Four things I’ve learnt – and a question

Here are four things I’ve learnt from being with Lincolnshire Food Partnership for slightly over a year – enough time to start thinking a little bit differently about things – and a question for those of you who have given your time, money, energy or anything else to a foodbank in the past year.

Getting your hands dirty is transformative

“I was so ill, I could hardly do anything, I could hardly look after my kids. And the allotment turned everything around. It was just me and the soil.”

Kirsty, My Little Allotment

There’s probably more to be said about this as a metaphor, but I’m referring to the dirty that involves chatting to the worms, the smell of earth and ripening tomatoes in a greenhouse, soil under the fingernails, and a feeling of well hungry by tea time. 

Last year I wrote a series of blogs about allotment growing, intending to encourage more people to give it a go. 

Turns out that was hardly needed – you can’t get an allotment across most of Lincoln for love nor money, and once again the seed companies are inundated with orders, water butts and gardening gloves are flying off the (online) shelves, social media gardening groups are exploding, and the nation is having a GYO renaissance!

But the transformation story keeps cropping up, again and again – of people crashing, their mental health in pieces on the floor. But by interacting with nature and earth, sowing seeds, tending the soil, harvesting the fruit, they recover something lost, and become whole again.

Read moreMy Little Allotment

Watch the recording – Jayne Hickling, Growing in Schools

What else? – the relevance and scope for Care Farming in Lincolnshire.

The good food economy is a shared endeavour

“People working within the food system need to feel differently about their role within society… It’s not about them and us; it’s about everyone supporting each other. Let’s stop talking about “supporting local” as if it’s shoppers doing a favour, and be more aware of our shared, co-operative endeavours.”

Kimberley Bell, Small Food Bakery

The tenacity, resilience and imagination of Lincolnshire’s independent food sector through the lockdown has blown me away! I take my hat off every day to the people – you can find many of them on Lincoln Indie Takeaways – turning out to provide us with good food and keep us connected to local growers, despite the personal risk, and additional complications and responsibilities. 

This hasn’t been possible for everyone – for many businesses there has been no way through the pandemic, many have been crippled by unpayable rents, family responsibilities, illness, isolation or shielding, slipping through the gaps in support, and faced other impossible circumstances.

But in many cases, local food has been immensely resilient, big hearted and deeply connected to their communities – these are just a few examples:

We’ve seen Louth’s Serendipity Restaurant transform into community kitchens, cooking and delivering food to those who need it during a pandemic, with support from local businesses, farmers and others; and Castle Hotel in Lincoln repurposed their kitchen to produce free meals for NHS workers.

Doddington Hall Farm Shop started the delightfully subversive “chat and collect” service, so shoppers could still talk to a person and retain at least a degree of social interaction with their grocer.

Weirdough’s Pizza emerged at the start of the pandemic as a back garden fundraising project, but transformed into a growing business, helping people all the way; Bread & Cheese sells what it says on the tin, but outdoors from a van, while Lincoln’s indie bread and cheese shops have repeatedly had to close. Others, like Bailgate Deli, Veg Out and Curry Jacks, keep our connection with local growers and Lincolnshire produce alive.

Lincolnshire’s first CSA, which was born out of conversations over eggs, is in its infancy and is already a market garden to behold, with a huge amount of love and support from local people, and is providing a model for what could be done in the county!

It’s pretty evident from the social media feeds of these good food businesses how appreciative they are of their communities and customers. You and I – we’re not helpless little consumers to be manipulated by the big boys, we’re food citizens together, building the food economies we want and need.

Food citizenship is a concept that has inspired me since I first read about it in the process of creating the Mission & Aims page on our website nearly a year ago, and the more I learn, the more relevant I find it. Learn more here.

“The real reason we started (Curry Jacks) is because of you. Because we believe that listening to people’s stories over a plate of something tasty is the single most endlessly fascinating thing anyone can do. People who have travelled and people who have stayed at home. People’s huge disasters and tiny triumphs. The hurdles people have faced and how they’ve handled them. We love all of those stories. So this is a thank you to all of you who’ve shared parts of your lives or thoughts with us over the last three years! (And here’s to times ahead when we can sit over a meal together again.)”

