Freedom News

Growing communities in Waltham Forest

There’s a solidarity economy emerging in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, and it revolves around food. Hundreds of people, and a handful of grassroots cooperatives, collectives and networks, are trying to figure out how to build an alternative to capitalist industrial agriculture, and not a moment too soon. 

25% of children in London face hunger during the school holidays. A total of 3.2 million adults in the UK reported not eating for a whole day because they couldn’t afford or access food. 70% of our wildlife has been obliterated in the last 50 years, 64% of our insects in the last 20. Crops contain 40% fewer nutrients than they did 100 years ago. 99% of London’s food comes from outside the city, while almost one third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, one fifth being from transporting it alone.

Where do you even start when the industrial model has wrecked so much? As the Zapatistas say, there are many yeses and one no. Twenty years ago, a group of young growers persuaded Waltham Forest Council to lease them 12 acres on the edge of the city, to start a cooperative farm. Today, OrganicLea distributes hundreds of veg boxes each week at tiered solidarity prices and has trained hundreds of new growers. This is a flagship `Yes’, but there are others. Several food cooperatives redistribute surplus food and buy produce in bulk to cut costs. At least three community cafes sell high-quality food at variable rates people can afford, providing vital refuges in a gentrifying, hostile city. And dozens of community gardens practice regenerative ways of caring for the land, reclaiming small pockets of the city and tending the otherwise eroded agency of its inhabitants. 

From the food forest started in an abandoned church garden by XR activists, to the healing herb gardens cultivated by the Community Apothecary (a collective offering affordable herbal medicine) to Time To Grow! (TTG) a project helping people grow food for the community in unused private gardens, there’s an endless appetite here for experimenting with localised alternatives to capitalist agriculture. And in these times of worsening climate unravelling, of desperate isolation, of profound (however artificial) resource scarcity, growing food with each other feels like a wise move. 

The youth-led collective Climate Vanguard explains how growing food in the community can be part of building a transformative mass movement by thinking of them as “climate survival programmes”. Just as the Black Panther Party’s breakfast programs were key to building popular power, growing can be a way to ameliorate the worse effects of climate breakdown and build the power we need to transform the economic system causing it. 

All images: Holly McGratten

Theirs is a specific version of the broader argument being made by anarchist, leftist, and radical organisers around the world: if we want to overcome the capitalist economy we have to build an alternative economy in its place, and we have to do it ourselves. There are countless places to start: housing, energy, education, migration, labour organising, none will succeed without the others. We’re finding organising around food has a particular role to play and a particular power. 

At a recent gathering of a food growing collective, a woman in her 80s nearly brought us all to tears. We were going round the group sharing reflections. Now, she’s not normally the sentimental type, she’s dry, quick-witted and self-deprecating, but she broke protocol for a moment and explained how when you get to her age you basically think that there’s no chance you’re going to make new friends. You just give up on the idea. If you’re disabled like her, you leave the house a handful of times a year, and you settle into a rhythm of carers popping round every few days and family every few weeks if you’re lucky. This particular growing community has changed that. It has put a stick through the spokes of decline she was coming to accept.  

And that’s just a fragment of the joys of organising around food. There’s also the peaceful ecstacy of saving seeds over multiple generations of plants; the asylum seekers who’ve found a small patch of genuine refuge in a hostile city; the office workers relieved to be outside and moving their bodies; the new friends, human and otherwise; the rare and precious vulnerabilities shared over a bed of strawbs; the disabled, elderly and otherwise isolated reclaiming some dignity; someone sharing the half-remembered thing their grandma told them when they were seven about sorrel; young exhausted parents given a moment’s pause; a new job; a new skill; a new group to join; a sense that, despite what the news says, there are many many people who care about this place; all of which isn’t even to mention the food: fresh, nutritious, and in many cases the tastiest thing you’ve ever eaten.

