Last month it was reported in the press that average consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables had fallen in the UK by 30% since the recession, to only around half the amount needed to make up out 5-a-day recommended by the government. Growing our own food locally is a way to fill this gap; along with many other Transition practices, it is a way to save money and ensure we have what we need when times are hard, one of the ways we can make our communities more resilient.
But fresh, particularly organic food, is often regarded as a middle class luxury, and as more expensive than two-for-the-price-of-one battery chicken supermarket deals. And when food growing is sometimes seen as a hobby and something for better times, how do we re-frame this and other Transition practices as as useful in tough times? How do we communicate Transition as a response to the politics of austerity, a way of bringing our communities together when they are being ripped apart by service and benefit cuts, and provide for ourselves where the market is failing to?
This week the Social Reporters are writing our ‘recipes for austerity’ – a how to guide to low carbon living in financially reduced times, plus a delicious, fresh, and cheap recipe every day. Dartmouth Park, in North London is a socially and economically mixed area where tree lined streets with large houses neighbour council estates. Recently, food poverty has led to our local community centre setting up a food bank which dispenses tins to those referred by social services, and they have also begun to offer a 50p meal on the lunch menu.
Transition Dartmouth Park has begun to discuss how to frame our projects as relevant to those affected by the cuts. We have advertised our new Home Energy Metering Project as a way to cut bills and fuel poverty and later this month we’re holdIng a food themed film night where we’ll discuss food poverty and how our growing projects can help fill the gaps and hopefully even contribute to the community centre’s initiative. And while what we can grow in the middle of London may seem like a drop in the ocean, there is evidence that home growing is beginning to play a greater part in meeting our food needs. An article in FCRN last month highlighted that 3-4% of the UK’s fruit and vegetable intake now comes from gardens and allotments.
At a time of year when pressure is on to spend money we don’t always have, on things we often don’t need, and particularly for parents to buy expensive plastic toys, imported from China, the event was a joyful celebration of giving and receiving, but without the money. I gave away toys, books, a jumper and a DVD, and with the dried beans we used for currency I ‘bought’ some dried lavender, wonderful bottled strawberries, grown and preserved by Phil who lives on an estate whose residents we’ll be growing food with this year, and my son chose two toys. So here is my ‘recipe’ for how to hold your own ‘give & take’, and replace consumerism with a community act of coming together and sharing what you already have.
1 hall or large room (in a community centre, school, library or pub), dried beans to use as currency, clothes rail, tables, tea, an urn or kettle (and someone to make it).
1. Decide on a date and book your venue. We have found Saturday afternoons are when most people are free.
2. Find someone who can do a kids craft activity to make the event attractive to families with young children. We made nature collages and Christmas decorations, but at other times of year we’ve made seed bombs, clay pots, planted beans in self made newspaper and loo roll pots, or borrowed a juicer to make fresh apple juice.
3. Cake. Cakes are essential to pretty much any event or activity, so we asked people to bring along a cake for our cake stall to split up the work, and sold slices so we could fundraise too. As well as putting a call out for cakes on the leaflets, I also personally emailed anyone who I thought might bake something, to make sure!
4. Publicise. In my experience you can never do too much publicity. Posters and leaflets can help to reinforce emails, and also attract people who are not already on your mailing list. We usually also try to get something in the school newsletter, a local blog, on Facebook, Twitter and also send events to the local papers.
5. On the day, decide whether you’re going to allow people to take as soon as they give. We decided not to do this, partly because we were worried about having enough stuff (we had loads!) but also because we wanted to keep people in the room long enough for our presentation of the projects we had done in 2012. So people came, they gave, they were issued with a dried bean for each item, to use as currency later. Then we made them wait (!) have a cup of tea and some cake, and watch our presentation. At the end of the presentation, it was taking time, and everyone could exchange their beans for things they wanted.
6. Use the event to let people know what else your Transition Initiative is doing. Give & Takes, like film nights and talks, are a great opportunity to get people along to a Transition event for the first time, so definitely let them know about projects and other activities they can get involved in.
7. Eat the rest of the cakes, have another cuppa and clear up.
A couple of food recipes now: nettle gnocchi which is delicious, easy to make and super cheap, and ‘give & take lavender’ syrup.
Nettles are amazing, they grow everywhere, most people know what they look like, nobody minds you taking them, and they contain seven times more iron than spinach! Nettles used to be a staple part of our diets, we also used them as twine, and they were made into sheets, tablecloths and clothing. But they fell out of fashion when cotton began to be imported from colonies, and sadly they are now mostly known for stinging. Pick young nettles in spring and early autumn, but they are no good once they begin to flower. As well as gnocchi they are great made into soups and pesto.
8 ounces young nettles, rinsed, trimmed and blanched for 3-4 minutes. 5 medium floury potatoes (e.g. King Edwards) boiled in their skins until tender, then peeled about 2 cups of plain flour (or white spelt) pinch of salt.
After squeezing all the water out of the cooked nettle, chop the nettles finely or use a food processor for a while.
In a large bowl, mash the cooked potatoes and stir in the chopped nettle.
Turn the potato mixture out onto a floured surface, and make a well in the center. Begin to add the flour (you may need more or less than this recipe), and working from the center out, gather all the potato and the flour until a soft ball forms.
Form the dough into a large log (covering with flour if necessary), cut medium sized pieces from this log and form them into smaller, skinnier logs.
Cut inch-long pieces from these skinny logs, and roll in flour. Flour the back of a fork, and with your thumb, roll the individual gnocchi off the back of the fork, creating ridges on one side, and a concave area on the backside.
Bring a pot of water to the boil and add the gnocchi in batches. They only take a few minutes and are done as soon as they float to the top.
Remove with a slotted spoon. Serve with either a simple tomato sauce, or some sage gently sauteed in olive oil.
This is delicious over ice cream, on strawberries, or (and this isn’t very austere but lots of fun), use to make cocktails. It’s great with cold vodka and fresh lemon juice.
1 cup water 3 Tbsp fresh or dried lavender flowers 2 cups sugar
Bring water and lavender to a boil. Stir in sugar until fully dissolved. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool, strain out the lavender. Pour into bottle and keep in the refrigerator. It will store well for a few weeks.
Images: 1. Food harvested from Sara’s garden; 2. Transition Dartmouth Park Give & Take; 3. Food stall at Transition Dartmouth Park Give & Take; 4. Nettle gnocchi. (all photos by Sara except 3. by Ruth Corney).