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Yes, we are interested in growth

05 June 2020

The coronavirus has highlighted the issue of food insecurity. Christine Miles looks at church and community growing schemes

Growing Communities

The Growing Communities’ farmers market in the car park at St Paul’s, West Hackney, before the lockdown

The Growing Communities’ farmers market in the car park at St Paul’s, West Hackney, before the lockdown

EVERY Saturday morning through­out the coronovirus lockdown, St Paul’s, West Hackney, has been hosting its usual farmer’s market. Bakers, artisan food-makers, and farmers, all from within a 60-mile radius of the London borough, have sold their wares at the market for the past 17 years. The market is run by Growing Communities: a Hackney-based not-for-profit organisation.

The market is run by Growing Communities: a Hackney-based not-for-profit organisation. In addition to the 100-per-cent organic market, it has developed micro-growing sites in Hackney, the Patchwork Farm, where they harvest mainly salad leaves, as well as a one-and-a-half-acre farm in Dagenham which grows fruit and veg. In addition, there is a vegetable-bag scheme, an urban food-growing training scheme, and opportunities for volunteers to develop skills that they can use at home.

The vision is to secure a food system that is kinder to farmers and the land, by being less dependent on supermarkets and environmentally unfriendly intensive farming practices.

St Paul’s is not just the location of the market: in 2008, its rectory garden provided the Patchwork Farm’s first micro-site.

Growing CommunitiesThe Revd Niall Weir cutting the ribbon to open the Growing Communities’ farmers market at St Paul’s, West Hackney, in 2011

Today, the Patchwork Farm comprises plots in four parks in Hackney, one plot on a council estate, one plot formed from two back gardens, and one plot currently on church land at St Michael and All Angels, London Fields. St John of Jerusalem, South Hackney, and St Peter De Beauvoir, Hackney, also feature as two of the 15 “veg cupboards” where customers go to pick up their supplies.

The Revd Niall Weir arrived at St Paul’s in 2003. At that point, land belonging to the church was surrounded by thick brambles, including a former burial site that was turned into public space in the 19th century but is still owned by the church. “It sounds a bit like Sleeping Beauty: the church had gone to sleep as the parish church, [and] we were sitting on a site that was moribund and unattractive.”

West Hackney has all the problems of an inner-city urban area, such as homelessness, drug addiction, low access to green space, and the isolation of elderly people. “We realised we had a very good space, but no skills to provide a service — and that there were lots of organisations that could provide a service, but which had no space. It didn’t take a genius to realise there was a synergy here,” he says.

In the process of putting together a Heritage Lottery bid for regenerating the land, Fr Weir said: “We began to learn the significance of our site: a two-and-a-half-acre site, in what is effectively central London, is an extraordinary thing. . . We had to honour that, and do something creative with it.”

St Paul’s received almost £700,000 of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, alongside other trusts and church funding. There are now new woodlands, walkways, play features, and an extensive planting programme, managed jointly by the church and the council’s parks department; a garden manager and volunteer co-ordinator provide activities for the community.

Growing CommunitiesBeds at St Michael and All Angels, London Fields: part of the Patchwork Farm

More than 30 groups operate projects out of the church and its land, many related to either growing food or feeding people. “Food is very much at the heart of what we do: sustainable eating, sustainable growing. There are political overtones in all of that,” Fr Weir says.

The low-cost healthy food initiative Bags of Taste started, and still runs, at St Paul’s. They teach people how to cook a nutritious meal “for less than the price of a Big Mac,” Fr Weir says, providing a bag of ingredients at the end of each session to cook that week’s meal, for four, at home.

As well as that, a team from a Hackney-based social centre for migrants, Akwaaba, hosts a home-cooked meal at the church for about 200 migrant families every week; and North London Action for the Homeless teaches food-growing at the back of St Paul’s for homeless people and other volunteers, and provides a Monday lunch and Wednesday-evening meal every week at the church, using the garden produce.

All told, the church provides more than 5000 community meals a year.

Fr Weir believes that churches are in a unique position to get involved in community growing initiatives and model “a way of being”. “We’ve got to honour our commitment as Christians to caring for creation.” A vital part of that is “teaching the next generation that lettuces don’t grow on supermarket shelves”.

One of the things that St Paul’s has learnt is that “we can’t do this stuff on our own. Working in partnership with community organisations, we can tap into wonderful expertise.

“We don’t necessarily have to be the people who dream the big dreams; but we can facilitate — and then you have no idea where it’s going to take you. That’s very exciting.”


COMMUNITY gardening initiatives cover a spectrum. At one end are gardens whose chief object is to provide social connection; at the other is sustainable food production. Churches have potential to be involved in both.

In a study published in the online journal Nature Food, in March, academics from the Institute for Sustainable Food, based at Sheffield University, investigated the potential for urban horticulture by mapping green and grey spaces in Sheffield. They found that green spaces — including parks, domestic gardens (38 per cent of available land), allotments (1.3 per cent), roadside verges, and woodland — covered 45 per cent of the city. This figure holds true for other UK cities.

