Different types of food-based community initiatives
Detailed analysis of patterns of energy consumption in the Spanish agri-food system show both the need and prospects for sustainable degrowth in this sector. Industrialisation of production methods since the 1950s, combined with changes in how food travels from farm to plate (increased levels of transportation, processing, packaging, storage for unseasonal consumption and use of energy=intensive domestic methods for storing and preparing food), have dramatically reduced the energetic efficiency of food production in Spain. In the year 2000, the agri-food system in Spain consumed an estimated 1400PJ of energy, mostly from fossil fuels, in order to produce food with a total calorific value of 235PJ. In other words, the system consumed six times as much fossil fuel energy as that available in the food produced. The study concludes that a shift to sustainable agriculture would require a complete structural reorganisation of the agri-food system to one with a greater emphasis on organic, local and seasonal production and consumption. This corresponds with existing prescriptions and actions around food on the part of many community-led initiatives, such as permaculture, Transition, slow food, community-supported agriculture and others.
As important as enabling transition to a sustainable food production system is, community food initiatives also provide a wide range of further environmental and social benefits. Incredible Edible began in 2007 in the former textile-producing town of Todmorden in Northern England as a community response to disenchantment with trends in diet and food production. Identifying food as an inclusive issue (captured by the slogan "If you eat - you're in"), a group of residents came together to pioneer a method now referred to as 'propaganda gardening'. By converting unused, abandoned and derelict land in and around the town centre into public growing spaces, a group of concerned residents sought to inspire a sense of civic responsibility and empowerment among a largely disenchanted local population. Raised beds containing vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, an 'open source' community resource from which anyone is free to help themselves, and to help with maintenance, have become a familiar site in the town: on the platforms at the local railway station, along the side of roads and canals, outside shops and in the front yard of the local police station. The real achievements lie not in food growing, but in reinvigorating local identity and cultivating a sense of local pride.
An independent evaluation led by Adrian Morley at Manchester Metropolitan University concluded that Incredible Edible Todmorden (IET) has in direct benefits in various dimensions: social (higher levels of physical activity and use of green space, strengthened local identity, increased community cohesion and connectivity), economic (generation of income generator for local businesses, creation of spin-off businesses including a farm and educational centre, encouraging a buy local ethos) and environmental (increased engagement with food, improved use of public space, heightened public understanding about sustainability).. This has been achieved with little or no recourse to external funding: the project relies largely on the work of 300 local volunteers, who are among its key direct beneficiaries, and raises such funds as it need largely through income from tours of its edible spaces and speaker fees earned by its founders at events outside Todmorden. Social Return on Investment calculation conservatively estimated that IET realised direct and indirect benefits to the community of a total value equivalent to over five times that invested in the project (direct expenditure plus value of volunteer labour).
Incredible Edible Todmorden has produced a successful spin-off company in the form of Incredible Farm, which teaches young people the skills necessary to set up their own businesses in small-scale sustainable food production. It has also inspired local Incredible Edible initiatives in over 100 communities across the UK, over 300 in France alone, and in 28 other countries worldwide.
Madrid's Community Gardens Network shows how food production can be the basis of local projects to reimagine and recreate the city, reconfigure social relationships and engage creatively with local government and other established institutions. A few projects started up in the early years of the 21st Century, leading to creation of the Red de Huertos Urbanos Comunitarios de Madrid (RED) in 2010. The RED supports initiatives to become more visible, exchange experiences through visits and meetings, share resources, create mutual support mechanisms and promote training events, as well as offering a resource space that can provide advice and support to people and groups interested in taking forward new initiatives and mediation services for when conflict arises in neighbourhood groups. The RED immediately sought to engage with the Madrid City Council, eventually leading to regularisation of 17 member projects in 2014 and subsequent expansion of the network to 60 officially recognised neighbourhood projects by 2018.
Dialogue with the municipalist coalition elected to the City Council in 2015 has allowed the RED to take a central role in joint development of public policies aimed at recognizing and taking advantage of the creativity and collective intelligence of residents in co-development of public policy. This has led to creation of the Municipal Urban Gardening School, a training plan to support community gardens jointly managed by the RED, and launch of a pilot project for community agro-composting. The network has also arranged various events to raise the profile of and encourage participation in member projects, including film festivals and bike tours, and become an important force for creating linkages between outlying areas of Madrid, in which community gardens tend to be located. Its members have become an important driving force for new initiatives on citizen participation, food production, agroecology and reinvigoration of urban social relationships through shared learning and collective action. This is both city-wide and beyond: RED coordinated the first national meeting of urban community garden networks in 2015.
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