Pam Warhurst is a community leader, activist and environment worker who is one of the founders of Incredible Edible Todmorden, West Yorkshire. In the 2005 New Year Honours she became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), for services to the environment. She is a passionate advocate for the potential of urban agriculture, and once gave a great TED talk about her work. I spoke to her by Skype about her thoughts on urban food production, austerity and food banks. You can either listen to/download this podcast or read the transcript below.
What does austerity look like in Todmorden?
The most obvious face of austerity is the fact that we’ve got a food bank, food collection point, whatever you want to call it, where about 70 different people, once a month, have to go through the doors to collect food in order to meet some need at their end. That’s the obvious face of austerity.
But there’s a lot of austerity that you don’t always catch. There’s the people who’ve been challenged for a heck of a long time, not just in this recent recession, with making ends meet. The people from some of our communities where thinking about paying their bills and giving their kids decent food and all the rest of it may not necessarily be possible, at least in their minds.
Then of course there’s the austerity that we’re probably only just starting to understand, of the single and the elderly, which in a community of 16,000 people, given time, talking to people and reconnecting, we may be able to have an impact on. But just at the moment, I suspect they’re out there and we don’t know them.
How do you see Incredible Edible as a response to that?
We take the last bit first and work forward. Incredible Edible is trying to do a number of things. It’s trying to reconnect communities using food as the medium. It’s trying to reskill communities using local food, and it’s trying to stimulate economic opportunities, no matter how modest, again with a focus on local food.
We work through all that, and it has a huge potential impact at a community level on what it means to not be able to make ends meet. You’d just be at your wits end. On a community scale, it’s about growing in very public places, it’s about getting people having conversations with complete strangers. It’s about people thinking about food in a more hands-on way … “ I could do that in my front or back garden, I could start to share what I’m making. Maybe I can get the apples from that tree down the street which everybody lets drop on the floor and make something of it”. That type of very low level but really important thinking around local food that I think has become a disconnection in recent times.
The second thing we can do in Incredible Edible is, because we’re interested in lost arts, it’s about taking that to the next stage and saying “we used to be able to make bread. We used to be able to make pickles and jams and know what to bottle when. So why don’t we find the folks who can teach the neighbours? Why don’t we roll out a Come Dine With Me programme, where people are invited in on the estates and we make something really simple?” That’s the informal bit.
But the other bit is, how do we put local food at the heart of the curriculum? How do we help schools with their aspiration to be at the heart of the community where it’s a problem, because they’ve got their agenda and the community hasn’t got much of an agenda, therefore they don’t necessarily speak the same language. How do we work in schools, building on everything that’s good, Food For Life, School Food Plan, all the stuff they’re already thinking about – or the really good schools are thinking about – and how do we add that community dimension to that, to reconnect everybody’s family, extended or otherwise? So we’re working on that.
And the third bit, I suppose the way we impact on austerity is trying to say local economies really matter. Sticky money really matters. People love to spend money on food, if they’ve got it. Visitors to a town love to seek out what’s local and special. There’s a lot of opportunity in a market town like Todmorden, and there’s lots of towns like Todmorden where we could get more market stalls selling local pies and pickles. We can get, perhaps, more butchers, bakers and candlestick makers taking on people, maybe taking on apprentices. Just feeling confident about making money in their local economy around food. That, over time, can have an impact.
So you square all that up, about looking after your neighbour, learning new skills, having a bit more economic confidence, feeding your family better, growing stuff in order to be more active as well as getting good stuff on the table, and that’s kind of where we play in.
I met Mary a little while ago from Todmorden, and we were talking about food banks. She was saying food banks are terrible because they breed dependency and despondency and that actually Incredible Edible Todmorden had taken a different approach to that in its relationship with the food bank. What is the relationship of Incredible Edible with the local food bank?
I think the general thinking is we absolutely get the need for a safety net. We absolutely do understand that it is a gift that some people can bring to the table, to say I want to support people who simply haven’t got the means to put food on the table. I understand why people do that through food banks. There’s a structure, it’s a necessity, as an immediate response.
