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Smells like community spirit: Marsh Farm residents take control of area’s regeneration and food access

Marsh Farm

Built in the 1960s, Marsh Farm is a large housing estate in Luton with a diverse population of around 10,000 residents. The estate has been marked by a history of institutional neglect, high levels of unemployment and violence following riots in the 1990s. But in spite of its social and economic problems, residents are loyal to the estate and their strength forms a glue which holds the community together. Gaby De Sena discovers how this determined spirit is the driving force behind the area’s regeneration and action to improve their food security.

In 2001, it looked as though the future of Marsh Farm was changing for the better after a successful bid secured £48.3 million of funding over 10 years, as part of the New Deal for Communities strategy (NDC). Most NDC funding is implemented from the ‘top-down’ using external consultants, but following failed attempts at injecting cash into the area, a group of Marsh Farm residents took matters into their own hands. By using a radical development programme called The Organisational Workshop (OW), the regeneration of Marsh Farm could be tailored to suit the specific needs and demands of the community.

Marsh Farm Outreach, a cooperative group run by volunteers who live on the estate, now works to implement the OW. The model originated in Brazil over 30 years ago and although this is the first time it has been used in the UK, it has proven to be effective on three continents. The OW encourages sustainable regeneration by enabling deprived communities to set up and run social enterprises in their estate, immediately creating jobs for residents and offering essential services to the neighbourhood. Research was carried out to assess which services were needed in the area and to ensure that the £1 million per week that residents spend can stay in Marsh Farm itself. 

Among the list of seven proposed enterprises such as a building and construction company, restaurants and a music production studio, residents have also set their sights on running a 10 acre organic farm. Glenn Jenkins from Marsh Farm Outreach and long-term resident, says that “any realistic plan to build a truly sustainable local community (and world) has to include a move towards re-localisation of food production. The fuel strikes and blockades proved that we are less than a week away from food emergency if the big corporate monopolies fail to deliver.”

The farm will be developed in two stages. Initially, work will be focused on local residents learning how to farm the land. Then it will be increased in size according to local demand. “Marsh Farm borders miles of agri-desert farm land, so the sky is the limit!” says Glenn. The produce grown will be supplied directly to Marsh Farm residents but a few ‘cash crops’ will be sold to supporters who live in the wider community of Luton. Residents also want to keep free range pigs and chickens.

Undoubtedly, the community would enjoy countless benefits from an urban village farm; improved health and education, employment opportunities, inclusion of socially excluded people, a decreased carbon footprint, to name but a few. However, after nine years of planning and work carried out by volunteers - with partners including Job Centre Plus, Luton Borough Council and the Chamber of Commerce - the OW project is now being threatened with funding cuts.  This is putting in serious jeopardy the seven new social enterprises and 67 jobs for excluded residents. The OW was due to start in July, but now the future of this remarkable opportunity for residents is uncertain.

Marsh Farm Outreach have been putting all of their energy into stopping the cuts and recently camped outside Andrew Stunnell’s churchyard for three days until he agreed to meet them. Stunnell, the Minister for Communities, has since had discussions with Marsh Farm Outreach and residents are now waiting to hear whether the meeting will have helped to reverse the decision.

Marsh Farm is an excellent example of a community coming together to better themselves and their environment. Their actions could benefit the otherwise neglected area for generations to come and inspire similar communities to do the same. Glenn’s message is clear: “This is too important and we've travelled too far to take no for an answer! We'll take it to the rooftops if they deprive Marsh Farm our right to pilot the OW.”



Not all about the dough

Lucy Thompson finds out about a new initiative to help community projects get access to a better loaf.

Sustain’s Real Bread Campaign is taking its mission to transform the nation’s bread into the community, by helping to make unadulterated, locally produced Real Bread available through five different food access projects each year.

Campaign co-founder Andrew Whitley believes Real Bread is not only better for our health and the planet, but for also our local communities, and the campaign would like to see an increased number of food access and community projects getting involved.

Projects can be food co-ops, community cafés or lunch clubs, and support from the campaign might involve training staff or volunteers, or facilitating buying in Real Bread from a local baker.

One project that has already embraced real bread is the community-owned Real Food Store in Exeter, which is now working with local bakery Emma’s Bread.

