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Concrete jungle feeds hunger for fresh vegetables

URBAN DWELLERS in "food deserts" - deprived city areas where fresh food is difficult or expensive to buy - have come up with an enterprising solution: to grow their own.

Instead of relying on the corner shop where prices are high and fruit and vegetables in short supply, people living in inner cities are learning to dig for their groceries. As well as providing food, the aim is to bring a hint of greenery to concrete wastelands where the only thing blossoming is graffiti.

CityHarvest, run by the National Food Alliance, is working with local communities to help people to grow their own food on derelict land, in school grounds and parks, and revive interest in allotments. Cultivating urban land is seen as a way of countering the shortage of cheap, nutritious food on sale in inner cities due to the trend to out-of-town supermarkets.

In Camberwell, south London, a community orchard has been planted on a plot surrounded by concrete and next to the magistrates' court. A set of abandoned council greenhouses in Brockwell Park is being restored to grow medicinal herbs, and in Hackney, east London, pupils at Grazebrook primary school are growing fruit and vegetables in the playground. Similar projects in Manchester and Oxford have involved people with mental and physical disabilities and made use of every square inch of space from tower-block window boxes to railway verges.

The lack of fresh food available to mothers and children in deprived areas was highlighted by the Inquiry into Health Inequalities, commissioned by the Government and chaired by former chief medical officer Sir Donald Acheson. Sir Donald warned in the inquiry report, published in November, that hunger had reappeared on city streets, where mothers on low incomes were going without meals to feed their children, and that the effects of poor nutrition would be felt down the generations.

Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of CityHarvest, which is partly funded by the Kings Fund, said: "People are worried the food they buy isn't safe and they want to grow their own. The unemployed want something useful to do and people are keen to help regenerate their local area. Growing food in cities tackles both social exclusion and health inequalities. It helps to overcome the difficulties people have in obtaining healthy food and improving their local environment."

In many of the projects, the amount of food produced is small but the benefits in terms of community development, attitudes to nutrition and improvements in the local environment are large.

Green Adventure in south London has been awarded a lottery grant of pounds 150,000 over three years to convert abandoned council greenhouses in Brockwell Park. "The council decided it was cheaper to import plants from Kent than grow their own and had used the greenhouses as parking space," said Stefanya Strega, the co-ordinator. "We have spent three months clearing rubbish and are now restoring them. We have consulted tenants' associations and pensioners groups and the aim is to grow useful plants, such as fruit and vegetables and herbs. Some people are taking classes in medicinal herbs."