Curry Jacks Facebook page

Intergenerational friendship matters

The allotment holders I spoke to over the course of last year all – all! – had an adult in their lives who introduced them to gardening as children, even though they came to GYO and allotment-holding as adults. This is a message for everyone with children in their lives. 

While there’s no place for the patronising sexism some young women allotment holders I’ve spoken to have experienced on their allotment site, it’s also very clear that many older allotment holders have a lot of knowledge to pass on. 

And there’s a generation of enthusiastic new growers who could save themselves – hang on, I speak for myself here – we could save ourselves a ton of spudding around making mistakes if we spent more time with our elders. People like Geoff & Hillary whose Lincoln allotment sparked the blog series, passed on to me knowledge, ideas and quantities of beans disproportionate to the time I spent with them!

The value of sharing food with a child was brought home to me by Kim Smith – she outlines how to go about introducing foods to children using the TastEd approach. The opportunity to explore a big variety of foods in an unpressured way at a young age sets people up for a lifetime with a healthily diverse diet. 

And there are benefits of doing this away from the table and the people who normally do the cooking – and I think many other parents would testify, our kids will eat all manner of things with other people that they wouldn’t eat at home! 

About a decade ago, when I was working in Early Years Education, Sue Palmer (author of Toxic Childhood, and big hero of mine) asserted, in the face of huge paranoia over stranger danger – not only that adults shouldn’t stop talking to children, but that we all have a duty to talk to them. And in the past year, I would definitely extend this to eating and gardening with the children in our lives!

Recipe box from Veg Out

I’ve seen children eating purple sprouting broccoli straight off the plant who would never eat it on a plate; competing to see who could eat the most sorrel leaves without pulling a face; running to wash and eat a carrot that was just pulled from the ground; gaping with amazement at an apple cut sideways to reveal the pips in a star shape, or the luminous inside of an aubergine under that dark skin. 

Children can’t discover this sort of thing in their own spontaneous play; it is something they need adults in their lives to introduce them to. Let that be us!

Solidarity is on the rise

The rise in foodbank use in the past year is well documented – though shocking, I won’t write about it here – and is matched only by the rise in the community spirit that has risen up to meet this need. 

You can get an impression of the scale of this by taking a scroll through our Find a Foodbank page – which we continue to add to; and I am in no doubt that there are more that are springing up and/or taking place under our radar, as well as an abundance of local initiatives that don’t conform to the term foodbank. It is the most read page on our website, and Foodbank is the most used search term to reach us.

Informal neighbourhood groups, online communities, churches, schools and more have stepped up, and existing foodbanks have massively increased their provision in response to the circumstances, and the urgency of the need that emerged from it. 

The pandemic has unleashed a force of humanity to be seriously reckoned with.

Which led me to wonder…

What would we do differently if we didn’t need foodbanks?

When I was asked recently what it would mean to build back better, my first response was that we need to address (that is, eliminate) poverty, as quickly as possible. 

What would happen if we had, for example, a Universal Basic Income, or Universal Basic Services, or sufficient national investment in jobs, training, a green recovery, etc, or whatever it was that achieved a removal of poverty, the inside circle of doughnut economics? 

It’s a bit of a thought experiment – it’s not apparent on the current political agenda – but supposing poverty was addressed, radically, and on a national scale – what would happen then?

If the gruelling, debt-burdened, humiliating level of poverty that gives rise to foodbanks was eliminated: what would happen to all that energy and solidarity? 

What would all those people accessing foodbanks, and/or involved in running them, do? 

Maybe you’re one of them – what would you do differently if you could reclaim the time/money you give to foodbanks, or the debt/anxiety/insecurity/etc that might accompany the need to access one? 

The human energy saved would be colossal!

Would everyone return to the backlog of household jobs, a bit more social media scrolling, catching up on some holidays? Or would we all get a taste for community building, or a vision for a better food system that everyone could access? 

Once the community larder became defunct, would people open a real independent local cafe in their community, now that everyone could afford it? Or start a CSA or care farm having recognised the health benefits and resilience of real local food? Or start to demand a far less wasteful system than is, perhaps, inherent to supermarkets?

What would you do without foodbanks? If you’ve ever been to one, I’m curious to know.

Laura Stratford, 2021

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