Growing CommunitiesOne of Growing Communities’ “veg cupboards” in Hackney, where customers pick up their produce

The Institute concluded that using just ten per cent of the available land in Sheffield could supply 15 per cent of the city’s population with its five-a-day target; if 100 per cent of the land were used, it could provide 122 per cent of what was needed.

This figure is “amazing, and beyond anything we’ve ever thought was possible”, the marketing co-ordinator for Growing Communities, Richenda Wilson, says. “There is massive potential when you look at something like that, and at the amount of land that churches often have. . . They could make a real difference, both in terms of community engagement but also in providing nutrition for local people.”

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, just 16 per cent of fruit and 53 per cent of vegetables sold in the UK are currently grown here.

“At the moment, the UK is utterly dependent on complex international supply chains for the vast majority of our fruit and half of our veg,” an environmental scientist at the University of Sheffield, Dr Jill Edmondson, says. “But our research suggests there is more than enough space to grow what we need on our doorsteps.

“Even farming a small percentage of available land could transform the health of urban populations, enhance a city’s environment, and help build a more resilient food system.”

Ms Wilson estimates says that community plots contributing to the Patchwork Farm are not yet self-sufficient, and are subsidised by the vegetable-bag scheme. The Dagenham farm is self-sufficient, as it is a larger plot.

Growing Communities works with small, organic farmers who grow mixed crops, “which makes them more resilient. . . They employ workers throughout the year [and] are not dependent on migrant workers, which is an issue for global farming. They employ local people, they pay them the living wage, they make sure they have weatherproof clothing to wear, they look after them if they’re injured and can’t work. A lot of farms treat [migrant] workers very badly, and all of this is driven by the quest for cheap food, and supermarkets’ driving prices down.”

The University of Sheffield is also planning to start developing micro-farms across its campus and in green spaces across the city from this September, which are “designed to produce food locally in an efficient and economic way”.

The programme director of Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, Sarah Williams, says: “What we’ve recognised through climate change, and even more through Covid-19, is the importance of growing food near to where people are. It’s about resilience in the food-supply system.”

If a church is interested in getting involved, she recommends research. Approaching the local council is not a bad place to start, she says. And, if your area has a food partnership, “the chances are someone could help you find a local growing group.” If not, there are several national growing organisations that may be able to help, including Sustain.

Growing CommunitiesGrowing Communities’ veg bags being packed

The environmental adviser to the Archbishops’ Council, David Shreeve, sees the potential for community food-growing alongside therapeutic gardening, currently promoted in initiatives such as the Church Times Green Church Awards, churchyard initiatives, biodiversity projects, and the target to be carbon-neutral by 2030.

“There’s a huge surge of interest in people wanting to grow something, whether it’s for food production or simply to give people some opportunity to grow something and they live in a flat with no garden,” he says. “The Church has got all this land. . . If it could open space for community gardening, wouldn’t that be a great thing to do?”


National growing organisations

Groundwork supports a diverse range of projects for people to improve their communities, including community gardens. groundwork.org.uk

Incredible Edible is a network of growers committed to food activism and community resilience. incredibleedible.org.uk

Sustain is an alliance of about 100 organisations working to model, campaign, and develop better food and farming. sustainweb.org

Social Farms and Gardens offers guidance and encouragement to city farms, care farms, and community gardens. farmgarden.org.uk

Sustainable Food Places works to bring together pioneering food partnerships in the UK which focus on providing healthy and sustainable food. sustainablefoodplaces.org



St John the Baptist, Farley Hill, Luton

THE Vicar, the Revd Rob O’Neill, envisaged the third-of-an-acre garden’s being transformed with a large allotment, and a play and community area, and, shortly afterwards, was contacted by Groundwork — a federation of charities working in the UK’s most disadvantaged communities — wanting to develop a community garden. Work began to clear the site in 2013.

Mr O’Neill recognises the importance of community growing sites in poorer areas, rather than people trying to home grow. The produce, he says, tastes better, “but it’s much more expensive than just going to Tesco or Aldi to buy your vegetables from there; so people on very low incomes have no choice but to buy factory-farmed food. . . It’s also very rewarding to see the food grow and harvested throughout the whole season.”

Part of the garden at St John the Baptist, Farley Hill, Luton, which is not currently growing as normal, because of the lockdown

The volunteers grow organically, and, after seven years, the garden is now producing “a huge amount of crops”. In addition to feeding the growers’ families, surplus fruit and vegetables goes to charities in the area, and has been auctioned to support the Bishop of St Albans’ annual harvest appeal.

The church now also runs a club, Kids Can Cook, throughout school holidays, in response to the issue of holiday hunger. The church now has many younger people, families, and children.

The garden has also been used to help young people who are struggling with mental-health issues; and Groundwork runs a green-skills course for the long-term unemployed and ex-offenders, teaching them how to landscape, build patios and paths, and to achieve a certificate in health and safety that enables them to apply for jobs on construction sites.