Emma Parkin has been supplying local and organic bread to the South West for five years. She runs bread-making courses, and  - like the campaign - says her ‘mission is to educate people who want bread that tastes, feels and looks like Real Bread’.

The Real Food Store, a food co-operative, is set to have its own on site bakery run by Emma, which will down the cost of the bread and also give local people an opportunity to get actively involved in its production.

The campaign is looking for food access projects interested in developing a bread element to their work, so if you are involved in a community food project and would like more information contact



Barriers to Local Food

Are alternative food hubs being helped or hindered by EU legislation?  By Kelly Parsons

The rural county of Cumbria is home to a thriving assortment of local food systems, from Hadrian Organics farmers co-operative - all members of which are in sight of Hadrian’s Wall - to Little Salkeld Mill, a watermill which grinds English wheat from biodynamic cultivation methods. 

But their success re-localising the region’s food economy owes little thanks to support from policymakers, according to a recent study.  On the contrary, interviewees from a range of local food initiatives complained that substantial paperwork required by official bodies - be it related to single farm payments, Soil Association organic certification, hygiene inspection or employment law - represents a considerable burden.  The excessive bureaucracy associated with grants is another hurdle for local food systems: initiatives have difficulty with the standard criteria and find that a high minimum level of available funds favours large producers. 

It’s a similar story in the city too:  projects in Manchester canvassed for the research - including the well-known Unicorn co-operative grocery - are also being hindered by policy demands.  Policy related to public food procurement, for example, focuses too much on big business not small scale initiatives, they say, and can also prevent the provision of land to community projects related to food growing and educational seminars.

While difficulties caused by EU red tape are hardly a huge surprise, the study by EU-funded project Facilitating Agro-Food Networks: Stakeholder Perspectives on Research Needs, does cast some much-needed light on the specific ways national and European policy can directly impact on local food systems.  Using feedback from case studies in Cumbria and Manchester, as well as from projects in Austria, France, Hungary and Poland, the research found the most influential policies were the CAP, trading rules, and regulations on hygiene, public procurement and branding. 

The CAP’s historic focus on productivity and modernisation provides strong incentives to continue agri-industrial methods, plus each grant or investment has a high minimum level (and/or a co-funding requirement), which benefits large processors.  Strict hygiene rules, designed for the most hazardous contests of agri-industrial processes in response to serious epidemics and food scares over the past couple of decades, also penalise small-scale production or traditional methods. 

Costs are the main disadvantage of trading rules, followed by their lack of coherence and differing criteria - which may be defined in different ways by each government, agency or regional authority - meaning any exemptions for small operators are unclear and producers are confused about what is and is not permitted.  Likewise, EC procurement regulations, which mandate that the lowest price prevails, ignore wider social and environmental costs. 

But it’s not all bad policy news for the local food movement.  The report also highlights several policy elements that have the potential to facilitate alternatives to conventional productivist, industrialised and globalised food systems.  Updates to the public procurement rules mean ‘economically advantageous’ criteria can justify a higher price, and - as happens in Cumbria - contracts can be split up by locality and product to favour local suppliers.  Tailored funding available through the European Community initiative Leader (Liaison Entre Actions pour le Developpement de L’Economie Rurale) was also pinpointed as a positive development. 



National Trust goes Local

Hilary weighing out Flour

Each year the trust’s historic kitchens, kitchen gardens, restaurants, mills, bakeries, farms, markets, deer parks and orchards inspire millions of people to think about how food is produced.  It owns over 200,000 hectares of farmland and over 150 catering outlets, and is heavily involved with food and its production at every step of the food chain. 

To harness this potential, the charity was recently awarded a grant of £500,000 by Defra for its ‘Eat into Green Living’ project, which aims to inspire National Trust visitors, members and the public, to buy, eat and grow more sustainably produced, local food.

Working through 30 properties, the charity hopes to influence 400,000 people to make more sustainable food choices, through a three pronged approach, including:

  • training 600 staff and volunteers on what sustainable food means, and how to use this theme to engage thousands of visitors per year
  • bringing the food story to life at properties through imaginative interpretation in restaurants, kitchen gardens and on farms, coupled with engaging, family friendly activities around cooking and growing
  • Creating ten new food growing spaces for local people. School plots and community allotments have been established, and three community supported agriculture schemes are now underway – the first ever for the National Trust.

