In the small town of Todmorden in the north of England, fresh organic produce is growing everywhere. There are sweet-smelling herbs at the railway station, vegetables sprouting in the public car park, and an apothecary garden next to the local Health Centre. This is the Incredible Edible movement, a grassroots campaign to provide healthy fresh food to the whole community, while promoting local produce and educating people on the joys of cultivating veggies.
Incredible Edible co-founder Pam Warhurst explained how she and her friends sat around a kitchen table six years ago, brainstorming ways to make positive change in the world. They began with a simple question: Can we find a unifying language that cuts across age, income and culture, that will help people themselves find a new way of living? Then came the thunderbolt. Food is a basic human need, but fresh, healthy organic food is a basic human right. “None of this is rocket science, but it is inclusive,” Pam says. Ultimately, this is a movement for everyone. We say, ´if you eat, you´re in´.”
What followed was a public meeting, where Pam and her associates received a standing ovation after presenting their plan. It was an ambitious, idealistic project which not only addressed the issue of what we eat, but where we spend our money and what we teach our children.
“I wondered if it was possible to take a town like Todmorden and focus on local food to re-engage people with the planet we live on, create the sort of shifts in behaviour we need to live within the resources we have, stop us thinking like disempowered victims, and to start taking responsibility for our own futures,” Pam explains.
Three key areas are covered: planting free food for the whole community, supporting and promoting farmers and other local food producers rather than supermarkets, and rolling out an extensive educational network to directly involve residents and students with the project.
Incredible Edible is run by unpaid volunteers and began with the planting of some small herb gardens and the launch of a local seed bank. Now, every school (and church) in the area is involved with the movement. They have provided chickens, planted orchards, and installed a fish farm at the local high school, which was such a success that a course in agriculture has since been launched. The group also offers free staff training for primary school teachers on issues of food awareness and cultivation, as well as adult learning schemes through ties with the college. All the children in Todmorden can now recognize a tomato plant, and have benefited greatly from getting their hands dirty in the community gardens.
The town, population 15,000, has attracted what Pam calls ´vegetable tourists. “People come from all over the world to poke around in our raised beds,” she laughs. There are fruit trees, bushes, herbs and veggies everywhere: outside the police station and the retirement home, on the towpaths of Todmorden´s canal, and even in the cemetery. Residents have embraced the project with gusto, and many private gardens and porches have been transformed into blooming oases of delicious fresh produce since the scheme launched in spring 2008.
“People are ready and respond to the story of food,” Pam points out. “They want positive action, and in their bones they know it´s their responsibility. We are all part of a local food jigsaw, and all part of the solution.”
The group define their work as ´propaganda gardening´, and they made a conscious decision not to ask permission from the local authority before planting. “We´re starting to build resilience; we´re starting to reinvent community, and we did it all without a strategy document,” Pam states. “We did not consult, we did not write a report; enough of all that!”
Despite this maverick attitude, the local council has been so impressed by Incredible Edible that it has donated land to the movement. Furthermore, politicians in the area have pledged to remove obstacles stopping the use of community land for growing, and to give guidance to other public bodies about how it can be done.
Various spin-off projects have been created since Incredible Edible´s early days, including the fantastic ´Every Egg Matters´campaign. Volunteers had the idea of encouraging people to buy and consume only fresh, local eggs from happy hens. A map of locations was drawn up and handed out to people, with great success. As a result, Todmorden farmers began to widen their produce range- making home-made pies, cheeses and other artisan products that were not in demand before.
Pam and her associates then decided to give all local food producers and market traders some of their signs and posters to use when selling their goods, and were amazed at the response. The Incredible Edible logo attracted new consumers and was a huge boost to the local economy. By building a system of mutual benefit and support, sales of local produce (cheese, eggs, beer, meat) soared, and consumers were inspired to start growing their own vegetables, keeping chickens, or simply boycotting supermarkets wherever possible.
Meetings and planting days are regularly organized through Incredible Edible, creating bonds between neighbors who would otherwise be strangers. A local history project has been launched, with the aim of teaching people about how food was cultivated in the area in the past. Pam and her co-creators also plan to publish a recipe book, and a wonderful story for children (which can be downloaded for free here) aims to teach youngsters about the Incredible Edible philosophy (by highlighting the nonsensical idea of buying New Zealand apples from a supermarket when trees growing nearby provide the same fruit for free).
Incredible Edible also runs courses on grafting, permaculture, bee-keeping, edible fungi, herbal medicine and more. Land, polytunnels and raised beds have been donated to the cause by a local store, while a community aqua garden was funded by the British National lottery. The movement is growing at a mind-boggling rate (there are now over 200 groups worldwide) and the Incredible Edible team even finds time to help other start-ups all over the world, in the USA and Japan, Australia and India, New Zealand and Europe to name a few!
The inspirational folk who dreamed up and executed such an awesome plan are normal people like you and I. They have no special training or qualifications; they have no money to invest in the project. Instead, they have achieved all of this with a simple desire to make a difference, a huge passion for creating alternatives, and a refusal to allow bureaucracy and red tape to stop them.
“We are not daunted by the sophisticated arguments that say small actions are meaningless in the face of tomorrow´s problems,” Pam says, “because we have seen the power of small actions and it is awesome. We are starting at last to believe in ourselves. In my book, that´s incredible.”
I grew up in a village very close to Todmorden (and visit regularly), so I can personally vouch for the awesome transformation detailed in this article! If you are feeling inspired and want to know more about replicating this project in your own community, click here or follow I.E on facebook. All images are credited to Incredible Edible, with an extra thank you to press officer Estelle Brown for all her help. This article was first published here.