The garden is part of the Luton Community Food Hub, an alliance that is working to alleviate food poverty and support healthier eating. Almost half of children in the borough are growing up in poverty, and Farley Hill, in particular, is in the top ten per cent of the most deprived parts of the country.

Another partner is the Strathmore Avenue Methodist Church. Last year, just three of the sites produced more than 400kg of fresh produce, equating to 4800 portions of fruit and vegetables, and the Alliance is looking to increase the number of growing hubs in the area.


St Luke’s, Erleigh Road, Reading

THE Erleigh Road Community Garden at St Luke’s was started three years ago, with the aim of opening up a green space in an urban area that the community could enjoy. “It gives people the opportunity to get outdoors, observe nature, learn about growing fruit and vegetables, socialise with others in their community, and harvest food produced locally,” says Naomi German, who became involved with the garden early on.

Children get involved with growing at the Erleigh Road Community Garden, St Luke’s, Reading

The church applied for a grant to clear the overgrown land, buy a shed and tools, and to design the space. The local food-growing organisation Food4families became involved in helping to run the project, and Mrs German now works for them as a garden tutor, running drop-in growing sessions at St Luke’s twice a week, and providing seeds, plants, and compost.

The small plot behind the church hall now features fruit trees and bushes, as well as a good variety of vegetables. It is one of eight community gardens in the town run by Food4families.

Fruit and veg gathered from the garden are shared with volunteer gardeners on the day of harvest; but, as more people are currently experiencing food poverty during the Covid-19 crisis, plans are being made for the bounty to be given to families in the town who are identified as being most in need.


St Peter’s, Fairwater, Cardiff

THE one-acre plot features a community garden, growing fruit and vegetables, and also a Quiet Garden, which is used as the venue for some church services, and for prayer. Volunteers tend the garden, and there are placements for people who would not normally have the opportunity: those with learning difficulties, people who have brain damage, young people not yet on Community Service Orders, and former prisoners — as well as parishioners, some of whom help to mentor the other growers.

Parts of Fairwater lie in the most deprived areas in Cardiff; so the NHS has run cooking courses for adults at the church, and another provider runs one for children. The church has a gardening club, and they have hosted growing courses run by the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

The garden assistant at St Peter’s, Fairwater, Cardiff, examines honeycomb

“Our aim is ground-to-table: helping people grow, cook, and enjoy eating,” the Vicar, the Revd Colin Sutton, says. “We aim to model good practice so that people will be encouraged to grow in their own gardens. We are fully organic, and bee-, butterfly-, insect-, and bird-friendly.”

The garden borders Fairwater Primary School, and an education co-ordinator will soon be employed to work with teachers, pupils, and parents in the garden, thanks to a grant from Comic Relief.

The garden is recognised by the diocese as a flagship community project. Fr Sutton says: “The social interaction is as important as the gardening and landscaping.”


Duddingston Kirk, Edinburgh

THERE is an unused piece of land attached to the church that was once used as a place for the minister to tie his horse. It has been developed into a fertile area of community growing.

The church spent a Lenten season looking at biblical gardens for inspiration for the land, which is picturesquely located at the base of Arthur’s Seat and overlooking Duddingston Lock.

What they found was not a list of plants, “but that the gardens were very much about people”, the minister, the Revd Jim Jack, says. In response, they decided to use the four-acre plot to develop places of encounter: a place to mourn, a place to grow, a place to pray, a place to dance, a place of solitude, etc.

Volunteers remove weeds organically to get the field ready to plant, in the early days of developing the plot at Duddingston Kirk, Edinburgh

More than 100 individuals and 14 community groups come weekly to grow organic fruit, vegetables, and flowers. The groups included a University of the Third Age group; primary-school children; a project working with young people not in employment, education, or training (NEETS); and young adults with learning difficulties, who receive basic horticulture training with the aim that some will be able to gain employment. There are hives tended by a local bee-keeper, and plots for individuals to grow in the garden’s communal ethos.

“We’re trying to create a centre of excellence, showing people how to do this in their own gardens. Some people don’t have their own garden, so we provide that, but others do, so we can inspire them, and show them what to do here.”

The idea of having “green lungs” within urban areas “is also vital to who we are as human beings. Somehow, enjoying green spaces enables us to live better lives,” Mr Jack says.

But the five-year funding that employed their garden manager, Lizz Spence, comes to an end next year; so the garden’s future sustainability has become a significant issue. “The funding has been, not a headache, but it’s a constant thought, where we get funding from.”

Besides providing food for growers, surplus produce is given to the adjacent parish, Richmond Craigmillar Church, one of the poorest in the city, either to be sold to support the parish foodbank, or to supplement non-perishable foodbank items.

Mr Jack says that, through the garden, relationships have developed with people who would never have come to a Sunday service; and, because of that, opportunities have arisen to pray with them in times of need or struggle. “It’s a new expression, for me, of church, of what church is and can be, relating to people who are not church.”

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