How it all started

Recently I was talking to someone about the various projects I’ve been involved in over the last decade and when describing my first project, Food Up Front, I realised that, although I mention this project on my website, there isn’t a proper description of what this project was.

This blog article is my attempt to explain more.

 The first weekend of the permaculture design course. No idea what I was doing!

The first weekend of the permaculture design course. No idea what I was doing!

In late 2006 I attended a permaculture design course  held over a number of weekends in north London by Naturewise.

On the final weekend we had to present a design using the permaculture principles and ethics. I had come up with a design for supporting people to grow food in their unused outdoor space. 

Inspired by the permaculture course, I designed some leaflets and recruited a few friends to hand out some leaflets where I lived in South-West London.

 Receiving advice on Food Up Front leaflet design.

Receiving advice on Food Up Front leaflet design.

The name of the enterprise was Food Up Front and very simply the idea was that we would support people to grow some food in containers. I had wanted to start container growing on my balcony but with little knowledge was scared of getting started (I hadn't grown anything before). I figured that other people would be in the same situation (a little like a personal trainer for people who want to start exercising).

Our target was to sign up 10 local households in the area and work with them throughout the 2007 growing season. We recruited 10 on the first day of handing out leaflets.

I put an ad out on Freecycle for equipment and cycled around south London filling pannier bags and plastic bags  with unwanted garden pots and riding them precariously back home.

 Sowing seeds with one of the first members.

Sowing seeds with one of the first members.

We started visiting the households once a week, helping them to plant seeds and generally encouraging them to give it a go.

I managed to secure some funding from UnLtd and by September 50 households were signed up (tip - learn how to say no otherwise it’s easy to end up taking too much on!). We obviously couldn’t support each household individually like we did with 10 members so we developed starter kits.

The starter kits consisted of the plastic council recycling boxes (the local authority had changed to bags so had a lot of boxes sitting unused in a warehouse), compost donated by the local authority that was made from household green waste, a choice of two varieties of simple salad/herb seeds and a very simple ‘how to’ guide.

 Pulling a demo Food Up Front starter kit.

Pulling a demo Food Up Front starter kit.

We used some funding to buy a bike trailer and I cycled around south London delivering starter kits to each new member, giving them a short tutorial at the same time.

Starter kits helped but it was equally unsustainable for me to be cycling around delivering starter kits to everyone (the trailer took no more than two starter kits at once). So in the second year we started to recruit street reps.

Street reps were local people who we recruited to act as the local point of support for members in their vicinity.

We held recruitment events in the spring of 2008 and ended up with 65 street reps supporting nearly 400 households in Wandsworth and Lambeth in South London.

To facilitate face-to-face communication between street reps and members and make our life easier we arranged to deliver the required number of starter kits to each street rep and asked new members to collect a starter kit from their assigned street rep. This meant we could deliver to far fewer locations but still support lots of members.

Very soon we saw hubs grow around each street rep, many of whom organised meet ups for their assigned members, including planting sessions or just a chat over a drink. We also organised various workshops for our members on a range of relevant topics throughout the year.

Lots of great things happened as a result of Food Up Front. People started using their previously dead outdoor spaces in a productive way.

One member worked in the city and explained that he would never have dreamed of growing anything for himself as he thought he didn’t have the time. Now he was growing salad in a box on his front doorstep and was able to pick a few leaves for his lunchtime sandwich or evening salad.

Another member went a lot further and ended up filling her front garden with green recycling boxes, realising that her front garden suited food growing a lot better than her back garden. She ended up installing compost bins and water butts as well.

As successful as Food Up Front was at motivating people to get together and grow food, it relied heavily on me and my colleague Kate. We were getting burnt out and although we managed to secure some funding to pay ourselves a part-time wage for a few months, most of the time we had to rely on other work to generate an income. We charged a nominal amount to new members which covered the costs of setting them up with their starter kits, but we were reluctant to charge more as we didn’t want to price anyone out.

Despite a number of attempts to work out how to make the project more financially sustainable we couldn’t see past needing to rely on external funding.

Food Up Front ran for a third and final year in 2009. I'll always have a slight regret that we didn't take the enterprise further.

However, apart from being replicated by groups elsewhere and spreading the word about the values of growing food (like in these articles in Time Out  and The Independent), two more positive things came out of the project. 

Firstly, I was asked by Sustain to coordinate the launch of Capital Growth in 2008, as a result of my work in developing Food Up Front. This was a role I continued until 2013 and to have the opportunity to help build one of the largest urban food networks in the world was an opportunity not to be missed. 

 Turning used coffee cups into edible plant pots.

Turning used coffee cups into edible plant pots.

Secondly, I devised One Pot Pledge, as an extension of Food Up Front and a way of inspiring more people to give food growing a go without the need for the people power that Food Up Front required.

Very simply, the idea was to get people to pledge to grow a pot of something edible and in doing so, receive some support and encouragement.

Kate and I presented the idea to our friends at Garden Organic and they managed to find funding to run it as as a national campaign with Kate and I involved on a consultancy basis.

For our part in the campaign we linked up with Pret a Manger and set up at the entrance to a number of outlets in central London to help people plant seeds in their used disposable coffee cups. Here's a short video of our time at the London Bridge outlet.

So Food Up Front was great while it lasted, albeit that it took up all our energy in the process. 

I learnt a lot about the importance of resilience in leading a community enterprise (see my interview with Ian Solomon-Kawall where we touch more on resilience) and why it's important to keep the passion and enthusiasm under control in order to keep things sustainable.

Mostly though, I saw for the first time how powerful food can be at bringing people together; something that has stuck with me ever since and has been the reason why I'm still involved in building good food communities 10 years on.

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There is lots of support to grow your own food in small spaces these days. Companies that offer starter kits through the post include Seed Pantry and Allotinabox. You can also get great advice from Vertical Veg.

Want to start your own community food growing enterprise or get involved in one? Capital Growth is a great place to start. Also check out the Federation of City Farms & Community GardensSustainable Food Cities network and CSA network for opportunities in your area.