Incredible Edible: Yorkshire town’s food-growing scheme takes root worldwide

May 11, 2018, 5:00 pm
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Source: The Guardian

When two women began turning disused verges in the former mill town of Todmorden into free food plots, little did they realise they would inspire a global movement of growers

A deep mist hangs over Todmorden on a chilly spring morning. Only the birdsong and a few daffodils give the sign of spring.

This doesn’t seem to bother a group of 20 volunteers from the Yorkshire town who have gathered together armed with spades, trowels and litter pickers. Instructions of which patch to attack are distributed, while children as young as three are given high-vis jackets with the name Incredible Edible printed on the back. These are Todmorden’s radical gardeners, a group of food freedom fighters who’ve been planting in this town for a decade.

It’s a simple idea: take over unused or unattractive bits of public land to plant food to feed the community. What is not so simple is where they’re doing it. Todmorden is an old mill town in Yorkshire’s Calderdale valley. It rains a lot, there’s not a lot of sun, and it has experienced major flooding in recent years. But still, the town’s residents continue to grow fruit and vegetables as best they can for locals to pick and eat.

“We do say that if you can grow it in Todmorden, you can grow it anywhere,” says Estelle Brown, one of the founding members of Incredible Edible Todmorden (IET).

This motto has turned out to be true beyond just growing food. Since a group of a dozen residents began gardening in March 2008, hundreds of people from around the UK and abroad have travelled here to see how the “Toddies” do it. The word spread through media coverage and IET committee members touring to give talks. They’ve had calls and visitors from New Zealand and Japan, to France and Germany, and there are now as many as 500 community food growing groups across the world using the Incredible Edible name.

No one is trying to clone what Todmorden does but the model is adapted to suit different needs. “If you’re doing it for your community it’s got to be for your community,” says Brown. In Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the group supports farmers and street children, helping them get documentation and educating them about food. “Food autonomy and eating organically, that’s what inspired us,” Addico Charly of Incredible Edible Kinshasa writes by email.

In France, the movement has taken root as Les Incroyables Comestibles, with 300 groups around the country. There are sister groups in Israel, Palestine, Columbia and Brazil – all growing food to share with others.

The Toddies didn’t set out to start a food-growing revolution, they wanted to bring their small town together at a difficult time for communities throughout the UK. “Ten years ago it was the beginning of the worldwide economic decline, there was a lot of worry about climate change, but nothing was really happening,” says Mary Clear, chair of IET. “And in this town we were starting to see the squeeze on public services – there was more litter – and we thought, how can we do something that will create stronger communities?”

Growing food was their answer. Clear, now 63 and retired, who previously worked in child protection, lowered one of the walls in her front garden, removing rose bushes to make a bed with herbs and signs saying “help yourself”. The group then turned their minds to the grass verges which seemed to only attract dog poo, and turned them into herb gardens too.

IET now has approximately 70 sites around the town, from vegetable patches outside the police station to herb planters at the train station.

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