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The Future of London’s Food System

Isabella Coin

Following the Just Space conference last week, our Consultancy and Research Assistant Isabella shares some thoughts on the future of community food growing in London.

On 4th February, the Just Space network organised a conference to launch their demands for a genuinely sustainable London. A highlight of the conference was The Future of London’s Food System panel, with representatives from Community Food Growers’ Network, Capital Growth,Stepney City Farm, OrganicLea and May Project Gardens. Here, the groups presented a draft proposal of a Community Vision for Food Growing and Production, in anticipation of the London mayoral elections in May 2016.

The panel set out to “harvest the lived experiences” of community food growers in London. Community food growing emerged as a point of intersection for struggles around affordable housing, the environment, poverty and health. As such, panelists highlighted its importance as a tool for positive social change. For example, May Project Gardens are using their food growing and artistic projects to empower women, young people and people of colour.

A particularly valuable connection was made between the struggle for affordable housing and the one to grow healthy, ecological, local food. Rather than presenting food growing and affordable housing as competing demands on land, the two were seen as complementary. As mentioned by one speaker, “community food growers need to be able to live in the communities they are serving!”

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If community food growing projects and enterprises are to thrive, sustainable food needs to operate on a level playing field

What challenges are food growers facing?

The positive impact of community food growing on health, wellbeing and the environment is undeniable. What’s more, according to Capital Growth’s Harvest-o-metre tool, in the 2014 growing season an estimated £1.4 millions worth of food was grown in London alone. So why are practitioners struggling to keep projects going? Despite the huge potential of community food growing, several factors are stunting its growth:

  • Access to land remains an issue. As panelists pointed out, the issue is not a lack of land, but gaining access to it. Though ‘meanwhile spaces’ are a good starting point, more long-term access is needed.
  • It’s hard to make a livelihood from community food growing. The full benefits of food growing are not accounted for, and the opportunities to make a living or develop a career in the sector are limited.
  • Funding is limited and not easily accessible to all.
  • There’s a lack of diversity in recruitment. Panelists mentioned community food growing remains unrepresentative of London’s diversity, although projects like Shake! are doing much to involve underrepresented demographics.

Yet it’s clear that these issues not only affect community food growing projects, but also land-based social enterprises more generally as we found in our recent policy report.

Emerging solutions

If community food growing projects and enterprises are to thrive, sustainable food needs to operate on a level playing field: policy changes could go a long way in beginning to create one. Some of the demands in the Community Food proposal were for:

  • Increased use of land for food growing in urban communities in both Inner and Outer London, with the integration of food growing space as a requirement in new housing developments
  • Boroughs to have a central role in fostering a new generation of London food producers, increasing training, employment and enterprise opportunities
  • Promote and subsidise the use of underused or vacant land for food growing and production
  • GLA and boroughs to purchase at least 15% of their total supply for foodstuffs from small-scale, non-chemical producers in or around London

Projects on the ground are already helping to create an enabling environment for community food growing enterprises. OrganicLea, for example, have started their FarmStart project to support budding food-growing enterprises in and around London.

The Community Food Growing & Food Production proposal within the Community Plan for London seems like a great starting point to help community food growing projects and enterprises flourish. In particular, it is set to be a useful tool to make grassroots voices be heard by policy-makers.

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