This month a groundbreaking handbook about arts and social change burst onto the bookshelves. Playing for Time – Making Art as if the World Mattered by Lucy Neal was, like Sustainable Bungay, inspired by the world-wide Transition movement. As well as discussing the social and environmental drivers for change and giving detailed ‘Recipes for Action’, the book charts the practices and projects of 64 contributing artists in 10 chapters, ranging from Land to Rites of Passage. Here to introduce the Food Growing chaper, SB co-founder and local food entrepreneur Josiah Meldrum, discusses the impact community growing (and eating) can have on our collective imaginations, looking at the origins of two SB projects, the Library Courtyard Garden and Happy Mondays:
Back in the 1990s, when I first began work in community outreach for a small retail co-operative in Nottingham, I quickly learnt the power of food to connect people. I saw how, despite apparently very different backgrounds, people could share a passion and a purpose – whether it was about growing food organically, the social justice issues around fair trade or simply local access to good quality affordable food.
Most people feel powerless to effect the kind of big changes we desperately need to see. But I think that scale of change is within our grasp – it’s just a question of realising it and understanding the many (often very small) steps required to get there. In my experience food is often at the heart of those first steps, not only because it’s fundamental to all our lives but because shared meals, produce and growing spaces bring people together, reintroduce them to each other and, potentially, reconnect them with the way their food is produced and how it gets to their plate – even if it’s just a few radishes in a window box.
That feeling of doing something radical the first time you grow, harvest, cook and share something with your friends or family never really goes away. It’s the feeling that you have somehow evaded the corporate supply food chain; that you’re on the path to somewhere else. And from the point of taking control of the radishes in your salad, from securing a supply of food from local producers, you begin to take control of your dinner plate and the social, economic and environmental impact it has. Because taking our food into our own hands is a deeply political and potentially powerful act; it empowers us and makes a positive statement about how we want things to be. From this sense of agency we can exercise a lot more influence within our communities.
In the context of many Transition groups, it gives people a set of very immediate practices and a rationale to underpin what they are doing. In my own initiative of Sustainable Bungay we realised if that if we wanted to see local growers and producers flourish then we needed to demonstrate that by providing a market for their goods: by eating what they were growing. As a first step we set up a monthly community meal, ‘Happy Mondays’, which would highlight seasonal produce that was being grown in and around the town. Happy Mondays serves up 50 meals once a month, we celebrate local producers – from gardeners and allotmenteers to smallholders and farmers. But we also cook together, decorate the room, give talks about food growing and keeping hens, develop ideas, build friendships and strengthen our group.
What we have seen with Happy Mondays is that when people have gained some confidence about working together it also gives them the confidence to ask, ‘What other projects could we tackle?’. One occasional supplier to Happy Mondays is our own community garden. In 2010 the group ran a weekend introduction to permaculture and used as our case-study Bungay Library’s empty brick courtyard. 16 or 17 people came up with a design for a garden and then went about creating it. Now there are fruit trees and beds with flowers, vegetables and herbs, but it’s tiny – it’s not going to feed the town by any measure.
Six months after we’d begun the process of creating the garden Suffolk County Council threatened to close our library if a volunteer group didn’t step up to run it for them. Suddenly there was a passionate group of people who’d organised and achieved something in that space. And they said: No, we’re not going to a) let the council close our library or b) let them assume that just because we’re interested in the library we want to run it. And we began a campaign that linked up with library groups all over the county and ultimately led to Suffolk County Council changing its policy.
Today our library is still open, still staffed by professional librarians and our community garden continues to flourish. All from the desire to grow some radishes. The community garden is a very visible manifestation of what Sustainable Bungay is all about. It’s a statement of intent. It’s saying, ‘We care about this space, we care about what happens in it and around it. And anyone can come in and join in.’
A garden is a physical presence in a community that’s visible to local politicians, community leaders, schoolchildren, everyone from faith groups to non-governmental organisations, many of whom may have no particular interest in food, but are interested in showing people different ways of doing things. It’s a public space where events and workshops can happen, where a child can have a life-changing experience. And there are intangible benefits that come to a place and people with that garden that can’t be measured or monetised, that play out with each growing season, not just over years, but over decades.
Images from Playing for Time: Fruit and veg collectors at Little Patch of Ground, London 2012; photo by Encounters Arts; Seed Library poster by Transition San Franscisco; Fruit Routes map by Anne-Marie Culhane and Jo Salter, Loughborough University: The Edible Garden, Tower Hamlets, London, produced by Phakama and Fabio Santos, photo by Caroline Gervay.
Extract published from Playing for Time – Making Art as if the World Mattered (Oberon Books), £16.99. Copyright Lucy Neal.
The making of Playing for Time will be discussed by the book’s editor Charlotte Du Cann at a talk on Monday 27th April, 2pm at Southwold Library.