Community farm tackles food insecurity

"More and more people are being pushed into food insecurity. And I think the answer is, don't make excuses for not using land wisely."

19th August 2022

“How do you want to feel when you’re on the farm?”

This is the question that the CoFarm team has been asking local citizens since the project’s beginnings in March 2019.

From the first community meeting just around the corner from the farm, in a day centre for adults with additional needs, the seven-acre plot has developed on place-led principles, reflecting the aspirations of the people who live in Abbey Ward, Cambridge.

They told the CoFarm team, “We want to feel safe, welcome, and loved,” and the farm has evolved to meet their needs.

We visited Gavin Shelton and the team at CoFarm in Cambridgeshire to hear about the challenges and rewards of finding land for a community food-growing hub.

When we arrive, there’s a riot of wildflowers and courgettes swelling on the ground. The place is an embodiment of the social, financial and ecological potential of urban and peri-urban land. Situated in an area with the country’s highest income inequality and food insecurity, the farm forms a hopeful model for using urban land to tackle these problems.

The farm is home to a community of over 500 volunteers, from a wide range of ages, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.

Curious local students have crouched over the soil to sow organic wheat and tomatoes for their Grow Your Own pizza project. Employees from companies in the area, some of which are potential investors in the farm’s future, volunteer on the farm to tackle social isolation and ill health in the workplace. Citizens struggling with employment have found a new passion – and new careers – in horticulture. The number of people working in the fields is distinctive – and gives the site a busy, vibrant feel.

Gavin Shelton, Founder & CEO of the CoFarm Foundation, shows us around, and shares some of their stories.

“One of our volunteers came to us because he was accessing our food through one of the local community food hubs we donate it all to. He had been unemployed for some time and needed that support. He loved the food and wondered where it came from, because it's really good, high-quality produce. Fresh.

So he came to start volunteering with us. Now he's developed a love of growing and has gone into a full-time career in horticulture, which he’s really enjoying. So far, six of our CoFarmers have started new careers in farming or horticulture.”

James is one of six CoFarm volunteers to have embarked on new careers in horticulture through cofarming. Photo by Sam Mellish and CoFarm Foundation.

Through the work of this volunteer community, the farm delivers fresh produce to eight emergency community food hubs across Cambridge. Driven by the foundational conviction that health inequalities cannot be addressed by supplying people with substandard food, CoFarm has so far donated 100% of its produce to the community food hub network.

“I think that has also been a driver for many volunteers to come on board. They like the fact that, whilst we live in a city with huge inequality, they are helping to reduce that in a small way,” Gavin adds.

These community food hubs – each run by a different community-based organisation – are a far cry from the typical image of a food bank and its piles of tinned and dried foods. Brimming with a huge diversity of fresh produce throughout the year (ropes of garlic, knobbly celeriac, artichoke heads, indigo french beans and heaps of heirloom variety tomatoes), the community food hubs are helping to nurture a knowledgeable and creative food community.

Pete Wrapson is one of two horticultural leads at CoFarm Cambridge. Photo by Sam Mellish and CoFarm Foundation.

Gavin recalls, “I remember the first time we put yellow courgettes in there. People hadn't seen yellow courgettes, so the green ones went and the yellow ones didn't. But then the food hub volunteers were just very good at saying, ‘No, it's just the same’ and the next week more people wanted the yellow ones. And they're very good with recipes as well with people, helping people know what to do with celeriac or whatever.”

The social and health benefits generated through CoFarm for the Abbey Ward community are matched by its balance sheet too.

The site, rented from a local Church, costs £450 a year, and has been used to produce over £60,000 worth of fresh, nutritious food in three years, all of which has been distributed and eaten within a mile of the farm.

Gavin recognises that, in the early days of a site like CoFarm, the right infrastructure can be costly.

With the generosity of a big tech company in Cambridge, the farm was able to get rabbit-proof fencing in, a structure that is comparatively expensive but affordable in the scheme of a billion-dollar company. Other bits of infrastructure that the community requested are being added to the farm as the funds become available to implement them.

Yet, beyond agricultural or horticultural infrastructure, financial investment is needed to get the required land to start creating an agroecological system on, something that is harder to come by.

Gavin acknowledges the competing pressures that community food growing projects face when trying to find land in an urban setting. “Landowners can see that plots of land are being sold way above the market rate for agricultural land, to be developed for things like housing or science and innovation parks.”

He explains, “This can make it very difficult for prospective new entrants to agroecological farming to find suitable sites. Five sites all fell through before we secured the farm business tenancy for this one. Starting other urban cofarms in Cambridge has proved challenging."

Now, residents in areas like nearby Fulbourn are hoping that local authorities and other stakeholders recognise the proven ability of community farms to generate income, food security, community cohesion and public health benefits.

Gavin is hopeful on this point.

“I think there is a growing recognition... that actually, if we don't find spaces - make spaces - for nature, and for food growing, and for community benefit, and for nourishing our communities – then we will pay the price down the line for it.

More and more people are being pushed into food insecurity by the extractive business models that underpin our food systems. And I think the answer is, don't make excuses for not using land wisely. Make land available for community growing in perpetuity. Adopt a cofarming approach that brings people together, that has multifunctional land use benefits of supporting people with their mental health, their physical health, tackling isolation, and farming with nature, to help nature bounce back and help nourish people.

I mean, it's not rocket science.”

More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.