Community food growing is good business

A new report reveals the scale and diverse nature of community food growing projects in the UK that are generating incomes while creating supplies of healthy local food

Posting home-grown chilli peppers to customers, running ‘pop up pickling’ events, and collecting grapes from local gardens to produce urban wine… these are just some of the ways a new generation of community food producers is now creating businesses out of its growing projects.

A new report by the sustainable food network Local Action on Food, showcases a selection of inventive community food growing groups and offers a wealth of advice on how others can set up projects in their area.

The 80-page report, A Growing Trade: A guide for community groups that want to grow and sell food in our towns and cities, is full of inspirational case studies showing how groups are providing employment and training in their communities as well as therapeutic volunteering opportunities and new life for disused spaces.

The long-running Growing Communities in East London is perhaps one of the standout projects. The award-winning social enterprise grows produce for a successful fruit and veg box scheme as well as a farmers’ market, which it runs. It has more than 1,000 customers a week and employs 20 people part time.

The venture has regular apprentices who learn all aspects of running a market garden, and at the end of the scheme many go on to manage their own plot, producing food for the box scheme. This model is currently being tested to see it if can be used in other parts of the country.

Another inspired scheme, Adopt a plot, run by the London Food Link network asks local restaurants and caterers to make a small financial contribution to community food growing spaces in return for a share of produce.

Through Adopt a Plot, homeless charity St Mungo’s, whose residents grow food on its own land, is working with respected restaurant The Table Café in Southwark. The head chef tells the charity which crops he’s interested in and pays an average of £150-£200 each week for the produce he receives from them.

Linking up with local restaurants is a growing trend, which the report gives advice and information on.

Polly Higginson, Local Action on Food officer and author of the report says: “There has been a real change in attitude in the community food sector towards how they see their projects. Making money is important, and gives a sense of pride and value to what people are doing. Trading is a good opportunity to generate income to contribute towards project costs and to lift the ambitions of the people involved.”

More than 1,500 new community food-growing spaces have been set up in London alone since 2008 through London Food Link’s Capital Growth project. A number of groups running these spaces are now exploring how, by selling their produce, they can replace the funding for their community work, which has dried up through government spending cuts.

Linking up with private companies has proved successful in providing financial backing for a number of projects. Andrew Thornton for example, who runs the Thornton’s Budgens franchise supermarket in north London, has invested around £10,000 to help establish the Food From the Sky initiative with the local community. Organic produce is grown on the roof of a Thornton’s supermarket in Crouch End and then sold in store.

Thornton said his company’s involvement in the scheme had given it a lot of positive PR, new and cheap team building opportunities for staff, “incredible and unique” products in stores, and greater knowledge about food production for supermarket managers.

A Growing Trade also demonstrates a burgeoning community trend for harvesting fruit from trees in neighbourhood gardens. The Urban Wine Company in Tooting, London was arguably a very early adopter of this idea 20 years ago, and is now producing up to one thousand bottles of wine each year.

In Birmingham, the Urban Harvest social enterprise runs a membership scheme where local households sign up to have surplus fruit harvested from trees in their garden. Members pay a fee and get a share of the food that is produced from their trees.

If you’re thinking of getting an initiative going in your area, this report really is something of a bible. There are details on developing the business side of your venture, from negotiating land, safe soil standards, organic standards, labelling, banking, running a market stall, law around selling allotment produce, hiring staff and apprentices, and more.

The full report can be found on the Sustain website alongside a separate report focusing on setting up a local food company, entitled Getting Down to Business. Sustain is an alliance for better food and farming, advocating policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people, animals and the environment.