The organic vegetable boxes feeding London in a time of crisis

Volunteers pack the vegetable boxes for collection.

The organic vegetable boxes feeding London in a time of crisis

The last month has been overwhelming for the team at Growing Communities, a grassroots non-profit organisation based in Hackney, north-east London. 

Through their organic vegetable delivery scheme, city farms, and a weekly farmer’s market, the organisation has been trying to give Londoners better access to food for over two decades. As the capital went under lockdown in March, hundreds of people signed up to get a weekly box of locally grown, organic and seasonal fruit and vegetables. 

“It’s really important because it really helps people get in touch with food and where it comes from,” says Richenda Wilson, marketing manager at Growing Communities. 

“There’s been a massive massive increase in the demand from farm shops and box schemes,” says Tom Andrews, director of Sustainable Food Cities at the Soil Association, who suggests people are “being affected by how clearly vulnerable we are as a civilisation and maybe we need to act in a different way”. 

Grassroots schemes like Growing Communities encourage people to act differently by trying to change the food system. Organic food means it’s fully traceable from farm to plate, so you know what you’re eating. Farmers have to adhere to strict rules regarding pesticides, so they use natural fertilisers, and the whole process uses less energy than industrialised farming. 

It all started when founder Julie Brown wanted to find a way to give people access to organic food and support local farmers who grow food sustainably. 

Back in 1996, the organisation began by partnering with a local farm north of London to provide a vegetable bag to Hackney residents each week. Gradually, they connected with other farms so they could have year-round, locally grown produce. 

With space being a huge issue for organic farming in cities, Growing Communities set up “patchwork” farms – small growing spaces across the capital to work as demonstration sites encouraging local people to grow edibles, whether that’s on windowsills or in gardens. A larger site was built in Dagenham to give residents of one of London’s poorest boroughs new food and growing skills. 

Growing Communities now feeds about 6,000 people in east London every week, including those signed up to the scheme, and people who shop at the organic farmer’s market. 

Volunteers pack the vegetable boxes for collection.

Growing Communities 

Similar vegetable box initiatives have spread across the country in recent years. Last year sales of organic food and drink in the UK rose by 4.5% to £2.45bn.

Larger nationwide organisations, like Abel & Cole, supply around 55,000 food boxes a week to households across the country. But with an emphasis on supplying food to the community, many of these initiatives are local and grassroots. 

Chris Henry is a director of Lee Greens, a community scheme providing vegetable boxes to south-east London. Their products come from organic farms in the south of England, and prices range from £8.90 to £17, depending on size and contents. “It’s about the community and supporting the local farmers, and in turn those farmers are supporting the environment through organic farming methods,” Henry says.

Though the prices might seem higher compared to what you find in the supermarkets, Andrews says environmental costs can be much greater. “Producing something with loads of pesticides, having soil erosion, washing nitrates out of drinking waters, or the effect on public health, those are the costs of the conventional food system.”

The agricultural industry is responsible for around a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, which drives global climate change. Many believe reducing the food and farming industry’s carbon footprint is essential to protecting the climate. 

If all food production in England and Wales switched to organic, there would be a 20% drop in emissions from crop production and around 4% for livestock, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications last year. In the UK, agriculture is estimated to be responsible for around 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, due to the use of artificial fertilizers, emissions of methane from changes in soil conditions and animals.

Although organic is often hailed as a way to protect the planet, in the same study, researchers from Cranfield University predicted 100% organic farming would see up to 40% drop in food production compared to conventional farming. This would mean more imports, potentially needing up to five times more land overseas to meet the demand for food, as researchers assume some of these imports would need to come from changing land use in other countries.

But Wilson believes sourcing organic food if and when you can, is essential for the future of the planet, and a positive way to mitigate the impacts of climate change on a local level. 

For Tom Andrews, organic food represents the “ideals about fairness, working in harmony with nature, working in support of health, and people’s right to food”.

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