Not many people have heard of the small town of Todmorden, located on the upper east side of Britain, but thanks to a novel community project, Todmorden has become a sort of cultural icon and ‘foodie’ haven. The Incredible Edible Todmorden project began back in 2008 when a small group of volunteers proposed construction of several vegetable gardens throughout town. They called their plan Incredible Edible, and their goal was to promote local sustainability and food sourcing through community gardens accessible to all residents and passerby alike. The new food plots were constructed at the local rail station, police station, and schools, and soon began popping up at the hospital, along the streets and lining the towns canal. The plots are completely open to the public, and everyone is encouraged to pick and harvest whatever they may need, whether that’s ingredients for dinner, parties, or just a snack while passing through. Fast forward 9 years and Todmorden has over 50 public gardens (for a population of only 17,000) operated 100% by volunteers and has become a case study in sustainable food practice, with affiliated projects in 20+ other English towns and dozens more abroad. Today over 60% of residents say they “regularly buy local,” and 47% report to have grown food at their home in the past year. Food enthusiasts, anthropologists, celebrities and city planners alike have ventured from around the globe to visit, interact, and/or study Todmorden’s sustainable food practices.
Canal Gardens, Todmorden
After reading about Todmorden, I did some research into food waste in America and was shocked to learn that as much as 40% of our food supply is wasted, and that on average Americans throw away 20 pounds of edible food each month. In turn, organic waste accounts for the second highest component of landfills in the country. So what steps are we taking to reduce our impact, what can we learn from Todmorden, and what more can be done?
Todmorden is considerably smaller, more isolated, and less diverse in terms of political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds when compared to Seattle, so in that sense, I presume it is far easier to organize/create a community identity around sustainable food practices than it would be in Seattle or another large metropolitan area. Seattle has been doing better to push for more sustainable food sources through farmer’s markets, Fresh Bucks SNAP program, open space for gardens (P-Patches), and encouraging nutrition education in our schools. The Office of Sustainability and Environment reports over 26,000 pounds of fresh food donated by P-Patches in 2013 (last year data is available). Total sales from farmer’s markets also increased year over year from 2010-2013. These are encouraging signs, but there is room for improvement and there are lessons we can take from Todmorden and apply to a larger community such as Seattle. First, encouraging our public spaces and offices to include edible gardens. Currently, the Puget Sound region has 85 P-Patch gardens. Todmorden has over 50 public gardens. The difference is glaring on a per capita basis. The Seattle metro area has a population of roughly 3.8 million people, which equates to 1 P-Patch per 44,706 people. Todmorden’s ratio? One public garden per 340 people. Granted we are talking about much different demographics, and these numbers only consider the P-Patch program, but it does shed light on the stark contrast between the two locales. Seattle is also not devoid of local food options, such as PCC and the variety of restaurants sourcing locally grown food. However, it is the success of the P-Patch program, farmer’s markets, local restaurants, and farmers that leads me to believe there is so much more room for improvement.
Cascade P-Patch, Seattle
What are the options? Much like Todmorden, existing public buildings such as police stations, libraries, schools, and hospitals could be encouraged to re-purpose unused/landscaped land. Instead of taxpayer dollars going to the maintenance of lawns and flowers, they could go to upkeep of public edible gardens. New public construction could also easily accommodate implementation of small public garden spaces. Further, many new multifamily and apartment complexes have some amount of outdoor space for communal gardening. But these areas are often small, on roofs, or crammed in between buildings. While the inclusion of gardens is commendable, there leaves a lot to be desired in terms of access, upkeep and participation. Developers could be incentivized or required to include gardens in their open spaces that are viable and well-tended, whether through zoning recommendations by the city, or through their sustainability accreditation in LEED or Green Globes. City parks can also be required to have some type of public edible garden whether through the P-Patches program or otherwise. I am a member of the Greenlake Community Council and there has been much discussion in providing community gardening areas at Greenlake Park, yet another vehicle in which to implement sustainable food practices.
As Todmorden has learned, creating public gardens has not only dramatically increased the populations consumption of locally produced food, but inherently decreases food waste, promotes healthy eating, and provides education in sustainability to the local community. All of which are massive benefits for a relatively simple initiative.