Written by Richenda Wilson from Growing Communities, this blog is part of the Farming the Future series. Their project; an evaluation of the value created by Growing Communities across the triple bottom line, is a collaboration with the New Economics Foundation (NEF) and the Soil Association (SA).
We live in the shadow of a vast and entrenched industrial food system that’s all about the money, money, money. The quest to supply the cheapest food dominates everything.
But this system doesn’t consider the true costs of that food. It ignores the climate emergency; air and water pollution; excessive fertiliser, pesticide and antibiotic use; damage done by flying food across the world to satisfy the demand for “perpetual summer” on the supermarket shelves; shockingly poor wages, working conditions and insecurity for some farm workers; and an increasing health crisis as diabetes and obesity take hold. And it doesn’t consider the human benefits of agroecological growing, small-scale farming and short supply chains.
For 20 years, Growing Communities has set up alternative, fair, community-led routes to market for small-scale organic farmers. We’ve built up an organic veg scheme and farmers’ market in East London - growing sites, training programmes, a network of like-minded retailers, and a new wholesale operation.
We know our work has value. We know it generates crucial income for farmers as well as enriching people’s lives and caring for the planet in ways that conventional farming doesn’t. But we sometimes feel unable to talk about those benefits in a way that resonates with traditional economic models. If we can find a way to evaluate those social and environmental benefits in monetary terms, we can take our place at the top table and talk to policymakers in language they can more easily relate to.
Better all round
There are many positives of re-localised food systems in which engaged communities eat the food. Farmers are able to charge a fair price that covers the actual costs of growing food. They can grow produce that works best for them and their land. They sell directly to appreciative people who value the food and the time and effort it takes to grow it. They feel more connected, more satisfied and more secure.
For the people eating the food, there’s a similar sense of community, connection with the farmers and fellow customers. They’re likely to eat more fruit and veg, less meat and less highly processed food. They waste less food and feel healthier.
And the people working for GC and visiting the farms benefit too. Staff have local work and decent pay plus a shared vision and a sense of community and wellbeing. Visitors (including trainees, volunteers and schoolchildren) learn new skills, understand food better and are likely to healthier – mentally and physically.
Of course, there are huge environmental benefits too: less fuel-use in fertiliser manufacture; less transport (and no air freight) from farm to market to kitchen; less packaging. Plus cleaner waterways, healthier soil, higher animal welfare, more carbon sequestration and greater biodiversity.
So this collaboration set out to evaluate all that. To put a price on the economic, environmental and social aspects of GC’s work, so that we and our network of Better Food Traders are better able to articulate to consumers and policymakers the worth of what we do. GC brings the example to be analysed. NEF brings evaluation skills and an understanding of how and why change happens. The Soil Association knows all about the Public Goods that organic food brings and are experts in communication and advocacy. At the end of the project, the plan is to have a report and a valuation toolkit to share with our peers selling local food using a similar model to ours.
So, all was going well. Then Covid-19 struck. Suddenly everything was up in the air. All the partners had to shelve this project and face the immediate need to deal with the pandemic.
For GC, this meant revising, rethinking and rebuilding almost everything we do. We introduced new sick pay policy and hygiene procedures, identified all the critical tasks that couldn’t be completed at home and made sure they could continue, overhauled our packing, delivery and collection processes (we pack 4.5 tonnes of veg every week), redesigned our farmers’ market so it could stay open and keep farmers and customers safe, regretfully paused the volunteer and training programmes at our growing sites, and we drank a lot of coffee.
When we came up for air, we recognised that GC’s business model was proving robust in the face of the crisis. This is because our whole system, from field to fork, has been designed to support sustainable farmers to produce what they do best throughout the year while providing our customers with the best seasonal produce each week. Our local food system is driven by trust, responsiveness and flexibility to what farmers have in the fields – rather than by the aspiration to provide unlimited customer choice.
Other factors have helped us be resilient:
Members and customers live locally and mainly walk or cycle to our collection points and farmer’s market. They trust us and are happy to eat the seasonal produce we present them with, giving the ordering system the flexibility it needs.
Our farmers and suppliers are close too – not all geographically (we still import some produce) but the relationship we have with them is close. We’ve always paid them a fair price and paid them promptly. There is trust, understanding as well as physical proximity.
Most of our core farmers have invested in a largely local workforce who can still get to work and are committed to producing organic food.
While GC staff aren’t paid highly, we eat well and are purposeful in our work. We always knew we were keyworkers but have been fired up by the recognition. Most of us live locally and cycle or walk to work.
These aren’t coincidences. They’ve been built into the GC model from the start to help tackle the climate and nature emergency. And they’re working well for us now.
The Covid pandemic and the swift and global expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement have shown how fast things can change; how fast working processes can be picked apart and redesigned; how fast values systems can be questioned and found wanting. Then the essential work of rebuilding them can begin. And now, as all the talk is of Building Back Better, this project has more relevance and resonance than ever, so it’s with renewed enthusiasm that we’re rolling up our sleeves and getting back to it.
We’ve always known what we mean by a better food system. This project will give us the evidence and tools to prove – in a fiscal sense – just how much better it is.
Zosia of Growing Communities talks through what makes their Hackney Salad not only super delicious but very special.
Richenda Wilson is a marketing coordinator at East London food enterprise Growing Communities. She has worked at GC since 2008, initially as a delivery worker for the veg box scheme – driving a milk float decorated to look like a cow – and as a manager of GC’s weekly farmers’ market in Stoke Newington.
Her background is in journalism, with an interest in sustainable architecture and how space use and design can contribute to behaviour change.