This blog is written by Dr Les Levidow, a Senior Research Fellow at The Open University. His research on agri-food issues has included public controversies over GM crops, as well as agroecological alternatives linked with short food-supply chains bringing producers closer to consumers.
Over the past decade or more, community food growing has become more popular and widely known for many social benefits. Participants have enhanced their own emotional well-being, self-confidence, cooperative relationships and mutual learning. They have gained skills for food-growing and spread these skills more widely.
In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted those community initiatives, while also revealing and intensifying the stark social inequalities in our society, especially food poverty. People’s social isolation prompted greater interest to continue or join community food growing initiatives. They overcame difficult challenges, reached many more people and so extended the earlier social benefits.
To extend the benefits, it is worth exploring these questions: How does community food growing create socially inclusive, welcoming environments? How do participants make new bonds with each other across various social divides? How do they strengthen social resilience? Rather than bounce back to a previous ‘normal’, how can these capacities help build the future differently?
Special insights come from participants in a course, ‘Grassroots Visual Storytelling about Community Food-Growing’, drawn from initiatives in London and Reading. Together their short films describe efforts to overcome social isolation by sustaining or expanding food initiatives.
Storytelling has played important roles. For example, ‘During the pandemic, I told a story about a derelict former allotment and so attracted people to clear the space to create a new garden.’ As another participant said about cooperation, ‘We are powerful, but only if we can tell the stories of our power.’ Another felt that standard horticultural training takes out the fun, ‘so I want to tell a story that makes food-growing more accessible to people.’
As shown in the films, participants got to know each other better, often through their children, and extended friendship networks. For example:
Cultivation activities bridged social differences of ethnicity and national origin. For example:
Cultivation skills were extended to homes, schools and other food growing spaces. Participants gained a sense of collective agency serving the greater good and the opportunity to 'make a difference'. For example:
As food-growing became more popular in spring 2020, there was a shortage of vegetable seeds, so community gardens began to fill the gap and spread the skills. A staff member told this story:
Other participants said:
Those multiple benefits depend on staff skills, often called ‘people skills’. These facilitate cooperative, creative relationships among volunteers. As some of them said:
As one coordinator said: ‘My aim is to develop group capacity so that they acquire the skills to teach gardening skills and embed the values amongst the wider community.’
Those processes and benefits are depicted in several films by course participants. As they show, these group activities strengthen people’s enthusiasm, social bonds, cooperative relationships and cultivation skills for localizing food production. The project also has a podcast featuring multiple experiences and voices; see episode 8 in the series, The Pandemic and Beyond.
Through such stories, community food initiatives can identify exemplary practices, build on their strengths, spread societal benefits and attract greater commitments. Likewise, they can better advocate support measures that strengthen staff skills, replicate them more widely and gain long-term security for food-growing spaces. All this provides a basis for a different agri-food future, rather than a return to the dominant agri-food system.
The storytelling course is part of a research project ‘Local food-growing initiatives respond to the Covid-19 crisis: enhancing well-being, building community for better futures’, funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), The Open University grant ref: AH/V015109/1.