The food system in most countries in the developing world is dominated by big supermarkets that buy produce from large farms, reliant on fertilisers and fossil fuels, often importing it over huge distances to reach their shelves.
For many, for example the Transition movement, this reliance of a finite resource this represents a fragile and unsustainable system, but finding an alternative is difficult for those who don’t know where to look.
Hackney based Growing Communities – a community growing and veg box scheme – aims to offer this alternative. The group packs more than 1,100 bags of fruit and vegetables every week for around 2,500 people in East London, supporting organic farmers from across Kent, Essex and East Anglia.
Similar groups are springing up across much of the developed world, inclduing schemes across Europe, Canada and the USA.
But Growing Communities haven’t stopped there. With 15 years of experience and their own box scheme thriving, they wanted to share the lessons they have learnt with others just starting out.
Following the success of five pilot schemes, launched last year under the Growing Communities Star-up project, the group are now set to pick six more groups from across the country to guide through the process.
“We started fifteen years ago and our aim was to essentially set up a community growing and veg box scheme here [in Hackney] to provide an alternative to our current damaging food system,” says Nicki East from Growing Communities. “Once we had an established model which we thought would work we decided to try and get other community groups to do it and that’s really the impetus behind the start up programme.”
For one of the pilot projects, Herne Hill’s Local Greens, based in South London, the experience and advice from Growing Communities has been invaluable to their business.
“Working with growing communities did several things for us,” explains Therese Stowell from Local Greens. “Really it took what was something we wanted to do at a future unspecified date and made us do it right then.”
“It is a daunting thing to start a business – particularly a business like this. Growing Communities gave us the framework, the courage and the support. They also gave us an interest free loan to buy our [electric] van which has been essential. We wouldn’t be here without them.”
Armed with finance, marketing and website design skills, Stowell said the Local Greens team were very lucky to have a wide skills base. Some of the most helpful advice from the Growing Communities project was about the simpler things.
“It was about not having to work out how many carrots to put in a bag, or what we would be charging for a bag. We could just take from their model,” she says.
The scheme offers new start-ups a wide range of tools, including a three-day face-to-face workshop, an online toolkit, an existing business model to work from and 18 months of mentoring prior to their launch and in the first year of trading.
At the Local Greens workshop, which they have been in for three weeks now, the business has already moved on a lot since its formation around two years ago.
I met the team as they were packing their weekly veg bags and was immediately set to work on the conveyor belt styled set-up. On broad-beans – positioned between the tomatoes and carrots to one side and garlic on the other – my task was to pack enough to fit the 43 standard sized bags which would be going out to the groups 11 pick up points later in the day.
With two paid members of staff and a whole host of volunteers the Local Greens team has bags of enthusiasm for their work – which they obviously enjoy whether it’s getting excited over the fresh garlic and new potatoes which came in this week or talking about the up coming Jubilee this weekend.
Prior to finding their own premises the teams had been working out of Sutton Community Farm, one of five farms around London they work closely with. This was another valuable partnership, as Stowell says finding affordable space in London was one of the major barriers to the scheme at the beginning.
Early and close projects with both Sutton Community Farm and Tablehurst Farm, based in Sussex, also helped the group to develop their own ideas of what to offer customers.
“We were able to draw up a very detailed planting plan with them,” says Stowell. “With both Tablehurst and Sutton Community Farm we said what we wanted them to grow and then the two farms would pick what of that they wanted to grow.”
Two years on and what started as a 30 bags trial over last summer has turned into a 120 plus bag operation. Now based in Herne Hill the team works hard at the beginning of the week, finding out what each of their farmers has to offer, and how they could fit with the four box sizes they offer.
As the veg comes in on the Tuesday and the Wednesday, the veg is divided up and bagged on the Thursday morning, with the added addition of salad and vegetables from local allotments and growing plot across Lewisham and Clapham Common – you can not get much more local.
Then they head out in the electric van to their collection points across the South, having recently expanding outside of Herne Hill and Dulwich to also cover Brixton.
The success seen with the Local Green has been mirrored across the other pilot start-ups across Margate, Burnley, Manchester and Scotland.
“The five projects were all really different,” says East. “It is a bit nerve racking because you think ‘can this model which worked in Hackney work in such different circumstances. I think generally on the overall answer is it can. So that is really encouraging.
“And of course each group is very different and has different people working within it. And some of them are growing at different rates according to the circumstances they are in. But they are all still growing and they are all still here which I think is really encouraging.”
Key to success
For those who are just starting out on their project, Stowell says getting the right team in place will be a huge help. She admits the Local Greens, with her and her “partners in crime’s” key skills, have been very lucky and that having the right people could save some of the financial burdens.
She also says it is vital to create good working relationships with your farmers – and warns that finding farms can be one of the toughest tasks. Her advice for groups is to be very clear with farmers about what you want from them for the project.
But the most important piece of advice she has for those just beginning on their journey is not to loose site to why they are doing it.
“All the farms we work closely with have had to increase their production this year because of us – which is exactly what the aim was for the project,” says Stowell.
“We decided very early on that we would only sources veg from the UK. We had a very clear mission which was to increase the local production of vegetables. All the decisions we make point back to that.
“And yes we had had the hungry gap [the traditional period in the UK when the winter vegetables season is over and the early summer season has not quite begun and choice is limited] which is really really hard work but we came through it and we didn’t lose too many customers and stayed true to our propose.”
As the first round of groups continue to grow and expand, Growing Communities will be holding a open introductory workshop next month, aimed at recruiting six more groups from across the country to following in their footsteps.
For more information of the scheme visit the Growing Communities dedicated website.