Something’s changed in the last couple of years. The world is in flux. The climate seems to be shifting. In England 2018 was the hottest summer on record to date. The political climate is changing. The old rules don’t seem to apply. In the UK, we sit in a context of austerity politics and the rise of the far right, alongside growing disparities between rich and poor. The cloud of Brexit looms over us like the London smog. The fact that a substantial amount of our agricultural policy originates from the EU, means that our impending withdrawal puts UK food and farming at a crossroads.
Business as usual continues us down one road – industrial agriculture in all it’s climate change making glory, supermarket dominance, labour issues across supply chains, huge health issues associated with increased consumption of processed food and sugars, huge divides across society in the quality of food we eat, and high levels of mental health problems for farmers and lots of farmers leaving the industry.
But there is an alternative road. A road that seeks to redress many of these problems, to make our food systems more resilient. That seeks to shorten supply chains, reconnect people to food as citizens rather than consumers, to pay people fairly, to reduce our impacts on the earth and to create the the sorts of community so many of us feel alienated from.
In the UK the movement for more localised community focused small-scale farming has grown hugely in the last 15 years. In London, where I’m based, the same thing has happened, with the number of community gardens, commercial growing sites, community led not-for-profit veg box schemes, and schools growing with students all going up in the last ten years. We’re blessed with a huge number of inspirational projects which make genuine change within the communities they operate in on a daily basis, through employing people, through connecting people to land, to community, and through simply eating food.
I’ve been lucky enough to be part of this (nebulous and unbounded) movement for much of the last ten years. A movement I find hugely inspiring and packed full of amazing beings. But as my growing career approached it’s existential adolescence, I (like many others) am reflecting on what we’re doing. I see so much potential in the work that we do, but I think it’s only with honest reflection that we can continue to push and challenge our projects, our movements and ourselves, and fundamentally make our projects stronger with a more just impact. As we observe the potential of stepping into gaps (or making gaps) created by Brexit, the reflection process seems particularly important. This is a question of our values, of how we want society to look.
Whilst it feels important to say that the following are all generalisations, broad brush strokes painting a picture of multiple overlapping movements which are inevitably made up of disparate people and projects, all making change in the world in hugely different ways, I know conversations are being had about a number of things. The people working on our projects and our movement leaders are still predominantly white and middle class. There are often disparities (in the race, class, physical abilities) of our paid staff vs. our unpaid volunteers. I suspect that the food we sell, which tends to be more expensive (for a whole host of reasons around how the food system externalises costs and is skewed towards larger intensive producers), is predominantly bought by people who can afford “a little more”. Mental health problems are generally seen as something we support in our ‘clients’ rather than attend to in each other. I don’t point these things out to say that we’re failing as a movement, as I think that is so far from the case. But we are not utopian islands in societies systems and structures (though we may try, it is hard to separate ourselves from these things) and I think we have far to go to keep pushing back.
For me, these observations and my own experiences (as a queer, gender non-conforming grower who sometimes suffers from depression), got me to thinking about these things in terms of resilience. Resilience for me is about the ability to bounce back from the adversity that’s thrown at us (funding changes, staff/volunteer changes or health problems, environmental changes and bad weather, organisational challenges, the political context, unforeseen infrastructure costs, loss of land). Here I like the expression of resilience from Threshold Globalworks as “The timely capacity of individuals and groups – family, community, country and enterprise-to be more generative during times of stability and to adapt, reorganise, and grow in response to disruption.” I think it gives us more agency to create structures which can grow through hardship.
My route into thinking about resilience was in thinking about personal resilience, but I have come to realise how inherently all the layers are interlinked. I strongly believe that if we want to see change in society we have to make change at each of these levels: personal, project, movement, community. To me this can only be done by building resilient systems (at each of these levels) which can adapt and thrive within the harsh reality of the context of the current times.
And so was the bare bones of my journey to autumn of 2018 (because journeys never really begin or end).
In 2018 I was awarded a travel grant by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to visit the U.S.A. (these grants support people to travel to collect inspiration to bring back to contribute to their field of work). I’d been aware of the richness of the small-scale community farming scene in the U.S.A. for some time. My perception is that it has a longer and more established history of these things than we do in the UK, and a longer history of interlinking this work with social justice work. And thus I was keen to jump into that knowledge and see what can be learnt.
I decided to spend time with (rural and urban) community food growing projects working for social change, to look at the ways that they are building resilience in their projects, communities, wider movements and personally for the people involved. Some of these projects were established and some were establishing and nearer to a process of thinking about how they make themselves and their communities more resilient.
In this journey and through this blog I hoped to share stories from these places, along with my learnings and reflections given my work in the UK. My hope was and is that these stories inspire and lead to reflection in the work we do. Here I must be open. It felt fragile to make a central place that holds my writing (much of what you are seeing is a process of reflection, inevitably messy) but, though I brought my lens to this, these are not my stories.
Go to the blog.