Our second Chat of Season 4, Growing Places, set out to explore the potential for growing to play a role in local food production and in bringing people and communities together through collaborative local action. Our Chat brought together a diverse mix of participants from different parts of the UK, Spain and India, representing charities and social enterprises, students and researchers, designers and both activists and community organisers to enjoy this fascinating conversation about growing places.
As we began to talk about what had drawn each of us into this space, we very quickly began to see some key themes emerging. The first was the difference between growing alone, and with others, both in terms of the experience and the potential impact and outcomes. This led us quite naturally into how the different cultures we have around growing, eating and shopping could both influence and be influenced by growing. And finally, throughout the conversation there were interesting points made about power, and how the different types of power dynamics affect and influence growing, food production and food distribution.
Growing as an Individual or as a Community
It was soon clear that we each came to the conversation with very different levels of experience and confidence in growing, and that we looked at this activity through a wide spectrum of lenses. Some talked about the impact that growing had had on their health and well-being, others spoke of the delight of eating what they had grown, others talked about connecting with the different seasons and looking at nature through a new sense of wonder.
We also talked about the potential for growing to bring people together, to enjoy a sense of camaraderie and to tackle isolation, but also to work as a collective to produce food to feed their families and communities and indeed to sell to earn a living. In areas where families are struggling to make ends meet, and where a healthy diet is challenged by both people’s food budgets and eating habits, getting involved in growing can radically change their understanding of and access to nutritious food. Participants shared anecdotes of projects in the UK and in India where groups of people growing together had made a clear impact on the individuals and the groups involved, as well as their local communities. There were examples of mechanisms for people to share fruit from their trees and vegetables from allotment crops larger than they could use, as well as more structured collective spaces and action such as community orchards, small farming cooperatives and initiatives to support health and well-being through growing and community gardening.
However, we noted that growing as a collective is not without its challenges, be it to do with access to land to grow on, or having the right skills, experience or equipment to make a good go of it. Some people love the idea of growing, and growing with others, but struggle to find the time to take part, while others simply lack the confidence to get involved. We spoke of potentially conflicting approaches to growing, across generations and cultures, and how these might lead to tensions when trying to bring people together to collaborate and learn from each other.
Different Cultures around Eating, Growing and Shopping
We were fortunate to have participants who had lived, worked and researched in a range of contexts within the UK and abroad. This gave us the opportunity to compare notes on some of the clear cultural and socio-economic differences in how we eat, cook and shop and how this can influence our approach to growing and food production, and vice versa.
Where we source fresh produce, and how often we shop is clearly influenced by what is available to us locally in terms of markets, shops and supermarkets, but also by our working patterns. The much reduced presence of markets in the UK selling local produce at affordable prices means that we are more and more reliant on supermarkets. This combined with our limited time available to shop outside working hours means that we tend to do weekly shops, rather than shopping throughout the week, and that we tend to choose foods with a longer fridge or shelf life.
We noted that in the past, we tended to eat far more seasonally and asked whether it was right that we should expect every kind of fruit and vegetable to be available year round. We also spoke about the shopper expecting aesthetically pleasing products, and that the “wonky” fruit and vegetables often get overlooked or cast aside.
We wondered whether people growing their own food could help us shift to more environmentally and ethical approaches to food production, retail and consumption.
The Power Dynamics of Growing
There is also a clear question of power dynamics at play. At the very heart of this is land ownership, and how we prioritise and make space available to grow, at every scale and within the context of urban, suburban and rural settings. Participants spoke of the challenge both to join and protect allotments, but also highlighted the potential to activate underused spaces or indeed change the use of some spaces for the benefit of growing.
Others talked about the cooperative power of growing, and indeed its anarchic potential to challenge the status quo. What power might a movement of growing wield to challenge disparities in political and economic power, to address food poverty and food equity, as well as the huge disparities in health and wellbeing from one neighbourhood to the next?
We explored the power of those small collaborative growing initiatives to actually transform lives and livelihoods, but also the challenges of supporting and nurturing such groups, and in some places, simply getting people involved. Many still see growing as simply a hobby of the middle class, or as the remit of the militant eco champion. How much of that is influenced by the various power dynamics at play, and what do we need to do to shift both perceptions and opportunity for everyone to grow?
We left the conversation feeling that we had barely scratched the surface of this important and complex topic. However, we were also heartened by the fact that growing now appears to be a regular fixture in the national dialogue, in community initiatives and in education and research. We collectively knew of a plethora of interesting small initiatives happening within the UK and further afield and wondered whether we would benefit from some form of dedicated infrastructure that could help us share stories and learning, join up this conversation, and encourage and support both individual and collective growing.