Growing Communities is a social enterprise that is changing the food system one carrot at a time: bringing control back to local communities and paying fair prices to support small, local sustainable farmers and food producers. They run a fruit and veg scheme across Hackney and the all-organic farmers’ market in Stoke Newington. They train new growers and  grow organic fruit and veg on their Hackney Patchwork Farm and Dagenham Farm.

How did the concept of Growing Communities come about?

Growing Communities was set up by a group of friends, including Julie Brown (now the director), over 20 years ago. Tired of simply talking about changing the world, they decided to do something practical to bring about real change.

It started life as a Community Supported Agriculture scheme, which linked just 30 families up with an organic farm in Buckinghamshire to get boxes of fresh veg every week. The members spent working weekends on the farm helping with the watercress harvest, planting leeks and picking caterpillars off Brussels sprouts.

The success of these trips helped inspire Julie to find sites in Hackney that could be transformed into flourishing organic vegetable plots with the aid of a grower and volunteers.

After a while it became clear that one farm would not be able to supply enough veg to fill the boxes all year round, especially during the UK “hungry gap”. This is when last year’s main-crop veg (potatoes, carrots and the like) have run out, but the new crop aren’t yet ready to be harvested. Unless you want to live off nothing but kale for those months, it makes sense to work with a wider selection of local farms and to buy some imported European produce via wholesalers. That’s what we did – and the Growing Communities veg scheme was born.

Since then, we have set up the all-organic farmers’ market in Stoke Newington, created two urban farms in London, and mentored other community groups around the UK to set up veg schemes using the GC model.

How do you pick your farmers, and how do you control their standards?

As an organisation we are guided by a set of principles and we also use these to help us make decisions about who to work with.

All the farms we work with – including our own in Hackney and Dagenham – are small-scale, based as close to London as possible and certified organic, which means they adhere to a strict set of standards laid down by the Soil Association. They don’t use artificial pesticides and fertilisers, which helps them to minimise their use of fossil fuels. We met many of our suppliers when we founded our farmers’ market in 2003. We keep our supply chains very short and transparent; we visit our farmers regularly to see how things are going and to discuss planting plans and ways we can support each other.

Why organic, and how does organic farming benefit farmers?

Organic farming is mainly about benefiting the environment – essential in the face of rampant climate change. It’s about working with the land, instead of against it, building soil fertility, maintaining biodiversity, employing much higher standards of animal welfare and working to be socially as well as environmentally sustainable. Of course, all this benefits farmers too.

What are the costs and other “side effects” of going organic?

The costs of not going organic are far greater.

The current food system – and the large-scale, monocultural, fossil-fuel-dependent farming methods it relies on – is incredibly damaging to planet health, soil health, individual health and our climate. The quest for ever-cheaper food pushes down the prices paid to farmers and drives them out of business at phenomenal rates. As milk prices have dropped, the UK has lost more than half its dairy farms over the past ten years, for example, and is likely to lose half the remaining ones in the next ten.

So, yes, organic food currently costs more for consumers to buy and for farmers to produce, but if we looked at the true cost of food, including environmental and social costs, organic food has to be the way forward.

How do sustainable and organic go hand in hand?

When we say sustainable we mean organic. Food and farming cannot be called organic unless they are certified by one of the accredited bodies – the most well-known of which in the UK is the Soil Association. But certification calls for a fair amount of money and time devoted to record keeping and reporting, so some people prefer to farm in ways that are “organic in all but name” – avoiding toxic pesticides and routine use of antibiotics but not going down the official certification route.

How strict are the controls on farmers, in order to be certified as organic? Could you provide us with one example?

Well, the Soil Association’s standards for farming and growing fill a 248-page document!

This includes the need to create wildlife corridors and instructions such as “trim your hedges in January and February, leaving some hedges untrimmed each year on a two or three year cycle” and, “Produce a farm waste management plan which details a full description of the manure storage and handling facilities and how you will manage manure and crop residues to: recycle nutrients, and minimise nutrient losses.”

You also have members of the general public who volunteer in your market gardens. How important is it for people to be educated on food growing?

The more people understand where their food comes from, the more likely they will be to make choices that are good for them and the planet – buying local, eating a mainly (or totally) plant-based diet, avoiding processed foods and learning how to cook food from scratch.

But more than that, growing and harvesting food is incredibly satisfying – and fresh organic food tastes amazing. Many of our volunteers say that working on our farms has been a tonic for their mental and physical health. Being outdoors, meeting new people, getting a bit of exercise and learning new skills – it’s all good.

How has the scene changed over the past 20 years, since you started?

As Amy, who runs the veg scheme, put it, food growing really is the new rock and roll. Young people who would once have thought forming a band was the coolest thing they could do, now want to get involved in community food projects. But the area we really focus on is how food is traded, not just how it’s produced. We are building new community-led ways of trading food that pay fair prices to farmers and that support the small-scale, local production that is essential to combat climate change and build resilience.

When we started out in the early 1990s, no one had heard of CSA schemes or box schemes, so we had to work hard to explain how they offer an easy and affordable way to access great local, seasonal food. It’s wonderful now to see so many people choosing to shop this way. There’s a much greater appreciation of the damage being done by conventional farming methods and the need for shorter, more transparent, more direct supply chains.

What is the ‘food zone’ and how does it affect the sustainability of British farming?

Growing Communities’ Food Zones is our vision of what a sustainable and resilient food system might look like. We explore how we can reduce the amount of energy, fuel and resources it takes to feed us, while creating jobs and community in urban and rural areas and producing delicious food that’s good for us and the planet. The Food Zones shows the amounts and types of food we could source from different areas (zones): it starts with the urban areas in which most of us live and moves outwards – raising what it is best to raise in each zone.

We measure our activities against the Food Zones targets every year, striving to source as locally as possible – but also allowing ourselves to include coffee, chocolate, spices and tropical fruit in our diet too!

The main zone we’d like to source more food from is the “peri-urban” region around the edge of cities. Centuries ago, much of our food would once have come from market gardens in this zone, but farms closed down under pressure from cheap imported food. We’d like to see the suburbs of cities full of thriving farms once again – we set up our Dagenham Farm in East London to show how it can be done, and there are many other great examples around London and other cities.

What are the biggest struggles for a farmer nowadays?

Where do you start? Small farmers are constantly battling against the profit-hungry food system and pressure from supermarkets to drive down prices and produce identikit crops.

We need a food system that respects people and the planet over yields and profits.

How can the general public be more educated about the vegetables they consume, and the food they eat?

Read Hungry City by Carolyn Steel

Follow Joanna Blythman – her piece on the avocado trade in Mexico was a real eye-opener

Join a local veg scheme or shop at your local farmers’ market so you can get to know the people who produce your food. They often have the best tips on how to cook it too.

Think about where your food comes from, who grew it, whether they were paid fairly for growing it and how far it has had to travel. Make sure your diet falls into step with the seasons (food will be fresher and taste gorgeous). Learn how to cook with more unusual ingredients – including the stalks of your cauliflower or the tops off your bunched carrots. There’s a great pesto recipe on our website!