But my line would be, it’s the first response, not the final response. It cannot be the only way you want to do these things. Increasingly I think many people are seeing their work complementing that of the food bank. What we would want to do, and our relationship with the food bank, and we haven’t got a very proactive one at the moment, but we’re working one up, is to do what a lot of communities are doing, which is to say, this is the box of food. What we want to do is come in and help people make that go further or allow them over time to substitute what they’re doing themselves for the things they have to ask other people for, and make themselves more self-sufficient and more proud of what they’re able to achieve.
But we’re not simpletons. If you are going to change that sort of skills bank and self-esteem and opportunity, you do not do it on a sunny afternoon in a year or even in two years. It takes time to build that up so that it’s not something you’re chucking money at but something that actually is how a community would want to function. It would want to make sure that everybody had every opportunity they could to feed their own family well.
So, food bank, immediate response: we understand why it’s there, but it’s the beginning, not the end. We would want to work alongside them, and are hoping to introduce things like working alongside Rachel Gilkes with Chutney for Change, which is the northern equivalent to Rubies in the Rubble, to maybe setting up small enterprises so that maybe some of those mums, dads or whatever that are going to the food bank could work alongside Rachel in a Todmorden Chutney for Change so that people are using the waste products that are not beyond consumption but not suitable for sale or for the supermarket counter in order to make the jams and chutneys that people can consume themselves, but also might create a Co-op to sell on the market.
It takes time to set all that up. That’s our relationship. We want to work with those 70 people. We want to help those kind people who have set up the food bank see that we are part of the offer. It doesn’t start and end with the food bank.
You mentioned there about trying to see the next step in the evolution of Incredible Edible being about helping people start new businesses, start new enterprises. What’s your sense of where that could go? What’s the potential? You started growing food on the high street, outside the police station and so on, but where could it go as a new economic regeneration story, do you think?
I preface everything I say to these questions with – we are part of something bigger. I think it’s important to say that because I want everybody to understand, we understand we are a piece of a jigsaw, that’s what we are. But increasingly, we’re pieces of jigsaws in many people’s communities. We’re a piece of a jigsaw that perhaps a lot of people can understand their own role in, that they’re the solution not the problem. Because we have such a low entry level. If you’re in, you’re in, it’s as simple as that. That was always our goal, it was about creating a sense that I can do this, and I am part of something that is a better world, and from that other things follow.
So, to answer your question directly, it’s my opinion, and we have not established this in any grand sense, that the future will need a lot more resilient local economies. I can only speak for this country because it’s the only country I’m familiar with in terms of its structures and policies.
We need more people understanding that the system as it operates now, the globalisation, the large-scale detached financial model, there’s something wrong with that somewhere. It’s blindingly obvious. But how would the man on the street know where to start? Our assistance around reskilling, letting the scales drop, which local food grown in public places can do, see spaces differently. Understand your own role, understand you’ve got something to offer, understand the pound in your pocket can influence what happens locally. That dropping of the scales is the first port of call. Then that reskilling is the second port of call. The third one is, what the heck am I going to do with this? We all have to eat.
We have been taken for a ride by the media for a long, long time, the advertising media and so on, that we have to have the McDonald’s, we have to have the Nikes, we have to have beans flown from Africa, because we do. Well, once you start to unravel that – and I’m not doing an anti-anything, I’m doing a pro-alternative – you start to say "why?". Why on Earth do we have to have this?
And actually, if I’ve got 10 bob in my pocket, does it not make a lot more sense, provided I know how to cook perhaps a broader range of things in season, or cheaper cuts of meat, why don’t I spend that in my local butchers, my local veg shop, my local whatever, instead of just brainlessly walking to the supermarket and back. It seems to me that what we are doing is trying, in a drip, drip, drip way, because again, you can’t rush this, to help people start to think of their own solutions to how they see the future. I absolutely am certain that that’s about more local economies. One of the main reasons I’m certain about that, other than the multiplier effect, when you spend money on local food it’s got a much greater impact on the local community than a pound spent in the supermarket which will go somewhere else, although that does create jobs, I get that.
