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The food growing scheme creating a healthier, greener Westminster

Posted on 26 February 2018

There’s nothing more satisfying than eating food you’ve grown yourself, whether it’s a juicy tomato picked straight from the vine or some fresh, vibrant leafy greens. But this is only the start of the benefits that food growing can bring, as residents all over Westminster have been finding out.

Westminster communities have been taking part in Edible Westminster, a scheme creating opportunities for residents to grow and eat fresh fruit and vegetables. The scheme is part of Westminster City Council’s City for All initiative to improve health and wellbeing across the borough through access to nature. 14 community gardening sites have been set up across Westminster, bringing people together to learn about fresh, healthy food and giving under-used public spaces a new lease of life.

Through regular sessions run by gardeners from Groundwork London, people have gained new skills and learned about healthy eating. Communities and friendships have built up around the gardens, and now that the scheme has been running for 2 years many of the groups are confident and capable in gardening and eating healthily, and have the skills to carry on growing food in the future.

Communities have come together in all sorts of ways – here’s a snapshot of some of the brilliant food growing hubs set up around the borough.

Church Street Childrens' Centre

Church Street Children’s Centre supports young children and their families in the Church Street area of Westminster, providing education, care and family support services all within the same building. Children, parents and teachers took part in hands-on sessions to learn about food growing and healthy eating. For many of the participants gardening was a completely new experience: at the start of the project some people commented that they had never touched a plant before. But all were enthusiastic, and everyone learned new skills.

The Edible Westminster team ran over 30 sessions for a variety of groups who used the centre. Sessions included a regular gardening club, after-school session for parents and children, and sessions for teachers to give them the skills to pass on to future centre visitors.

Most of the activities took part in the centre’s roof garden, where the group planted raised beds with carrots, spinach, tomatoes and courgettes. Many people were planting seeds for the first time, nurturing and watering their plants weekly. “They taste even better when you have nurtured them yourself”, said one young gardener. The centre’s children loved exploring the specially-planted sensory garden, experiencing different tastes and smells and learning about new plants. They also learned about garden wildlife through making bee hotels and watching the fascinating wormery.

New discoveries were made all round. “I didn’t realise there were different types of mint, or that it could be used for flavouring pasta, making pesto, in couscous or making tea!” said one participant.

Lisson Green Estate

Residents of Westminster’s Lisson Green estate have been enjoying the chance to grow their own fruit and vegetables in an allotment site created on an old car park. With varying understanding of gardening techniques, residents had many different reasons for wanting to get involved: some wanted to get outdoors and meet their neighbours, others wanted to learn about growing healthy food on a budget, and one resident came along with her family because her children were interested in gardening.

The residents were each given raised beds to look after, and the team ran regular sessions on various gardening skills, from choosing and looking after plants that suited the site to using household ingredients to prevent pest and diseases - including making a garlic and chilli pest spray!

The gardening sessions were a focal point for the residents to come together, ask questions and compare techniques. A sense of community developed around the allotment, with residents who had more gardening knowledge offering advice, and everyone sharing work and produce. Many residents commented that they felt more active too. One participant said: "It’s great take time to come out, do some physical exercise and I feel fresh and I forget any pain. It’s great for my health" 

The children on the estate particularly enjoyed being in the allotment, and were keen to help their parents. They loved trying the fresh produce – there was a lot of excitement when the first ripe strawberries were ready for picking. The project may have even inspired the next generation of food growers. One child was very impressed by the Edible Westminster gardeners, saying: “You have the best job, you get to be outside, growing and eating food you’ve grown yourself… Maybe I could be a gardener!”

Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee School

Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee School is a school for pupils from 4 to 19 years of age who have severe learning difficulties. The pupils took part in gardening and food sessions with the Edible Westminster team in the school’s garden.

The pupils took part in many different activities, such as preparing raised beds, making leaf compost containers, planting seeds and herbs, and tasting vegetables. As well as enjoying being outside, the students developed their co-ordination, focus, teamwork and their ability to interact and complete set tasks. Some students are tube-fed so cannot interact with the food in a nutritional way, but have still enjoyed the sensory aspects of gardening – getting their hands dirty, the smell of herbs, the feel of bulbs, potatoes and leaves, and squashing strawberries.  

As well as learning about gardening, the sessions also gave both pupils and parents the chance to try new foods and learn about healthy eating. The pupils particularly enjoyed trying raw pepper and raw butternut squash. The teachers were surprised to see some of the pupils eating something new, as they were not known for being adventurous with their food! Parents planted seeds and took them to grow at home. They also enjoyed a herb tasting session and learned about healthy meals that could be made at home. At a school open day, the student gardeners ran a stall selling chutney made from the garden produce, and raised money for the school. Through taking part in the project the school have won a Healthy Schools Gold Award for food growing and engagement with food.

A bright future

The Edible Westminster food growing hubs are all at different stages: some well-established hubs have been running for more than two years, while four brand new hubs are just getting up and running. What they all have in common is the aim of passing on skills and confidence to members of the community so they can continue growing food and eating healthily in the long term.

In surveys participants reported a huge increase in confidence with plants and gardening, and have been taking home healthy eating tips and recipes to share with friends and family. Teachers have been enthusiastic about learning new skills to pass on to pupils, with many beginning to lead gardening sessions on their own. With the new facilities created by the project and the enthusiasm shown by the community, it’s clear that Edible Westminster has sown seeds that will keep growing long into the future.