IMPACT JOURNALISM DAY 2015: FOOD SUSTAINABILITY

Growing public food movement bears fruit

Chives outside Todmorden’s community college, one of the city's public growing spots that began with a kerb here and a corner there.
Chives outside Todmorden’s community college, one of the city's public growing spots that began with a kerb here and a corner there. PHOTO: ANNA POLONYI
Ms Harriet Nakabaale’s “sack farm” in her small compound provides both food for her family and income from seedling sales.
Ms Harriet Nakabaale’s “sack farm” in her small compound provides both food for her family and income from seedling sales. PHOTO: THE MONITOR
Mr Liao Rong-ji owns a hawker stall that sells traditional Taiwanese steamed buns.
Mr Liao Rong-ji owns a hawker stall that sells traditional Taiwanese steamed buns. PHOTO: KATHERINE WEI/CHINA PRESS
Mr Alexandros Theodoridis, a founder of Boroume, which helps distribute surplus food to Greek charities.
Mr Alexandros Theodoridis, a founder of Boroume, which helps distribute surplus food to Greek charities. PHOTO: GIORGOS OIKONOMOPOULOS/TA NEA

Urban gardening revolution spreads quietly in city, then around the world

IF YOU take the local train north of Manchester, you'll see a Hollywood­style sign on a hill that reads "KINDNESS" in large, white letters.

It overlooks Todmorden, an old cotton mill town that is unlike any other in West Yorkshire.

It is the birthplace of an urban gardening revolution that is quietly growing worldwide, much like the herbs and vegetables planted everywhere in the town.

"I still get a thrill when I pick an artichoke here," said Ms Estelle Brown in front of the local police station.

Ms Brown is one of the 30 or so core volunteers who make up Incredible Edible Todmorden, the gardening group that has made their small town famous around the world by claiming public land and growing food for everyone.

It started with part of a kerb here, a corner there. Seven years on and 400 volunteers later, it adds up to about 1,000 fruit trees and two dozen raised beds around town: cherries and pears by the health centre, rhubarb and broccoli in front of the community college, potatoes and kale in the train station carpark.

Anyone can pick what they want: Herbs year­round, and for the rest, volunteers stick a "pick me" sign into the ground when it's ready.

"We don't like to call it guerilla gardening, because that reminds us of macho warfare. We'd rather call it naughty but nice," said chairman Mary Clear, whose kitchen doubles as the group's main headquarters. Her motto: "Sometimes it's better to ask for forgiveness later than to ask for permission."

This applies to much of the movement, which appropriated public land, root by root, until the local council finally created an "incredible" licence, allowing residents to grow food on patches of unused public property for up to three years.

Over the past decade, interest in urban gardening has grown. While consumers wish to reduce the distance their food travels, city officials worry about food sourcing.

"The volcano eruption in Iceland in 2010 was a wake­up call for many. Transport was disrupted and the grocery shops were empty within a matter of hours," said Ms Catherine Simon, who advises foreign groups on how to start their own initiative.

If cut off from the rest of the world, most major European cities would be able to feed their inhabitants for no more than four days, she said.

Incredible Edible Todmorden never set out to make the town self­sustainable; the produce, all organic, meets less than 5 per cent of the population's food needs.

Incredible Edible takes the idea of traditional community gardens a step further by being open­source: growing public food on public property. And supporting local food and businesses is at the heart of its mission.

What began as an idea has now grown into a global movement. Similar initiatives in more than 20 countries from Australia to Senegal, Cuba and Japan are using the Incredible Edible name.

Todmorden Mayor Michael Gill said: "It took off more than anyone could have expected, and people now come from all around the world to see for themselves."

ANNA POLONYI/SPARKNEWS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'Growing public food movement bears fruit'. Print Edition | Subscribe