For me, what’s really important if we are to reconnect people long term to the environment, to a more sustainable approach to living without having used those words, which is the long term goal, local economies allow you to make financial decisions locally that take on board social and environmental impacts. They just do! It’s a no-brainer. You don’t want to poison your kids, you don’t want to live surrounded by polluted land. All these things will come, as people start to understand that they have the means of change in their own hands. So for me, that whole idea of institutional detachment impacting on our lives, you break that down with local economies.
So the long answer, because it’s a long-term project, it’s a forever project, Incredible Edible. I do think it helps us put in place the things that in 10 or 20 years’ time, we will say, thank God we started to do that 20 years ago.
What does your focus on making this as inclusive as possible, and as relevant to as many people from as many different backgrounds in the town look like in practice? How have you managed that in terms of the language you use, the approach you take?
Just simple things, like we don’t talk about sustainability, we don’t talk about climate change. We don’t talk about peak oil, we don’t do any of that stuff. Because we have generations of people, not just people from the poorest backgrounds but across the piece, who don’t really get that. If they did get that, they’ve no idea where they’re going to start to be different. Therefore, we use very simple language.
We don’t talk about organic but we do that in our own practice in terms of permaculture etc. But we don’t make a big play about it, because what we want is to stimulate people’s interest and self-belief. Because we do have lots of little phrases that we use along the way, like "believe in the power of small actions" and what have you, our evidence over the past six years is give people half a chance and they will want to do the right thing by them and theirs.
What’s the evidence of that? Well, we’re working out on the estates, working with volunteers helping to build some raised beds or whatever it is they actually want. We worked on our estates. Again, if you want to use that as a proxy for meeting some of the challenges of those that haven’t got a right lot of money nor the means to get themselves out of their predicament, we’re working on them with our Come Dine with Me, with our how to bake bread, with our this is how you graft a tree. We put a thousand residents in Todmorden through a really informal teach-each-other programme which was anything from taking them up to a farm to how to make a sausage to how you make pickles, jams and preserves.
One of our spin-off social enterprises, which is the Incredible Aqua Garden, which we’re launching on the 11th November, which will eventually be a learning centre for aquaponics, hydroponics and horticulture/permaculture. We’ve got apprentices in that and we’re hoping, fingers crossed, we’re very close to it, to work with the Housing Association on reskilling some of their tenants to be apprentices, who will then be the champions on their own estates. That’s the beginning of a programme that we’re very keen to roll out with many more social landlords for people to help themselves.
We do work across a number of communities. We’ve got quite a significant Polish community here, and we’re also trying – but remember we’re only volunteers, we’ve no paid staff at the centre of this so we’re a bit organic in how we do stuff – we’re trying to think into the University of the Third Age, so all the skills that that organisation possesses can be shared. We’ve worked with Age Concern to tell the stories of the past, and those older people who remember a different way of thinking about local food. In as far as we’re a bunch of volunteers in this forever project, we are trying to reach out. I know people would criticise and say you’re a bunch of middle-class elderly women – well we’re not. But us middle-class elderly women need to kick something off because we’re perceived a need to kick something off. If it stays and ends with us then we’ve bitterly failed. But of course, it’s not. Increasingly now we’re working through the high school, we’ve got some real champions in the sixth form there, who are really starting to get what we’re doing – "you’re not just growing cabbages, great!" – those conversations are starting up.
Could you argue that there is an upside to austerity? Is there potential within it as well as the downside of it?
I don’t think anybody, if they were sat in a room where they couldn’t afford to put the fire on and didn’t know what they were going to put on the table, I think it would be a bit of an insult for me to say there’s an upside to austerity.
What I would say is, human beings are amazing in their ability to rise to a challenge. The upside of austerity if there is one, is absolutely not for those experiencing it, but for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, get off your backsides and do something about it. Incredible Edible is one way that people can do that.