It feels important to let these joys nourish us, while not losing sight of the need to be strategic about where we go from here. I know from experience that all of these projects are creating an ecosystem from which more and more grassroots, mutual aid organising around food can thrive. When we started TTG, the knowledge taught at OrganicLea, the tools lent by the Tool Library, some seed funding from the network organisation that connects all of these groups, and the plants shared from other community gardens made the whole thing feel like pushing at an open door. 

There’s a vaguer ‘emergent strategy’ made possible by this kind of work too. The abundance of our living ecosystems offers a constant reminder of the possibility of an economy built on the same principles. Engaging with land directly raises the general level of commitment to defending it from developers. Meeting all kinds of people in a held space with a practical task creates the conditions for rare and precious solidarities to develop. Creating an alternative food economy can genuinely lower the cost of eating and lift the burden of material stress, freeing people to focus on other things. 

But this movement isn’t going to ‘organically’ replace the old one. We are in need of a plan to get from here to where we want to be. And there are some serious problems that we need to get creative about. 

The first is money. Building an alternative food economy is labour intensive, and the more you enter the commodity market the more compromises you’ll need to make on values. OrganicLea have successfully built a veg box system that lends them a stable income and also allows them to distribute organic, regenerative food grown from other farms. But half of their revenue depends on grants and earnings from teaching. Most of the other projects here are also dependent on grants and volunteer labour. It’s not totally accurate to call all of the labour that doesn’t get financially rewarded unpaid. ‘Volunteers’ are often part of mutual exchanges whereby they receive surplus food, knowledge sharing and other less tangible community benefits. But as we know, the revolution will not be grant funded.

The autonomist solution to this is to build more capacity in these cooperative alternatives: start buying food for your food cooperatives from your community gardens; create an alternative currency so that workers can be rewarded with free access to meals and produce; explain and normalise the ethics of solidarity pricing so that charity becomes a thing of the past.

But it is also worth asking, what systems of social solidarity already exist, that can be coopted into this new solidarity economy? Taking a leaf from radical councils around the country doing community wealth building, you have to wonder, what if local, public institutions like schools and council departments began to use their food budgets to support local producers?

From TTG’s perspective, we know there are 2000 hectares of private garden space, which if carefully stewarded could produce 67 million kgs of food a year, over half of our population’s fruit and veg needs. Say half of our borough’s residents were interested in growing food, we’d need hundreds of full-time paid staff to coordinate such an effort. Part of the joy of this project is decommodifying food production and part of its revolutionary value is increasing the size and resilience of the non-capitalist economy, but if we were to sell just half of it (at the wholesale price of chard say) it’d be worth £83 million a year. That’s over 2000 people’s salaries on a median wage well above minimum wage.

The other challenge, familiar to everyone doing community work, is that improving the lives of people improves the value of land for speculators and developers. All of our work is always open to exploitation and extraction. A revolutionary strategy needs to build in ways of defending itself from this. What if any surplus revenue from a local food system like this is automatically directed towards community land trusts and housing cooperatives? 

Clearly the absolutely vital thing is that a local food movement is intimately connected with a larger movement for transformation. But how? There are glimpses. Recently the Gleaners (one of our community cafe cooperatives) and the Hornbeam (an environmental center focussing on food redistribution) provided food for a mass action to stop refugee evictions. I know that the Welcome Garden, one of our most developed forest gardens, provides space for rest and repair for direct action activists on the frontline of the criminal justice system. And I’ve watched gardening sessions that can become gentle forms of consciousness-raising events, where people forge connections between their lives, their problems and campaigns trying to address them.

Further afield, the possibilities multiply. Community food production can support union workers on strike (such as the Zad did for Gilets Jaune in France). Agroecology can be interwoven with more militant tactics such as land occupations (see the MST in Brazil). And strong, local delegations of the Landworkers Alliance can contribute to the global efforts of La Via Campesina. 

Many revolutions have clubs and community groups to thank for the forms of embryonic organisation that were necessary to quickly and radically transform society. Possibly, for the revolution of our time, ours will be gardens.

~ Greg Frey

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