April 23, 2014

Free Fruit & Vegetables: The Incredible Edible Food Movement of Todmorden

By Dr. John Paull, School of Land & Food, University of Tasmania, Australia

Todmorden may be a small, drab, post-industrial English village but it has one big, bold and bright idea. This Yorkshire village decided to “do something, take action” about the disconnect between food production and consumers.

The Incredible Edible idea is to seize public spaces for food production. It is a community initiative that it is a mix of permission gardening and guerrilla urban agriculture – with and without the approval of the caretaker of the space. Public spaces of Todmorden have been planted to food – fruit, vegetables and herbs. Such spaces, appropriated or created, include railway station nooks, hospital car park verges, planter boxes nestled on the foot path, elevated planter boxes at the local retirement home, the police station front yard, the canal tow path edges, the local cemetery, and all school yards.

These in-your-face “propaganda gardens” dotted about the village are not just propagating comestibles, they also propagate ideas of food origins, of local food, of seasonality and food beyond the supermarket aisle. Signage on the plots makes it clear that this super-fresh street-side food is free and pedestrians are invited to pick the food when ripe and there are even suggestions for cooking and eating.

Co-founder of Incredible Edible Todmorden, Pam Warhurst, talks of recruiting and incorporating “the three spinning plates” of community, education and business into the vision of a more food-aware Todmorden. And what works for Yorkshire may work for other parts of Britain and other communities throughout the world. The project was founded on the sweat equity of the community, with businesses providing plots and materials, and all of the local schools participating.

To an outsider, the food culture of Britain seems neither broad nor deep. Britain long ago made the calculated decision to scour the world for cheap food imports at the cost of neglecting local production. The food scarcities of WWII challenged the logic of that decision and urged Brits to “Dig for Victory.” Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in allotment gardening – leased personal garden plots within a gated community gardening area.

The novelty of Incredible Edible garden plots is that they invite the passers-by to savour the free produce. They may also be a “Trojan horse” which can smuggle bigger ideas into the consciousness of a town by raising the awareness of localness, seasonality and variety, by introducing novel fruits, vegetables and herbs to the local palate. This precipitates food dialogue and confronts the food complacencies fostered by the uniformity, abundance, blandness and predictability of supermarket food.

It turns out that “Incredible Edible” is contagious. About twenty towns have joined the Incredible Edible movement with the shared vision of changing the world, one cabbage leaf at a time. Just maybe your town can “do something, take action,” catch the Incredible Edible bug, embrace this proven model of urban agriculture, and become as Incredibly Edible as Todmorden.

Find out more about Todmorden, which is featured as a case study in “Please Pick Me” – How Incredible Edible Todmorden is repurposing the commons for open source food and agricultural biodiversity. Or read the whole book: Diversifying Food and Diets: Using Agricultural Biodiversity to Improve Nutrition and Health.

Have your own urban or guerilla agriculture story to share? Use the comments below!

Photo: John Paull, University of Tasmania 

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