On a sweltering day in May, a crowd of Lambeth locals cram onto the astroturf carpet on the second floor of the Impact Hub, a community space in a jazzy shipping container complex called Pop Brixton. Extra chairs arrive. Some of the attendees carry colourful plastic bowls of salad from a communal buffet and share stories as they eat.
As the noise crescendos, Duncan Law, a founding member of Transition Town Brixton, appears at the front of the room. “Tonight we are going to try and initiate the beginnings of a local food system in Brixton to compete or even out compete the big corporations. Because we need it!” he says, to cheers.
Brixton has 250 takeaways. Life expectancy for adult males in the poorest parts of the borough is five years lower than in other, richer parts of London, because so many residents have so little access to cheap, fresh food.
Poor diet goes beyond poverty. Research by the University College London at Brixton Advice Centre found that a range of factors, including the amount of social support people think they have and mental health issues like anxiety and depression, can result in poor diet. Education is a key part of showing people why healthy eating matters.
Before the meeting, Law explains how these issues will become increasingly important. “We need to be getting the new food system on the skids to replace the old one as it collapses,” he says. “That has to be local first.”
Brixton is home to a number of non-profit ventures and food businesses that are the building blocks for a local food system. “The point is to connect the outcroppings of local food together to see how they can help each other,” Law says. “We want to to identify gaps that, if filled, would help us move towards the beginning of local food system, rather than just a bunch of projects.”
The greenhouse at Myatt’s Field Park was set up to address the severity of food poverty in the area between Oval and Loughborough Junction. “There are hardly any shops, nowhere for people to sit and eat or for people to buy food,” Victoria Sherwin, development officer, tells those gathered at the Impact Hub.
Using lottery funding, Myatt’s has become a food hub, offering a fully equipped kitchen and meeting space for people to cook and share food together. It offered 350 cooking sessions between 2011 and 2014 alone. Increasingly, demand is outstripping capacity. “We’re almost completely locked out of community halls,” Sherwin says. “I think Lambeth Council is seeing them as assets, so we can’t go near them.”
The lack of community space means that when people come up with food ideas, whether that is selling homemade chutney or serving meals, they sometimes have to host customers in their own homes.
Nearby Loughborough Farm worked around lack of growing space when it started five years ago. Farmers established a patchwork of plots on derelict and underused land around Loughborough Junction. Both Myatt’s Field Park and Loughborough Farm rely on grants. They say their work is about more than feeding people. “There's something about growing food and eating it together that builds trust,” says Sherwin. “We're trying to work strategically because we want to make a big difference to the lives of other people.”
Local Greens is a not-for-profit business that sells vegetables grown by suppliers near South-East London to customers in and around Herne Hill. It works with Growing Communities, a community-led organisation based in Hackney, to provide an alternative to supermarkets and cheap takeaways.
“Our target market is anyone who lives in the area,” says Jean Bergin, one of the founders. “We’re cheap, so it makes us affordable, but it doesn’t mean that everyone wants to eat what we provide.”
Local Greens tries to make a difference in other ways, by giving farmers a fair price so that they can stay in business. “There’s no way of pretending you can make a fortune in food because you can’t. Competition is massive and the margins are low,” Bergin says. She believes Brexit is going to make it even tougher for small suppliers who only sell food locally and can’t exploit the lower-value pound by exporting abroad. “Plus, we rely on migrant labourers who come here to do the harvesting: if the farmers don't have the labour, they go out of business.”
Bergin has her own criteria for a successful local food system: it must provide affordable, nutritional food to the people who need it and compete with what’s regularly available. She is realistic about changing the status quo: “I think that would require organisation on a wide scale to provide enough alternatives to compete with what's already there. That’s a big challenge and that’s not going to happen overnight.”
But the first signs of a joined-up effort are there on that warm evening in Brixton.
Groups discuss coming together to give those offering their time the opportunity to work across multiple projects, to combat the high turnover of valuable volunteers. They imagine a way for volunteers to log the hours they have contributed, rewards to show recognition, and co-ordinators to offer solidarity.
One group comes up with a plan to give cooks and growers ownership of the spaces they work in by establishing co-operatives. Co-operative businesses could address the lack of community spaces in the area, one participant suggests. There’s a plan to create an inventory of under-used spaces, or to piggyback on housing campaigns.
Law says this kind of collective action is the best way to create change in the face of council budget cuts, shuttered community spaces and the growing number of supermarkets and takeaways. “The local government is still allowing the carpet-bombing of the local economy. We can’t win if we fight them, they’ll just say they haven't got any money,” he says. “But if we come up with amazing working examples of the future they will gather round, applaud and promote. That’s just how government works.”
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