The ambitious aim of the programme is to persuade 20 % of visitors at National Trust targeted properties to make more sustainable choices, grow their own, and connect more closely with farmers and food producers.

“Food is one of our most fundamental connections to the living Earth,” said Jenny Sansom, local food coordinator for the National Trust.  “This grant gives us a fantastic opportunity to inspire hundreds of thousands of people, reconnecting them to what they eat and where it comes from, and prompting them to think about their wider impacts on the planet.”

Aside from the Eat into Green Living Project, the trust is also busily creating 1000 new allotments by 2012, as well as establishing and restoring traditional orchards at 26 separate sites. From May 2010 new bee hives are planned at 40 properties to support dwindling bee populations. It is also starting to introduce the Soil Association’s ‘Food for Life’ catering mark in cafés and restaurants.

To find out what your local National Trust property is doing on food go to or contact Jenny Sansom on 01793 818584.

Successful National Trust food projects:

Winchester City Mill, Hampshire
Winchester City Mill regularly offers baking demonstrations and food tasting. Its locally produced flour is milled using renewable energy from the river Itchen, and visitors and family groups can knead dough and shape their own buns to take away, after baking. The activities build understanding of why locally produced sustainable food is so important, in terms of the environmental impact and local economy, and also show people how easy it is to bake their own real bread.

Gibside, Tyne & Wear
The kitchen garden at Gibside, an estate five miles outside Gateshead in Northumberland, is actively used by schools and local charity Norcare, which supports a range of disadvantaged and special needs groups.

Gibside will shortly be employing a community gardener to develop new allotments and growing activities within the garden, as well as providing a new flexible learning space which incorporates a training room and potting shed. 

Gibside has hosted food festivals attracting over 5000 people, holds a monthly farmers market, and its new shop, the ‘Gibside Larder’, sells food from local producers, including National Trust tenant farmers, and organically grown 18th century varieties of fruit and vegetables from Gibside’s own walled garden. 


Society Café

An important branch of the local food movement, community cafés continue to crop up all over the country in many different forms.  But, finds Kelly Parsons, their good intentions can leave them stretched in too many directions.

Some are based in community centres, others in independent premises.  Some work to improve eating habits or draw communities together, others offer training and employment opportunities for the disadvantaged, some emphasise locally-produced or sourced food, and others provide additional services like counselling or health information.  Some were even launched to great media fanfare by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver: his global social enterprise Fifteen, now has restaurants in Amsterdam, Cornwall, London and Melbourne, and has many similar aims to other community cafés.  

But what ties the growing band of community cafés together - and sets them apart from their commercial equivalents - is their social aims. 

Platform One café in Clapham Junction is managed by The Camden Society and provides training for work, work experience and employment for local people with disabilities.  Manager Monica Campbell says “We put a lot of time and effort into adapting the training plan for each individual who comes through.  Service can be slow, and not all customers are tolerant of that, but there are enough regulars to support the café’s operation.” 

Conversely, Pogo café in Hackney is an open collective aimed at promoting veganism, and making it as accessible and affordable as possible.  The café also prides itself on being a hub for social activists in the neighbourhood, says chef Leviathan, who started out as a kitchen assistant back in December and has already been promoted to chef.  “We are completely self-financing, and everyone is an unpaid volunteer.”

Though very little research into this loose sector has been done, and their exact number remains unknown, community cafés are also increasingly viewed by policy makers as a vehicle for tackling health improvements, inequality, community development, inclusion and regeneration.  

The Eatwell project run by NHS Sandwell in the West Midlands, is one of the largest scale community café projects to date; running eight cafés.  The area’s high level of deprivation, and poorer than average health record, led the New Opportunities Fund (a body created to award National Lottery grants to health, education and environment projects) to provide around £325,000 to establish five cafés in the region, between 2001-2004, to create an awareness of healthy eating and improve social interaction within the communities.  Each of the cafés works with their local community, providing food for various groups including the women’s refuge, mother and toddlers, Sure Start, and local teachers at nearby schools.

Angela Blair, community food development worker at Sandwell, says that progress continues to be made:  “This year we’ll get the kind of information to really evaluate these cafés as businesses.”

But while the Sandwell cafes are some of the most successful examples to date, and several are coming close to self-financing, research last year found all of the projects experienced operational difficulties, such as insufficient funding, training and support.

