not because I could have fruits or vegetables to go out; it’s the fact that we’re doing this for everyone.

Islington is the most populous borough in London: 236,000 inhabitants crowded into 5.74 km². Land is scarce and expensive: single-family homes with gardens are changing hands for over £1million, but nearly a third of households in the borough have no private outdoor space. Space is so tight that Islington cannot meet its legal obligation to provide housing estates for residents. This is not the ideal place to grow food.

But for the past 12 years, growing food is exactly what the Octopus Community Network has been doing here. The charity runs eight grow sites, located in very deprived areas, and supports a number of other smaller initiatives.

They provide access to nature, education and socialization. And, at harvest time, produce is distributed to the community, providing fresh organic vegetables to families struggling to afford them.

On the Hollins and McCall Estate in Tufnell Park on Tuesday, at the Octopus Community Nursery, six women are re-potting vegetable sprouts. The nursery, with a range of beds, a polytunnel, various composters and a shed stocked with equipment and supplies, is Octopus’ education and learning center.

“The beds are demonstrations of different types of cultivation techniques,” says Frannie Smith, the charity’s full-time community grower, who oversees the work. “Then the plants are donated to community groups in Islington to help them grow. It’s all about connecting with people who want to participate in the urban food culture in Islington.

Daniel Evans, a researcher at the School of Water, Energy and the Environment at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire, says growing food in cities can bring benefits to the ecosystem, “which go far beyond simply putting food on a plate”.

Recently, Evans worked with colleagues from Lancaster and Liverpool universities to sift through whatever research they could find on the benefits of agricultural areas in urban spaces. Vegetation of the right types is particularly good at sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, regulating microclimates, harboring biodiversity, encouraging pollination and restoring soils, they found. Under certain circumstances, green spaces can even mitigate natural disasters, for example by absorbing flood waters.

“There are also benefits for humans, in what we call cultural services, things like recreation,” he says. People who go out into the allotment or community garden can often bring them not only physiological benefits, but also mental health ones. Often this allows them to interact with people they wouldn’t necessarily live or work with, which kind of improves those societal relationships, and for some of them it’s a great opportunity to gain , you know, a spiritual experience, a feeling of being in a green space, when most cities are pretty gray.

Smith finds a range of ways to engage people. Members of the local Good Gym help transport compost deliveries. Residents of a nearby halfway house for recovering drug addicts cultivate the soil for a church garden alongside wealthy octogenarians. Soon, Octopus will begin a partnership with Mencap to train adults with disabilities, as well as volunteers to work with them.

Local residents tend to community food patches in Islington. Photograph: Alecsandra Dragoi/The Guardian

But, despite the many social and psychological benefits of a program like Octopus, growing food cannot be an afterthought.

“What we’ve seen over the past few years is a real need to start thinking about growing local foods, or at least spreading the load,” says Evans. “The UK is heavily dependent on food imports. A few years ago, the UK imported around 84-85% of the food; around 46% of the vegetables consumed in the UK are imported from abroad.

“So, of course, when you have a crisis event, like a pandemic or like Brexit, that can really threaten supply. And so, if you bring together local authorities or people who farm in their local community, just helping to produce fruit and vegetables for that local community, then you are helping to mitigate the severity of those shocks.

Eight and a half miles south, across the Thames and 33 meters below the streets of Clapham, is an underground farm run by Zero Carbon Farms (ZCF), a completely different kind of urban food-growing project , which says it uses 70% less water and a fraction of the space of a conventional farm.

Evans says the future is likely a mix of the Octopus and ZCF models. “Because there is a rather interesting paradox here. You attract more people to a town and then you’ve covered all the floors of those residential buildings and you have nowhere left to grow food. So we have to think quite creatively. This is where high tech and digital could come in, on how we use some of these spaces to alleviate this problem.

But a project such as ZCF lacks key elements offered by Octopus, adds Evans. “The real question here is how does this affect individual life – you know, the individual city dweller?

“I think cases like the Octopus community – which isn’t high-tech, it’s pretty accessible to everyone, it brings together a wide variety of people from the local neighborhood – that’s, in a way, what creates sustainability, because we can’t always have experts and specialists doing these things on behalf of everyone,” he says.

“We need to involve the local community so that they somehow help feed themselves and secure their own future. »

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