Growing Communities (GC) began in 1996, with the aim of building a better, fairer food system that brings communities together, supports local, organic, small scale farmers with fair prices and looks after people, the soil and the planet. Twenty-one years later, almost 1000 households (2000 people) are on the veg scheme, while another 3000 people eat food from the market. Over 80% of members have changed their cooking and eating habits to eat more seasonal, local, fresh food since joining GC. They also employ 28 staff (13 full time equivalents), support 50 producers and have trained 42 people in food growing, preparation and selling, by using fresh, organic vegetables and fruit, supplied from GC’s own market garden in Dagenham and urban “patchwork farm” in Hackney, and a network of about twelve market gardens and field scale growers within 60 miles of London. The 2017 turnover for fruit and vegetables was £750,000, including produce bought in wholesale during the hungry gap. They have also trained and mentored nine other community groups around the UK – the “Better Food Traders” - to set up their own local veg schemes using the same integrated supply model. Specific elements of GC include:
Fruit and Veg Scheme – Weekly vegetable bags range from £7.50 for a small box (designed to feed one person) containing five varieties of regionally produced vegetables, to £16.50 for a large bag containing ten varieties of vegetable (to feed 4-5 people). Customers are told which farm their produce comes from. Fruit bags are also offered (£4.75-£8.75), which contain seasonal UK fruit, but may also contain imported organic fruit.
Farmers’ Market – A weekly Farmer’s Market in Stoke Newington is attended by 30 stallholders – both producers and processors - all of whom are organically/biodynamically certified. These include several fruit and vegetable producers, as well as meat, dairy, mushrooms, honey and processed goods such as a bakery and cheese-maker.
Urban market garden and Patchwork Farm – Dagenham Farm opened in 2012 on an ex-council nursery site, and now supplies about 5 tonnes of vegetables per year from 0.23 ha (0.6acres) of glasshouses, polytunnels and outside areas. The project was initially funded by the Local Food Fund, part of the Big Lottery, from March 2012 to March 2014, but the grower's salary is now fully financed through sales of produce. As well as supplying the Growing Communities Fruit and Veg Scheme, Dagenham Farm is home to “Grown in Dagenham”, a project to involve more local people in the life of the farm and help them develop new skills in growing, food preparation and selling. As well as Dagenham Farm, Growing Communities also operate a “Patchwork Farm” on nine market garden sites of up to 150 square metres, utilising underused spaces on estates, private gardens and church land across Hackney. These “micro-sites” give graduates from GC Urban Growing Training Scheme an opportunity to grow salad to sell to weekly veg box scheme and at other local outlets, thus increasing the amount of locally and sustainably grown food in Hackney and helping growers generate an income from food production.
Regional Suppliers – While urban market gardens and “micro-sites” are appropriate for growing high value salad leaves and other produce with a short-shelf life for which a high price can be obtained, bulkier field scale crops and fruit are supplied from a network of ten farms from Kent, Essex and Suffolk. These farms range from thirty-acre field scale vegetable producers to soft and top fruit growers on smaller acreages. Some veg scheme produce is also bought through local wholesalers – especially in April to June, when local veg is scarce. Overall 63% of the veg sold through the veg scheme comes direct from local farmers and 90% is grown in the UK.