In the outer London Borough of Redbridge lives a person who has made it her mission to administer a life-enhancing injection of sustainable living to this complex social chequerboard of a borough, deeply divided by class, creed and ethnic origins.
That person is 32-year-old omnivore, locavore and farming visionary Toni Dipple.
Ilford-born and Redbridge-bred in a succession of council houses and flats, she has the advantages of a razor-sharp intellect, a clear and fearless strategic vision, an intimate knowledge of local geography and, through her own particular family circumstances, a very personal overview of rapid historical change – especially as regards our food system.
Toni Dipple of Organic Ilford
Toni is a thinker. Toni is a dreamer. Toni is a realistic optimist:
“One of the problems that I’ve noticed with environmental groups I’ve been involved with in the past, is that they want everyone to get involved, they want to try to change the world overnight, and they want to target everyone immediately…and get so cross when they can’t”.
Toni is a doer. And Toni is not alone.
She came into my life in April this year, via an enthusiastic introduction by Transition Leytonstone co-founder Ros Bedlow. Short in stature, and with close-cropped hair, her countenance is alert, open, expressive, with a sharp and inquisitive nose, humorous, slightly exophthalmic eyes, and a ready yet controlled smile.
A warm, musical voice, simultaneously soft and incisive, manages, without hectoring or forcing, to make an ally of everyone she chances to meet. In speech, her small neat hands, practical and wise, skilfully shape and mould ideas with the relentless determination of a potter (which is just as well, because Toni has two rather grand designs on the agenda). One is the formation of Transition Redbridge. The other is the creation of OI! (Organic Ilford)
I ask Toni – why Transition Redbridge? The area is very large, socially diverse, potentially an unmanageable entity in which to launch a single overarching initiative. Why not select your own immediate neighbourhood – Ilford?
She explains that Ilford itself is divided into Ilford North “much more affluent, very white, quite Jewish”, and Ilford South with a very large Muslim population, and substantial numbers of Sikhs and Hindhus. More recently, there has been an influx of Eastern Europeans. These communities don’t talk to each other.
“You’ll find whole streets that are now extremely wealthy, whereas traditionally they weren’t…but then you’ll find the next street is extremely poor people – even down my road!
Although I was born and brought up in Ilford, I feel myself to be part of the larger borough entity”. The feeling is shared by the other core group members of this very recently formed muller initiative (September 2013), all hailing from geographically far-flung parts of the borough: Wanstead, Woodford, Ilford, Gants Hill.
The purpose of Transition Redbridge is to discover what’s already out there out there and to support and facilitate conversations and practical connections between existing green groups and individuals. Right now, with the recent demise of the council-led Sustainability Forum, there is an urgent need for a single supporting umbrella – smaller, more localised Transition initiatives will gradually develop out of this. “How do we frame the need for Transition to people?
A lot of people don’t know what ‘resilient’ means because they don’t see there’s a problem. You don’t want to think of Peak Water, Peak Oil, Peak Soil. People don’t want to be told that everything they’ve ever done in their life is wrong. We like stories, we like celebration, so let’s use those things. Also, you always find that in human nature you find people running towards a terrible situation…to help…rather than running away. And that’s what we want to tap into. Things are really damaged, but we can still repair the situation to some degree. It’s about painting a picture where everybody can get involved.”
And now, what about OI!?
Let’s allow the lady to speak for herself.
“When I was on a walk (across Wanstead Park) on 27th January, I was really depressed. What was I going to do with my life? I really didn’t know. I had taken a different route and seen a patch covered in brambles. I saw it and had the feeling ‘I could turn this into a farm’ – I imagined it was owned by the Corporation of the City of London. I thought – could I do this myself, without telling anyone? (laughs) I’m very attached to symbols of hawks and birds of prey – and out of nowhere, one appeared – and landed on one of the pylons. I thought – OK, this will work. And I had this absolute sense of ‘things are going to change now, and I’ve got to start’.”
July 10, 2013: OI! has been a one-woman company for the last two months but help has arrived!
Organic Ilford is in its start-up phase. We’re setting up a local and seasonal food box scheme, sourcing proper, chemical-free food from local farmers and producers and paying them a fair wage to keep them in business.
This is very much a community-led social enterprise, so whereas most companies don’t announce themselves until they’re set-up, we want to collaborate with you to shape a company that works for residents and workers of Redbridge.
As we won’t have a shop and will order according to how much food we actually need for the boxes each week, our costs will be kept low & we can pass those savings on to you, so the food is affordable.
We’re going to be a Community Interest Company which means that the profits we make get put back into the company and not siphoned off by directors, so we can invest more in our people, paying them a living wage. CICs are social enterprises and are designed to use business to create a real, positive impact on the local community, environment and economy.
We’re in talks with the Council to lease a field which we’ll turn into an organic farm, working with nature instead of abusing it.
At one time the Redbridge area had been a breadbasket for the metropolis. Despite the continual encroachment of unsightly urban sprawl in the shape of roadbuilding, its agricultural past continues to extend green tentacles into the 21st century (24 active allotment sites, with the potential for 5 more). “Reshaping the food story is necessary. We don’t know the meaning of scarcity”.
I express curiosity as to the early crucible in which this mission took shape.
“I’ve always been extremely bossy and had a vivid imagination. Whenever we were playing in the school playground, I would be the one who came up with the story we would all go along with.”
So, no changes there! Toni’s 1980s experience of primary school also benefited curiously from the IRA London terror campaign.
“In a way I’m very thankful to the IRA. Because of them, we never went on school trips into Central London, instead we nearly always visited Hobbs Cross Farm (now sadly a golf centre) in Essex.”
The children also learned about CFCs and rainforest destruction, to the point where Toni went into MacDonalds at the age of 8 and told everyone off for eating there because they were cutting down the rainforests.
“My Dad hated MacDonalds. He said it was filth and poison”.
Her father, a capable builder of many practical talents, abhorred any form of waste and loved farming. He used to say: “If you’re going to kill an animal you must use every single part”. It’s probable that he had a role in igniting Toni’s lifelong passion. But farming is not a life for the impecunious. As an adult, the usual advice to her was to work in the City, earn lots of money, retire and farm. “I’d have to totally retrain; I’d have to work in an industry which I fundamentally disagree with. I’d have to work in companies that actively destroy the environment so that I can go and heal it! Besides which when I’m 60 or 70 I wouldn’t have the physical energy. At 32, I can create an ecosystem that feeds people.”
Having seen this human dynamo in action, I know that she will.
- All photographs copyright Chris Dipple.