Indeed, their intentions are unquestionably good, but running a community café is no easy task, and projects can end up stretched in too many directions because of their social aims.   “Cafés often underestimate what is involved and end up suffering from a lack of focus on proper training, and too many end up closing down because they aren’t operating on a sustainable basis,” says Hannah Williams, Buywell officer for the Big Lottery funded Well London programme, which has supported community cafes in London including Poplar’s Café Relax.

Support is a recurring theme at the Beehive café, in the London Borough of Sutton’s Phoenix Centre; a former social enterprise turned commercial café, now run by Greenwich Leisure Ltd (GLL), which runs the rest of the Phoenix.   While GLL does hold the Social Enterprise Mark, Beehive manager Amanda Hall - who has been involved since the cafe was first conceived seven and a half years ago - says unfortunately the project fell short of its social aims.  “We set up the café as our own non-profit making business, with a small amount of funding from Croydon Council, but much of our mission ‘to improve the quality of life of local residents through providing affordable, healthy food, employment, training and information’ didn’t come to fruition.  I had no support on the management side and was pretty much left to get on with it, which was just too stressful.”

It is also easy to underestimate the time and effort required, warns Rachel Claydon, manager of Poplar’s Café Relax, opened last year by City Gateway, a regeneration charity providing training and employment opportunities for unemployed women in Tower Hamlets.  “It’s not easy to set up a café.  Make sure you have enough funding to start up and don’t underestimate how long it will take to set up; probably double the amount of time of a standard café.” 

Such comments highlight a pressing need for support, advice and information-sharing to ensure cafés become more sustainable, by learning from each-other’s experiences, says Buywell officer Hannah Williams, adding that the most important factor is proper training.  “Whatever their social aims, all cafés need to have staff members who understand catering and business, and they should look to local catering businesses to find that kind of support.”

There is also a clear need for further research to establish how many cafés are actually out there, their average life-cycle, what models are employed by successful projects, and how many have failed and why.  

Though the challenges should not be underestimated; run successfully, a community café has the potential to reach policy objectives that other government measures have failed to reach.  Several hundred cafes across the UK, of all shapes and sizes - from small community centre cafés working to improve healthy eating habits to high end catering enterprises offering training to disadvantaged individuals - are proof that it can be done.



Growing Communities

Growing in more Communties

A thriving community-led vegetable box scheme in East London is now looking to deliver its successful programme to the rest of the country.  By Michael Dees

Growing Communities’ box scheme, organic farmers’ market and urban food-growing project in Hackney is one of the most successful in the country. It is now looking for up to five groups across the UK who want to join their start-up programme, and set up new community-led organic box schemes in their own areas.  The programme aims to help community led schemes create change by building real alternatives, and offers detailed tuition right down to financial spreadsheets and marketing.

“The scheme is designed to stop groups from re-inventing the wheel,” says Growing Communities’ farmers’ market organiser, Kerry Rankine. “We held a seminar last year and as a result the Bridge Box Scheme in Hastings was set up.  Now we want to get out to as many groups as possible.”

The scheme now packs over 930 bags of fresh, organic produce every week

The pioneering Growing Communities social enterprise set up the first organic box scheme in London back in 1994 with just 30 members. The scheme now packs over 930 bags of fresh, organic produce every week, supports over 25 organic farms and cooperatives by providing them with a regular outlet and a fair price for their produce.

Its box scheme operates a strict food buying policy that prioritises locally-produced fruit and vegetables.  Over the past year, 81% of the veg and 23% of the fruit in the fruit bags came directly  from local farms, while 87% of the vegetables came from the UK.  Growing Communities also runs three small organic market gardens in Hackney: the first organic food-growing land in London to be certified by the Soil Association. 

The farmers’ market which Growing Communities set up in Stoke Newington in East London works with 23 farmers and small producers who, in turn, have converted an additional 437 acres of land in Kent, Essex and Suffolk, to organic production.

“Communities need to start by getting food from as close as they can,” explains Kerry. “At the moment very little food comes from London itself, but we are helping to set up farms within the M25. Using a pick-up box scheme also cuts down on pollution and helps to build community.”

Groups or individuals interested in applying for the programme should contact Growing Communities by email at or have a look at their web site at


Local Action on Food: The Local Action on Food network was run as part of the Big Lottery funded Making Local Food Work programme, 2007 to 2012. It has now closed.

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