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  • Pam Warhurst

    'If you eat, you're in'. That's the simple premise behind Incredible Edible, a network created to put food back at the heart of local communities by growing fruit and vegetables in disused public spaces. Now in its 10th year, we caught up with the movements founder, Pam Warhurst, to talk community, celebrating a decade of growth and how you can get involved...

    Let’s start at the beginning, can you tell us how Incredible Edible Network came to life? 

    It came to me like a bolt from the blue. A decade ago I’d just heard a presentation about the global issues around how we are living our lives and it’s impact on the planet; overuse of resources, ill health, poverty, and it seemed to me it was time for ordinary folks to take a lead on this for themselves and demonstrate to those in power just what we are capable of achieving. So over the length of the train journey from London to Manchester, I made up the simple model of putting local food at the heart of our community, and Incredible Edible was born. The model is simple. It has three 'plates' to it, and people can get involved in any or all of them. First, community, growing food to share in public places; secondly, learning, sharing skills around how to do that; and finally, business, using the pound in your pocket to support local food businesses. Together, this investment of local people can help us all live well and prosper now and into the future.

    Where was the first ever patch of Incredible Edible land, and is it still growing? 

    It started in Todmorden because that’s where I live. After a public meeting in a cafe, we built raised beds in front of a disused health centre, turned a grass verge into a herb garden and with a flash mob, planted up an orchard around a playing field. It’s a great feeling turning spaces that are unloved into plots where people can see what you can grow in the area. The herb garden is still there, and from what we learned at the derelict health centre, we created food plots around our new centre, and they are still there and being used today.

    How has your role changed within the project? Talk us through your day to day life at Incredible Edible… 

    I kicked off chairing the local group, which I did for six years, but then, as other groups were popping up all over the country, not to mention the impact overseas, it seemed my talents would be better employed inspiring and helping other groups to grow. So Mary Clear, who kicked off the Todmorden group with me, became the local chair and I’ve spent the last four years meeting, talking and telling our simple story to those ready for a different approach to living our lives. Building a kinder world through actions around local food. We have more than 120 groups now, each spinning the three plates in their own way, and each with great stories of community spirit to tell.

    What does community mean to you?

    It means having a sense of not being alone. It means seeing ourselves connected to others whom we can gain so much from and to whom we can offer our gifts. It is, for me, a fundamental building block for a society that strives to help everyone realise their potential and be happy.

    When Incredible Edible began to expand and grow globally, how did you still feel connected?

    We talk to each other. It doesn’t matter where you live, the internet and social media allows everyone to ask, share and inspire. And on top of that, as we've learnt so many lessons along the way, we created a website, which we’ve just relaunched, so groups, new and old, can share and learn together. 

    What are you doing to mark your 10 year anniversary?

    The Todmorden group recently held an Incredible Festival of Ideas, to celebrate the 10 years and remind us all that the spirit of innovation in our communities is still alive and well. From the Incredible Edible movement, six groups from around the country were beamed in to celebrate the power of small actions that over the last decade has changed so many of our neighbourhoods and how we feel about ourselves. The movement is there to support, not dictate.

    What have been the biggest highs and lows for you over the past 10 years?

    The response from that initial meeting in a cafe, where the room just exploded with ideas, will always be with me. The kindness of so many people who just needed somewhere to start doing something about a new prosperity and found the three plates. The amazing work of the Ilfracombe group who during the terrible snows of the past winter rolled up their sleeves and provided food and hope to those in need. The wonderful leadership of the Chief Executive of Wigan Council who was the first person in local government to say, "I want you to help us adopt the model, and help the people of Wigan live well in these difficult times." As for downsides, Incredible Edible was always going to be a forever project, so I’ve not noticed the lows yet.

    If you could, what three things would you tell yourself on the day you had the idea for the network now? 

    Fasten your seat belt. This is going to be a long ride.

    Ordinary people have so much more insight into the important elements of a kinder, more inclusive and prosperous society than politicians.

    Learn from the lessons they have taught you, and don’t be afraid to stand your ground and challenge those who have responsibility for the frameworks of our lives. There’s no bad guys. It’s just some are blinded by the system.

    Why is food sustainability so important? And, why is it important to be part of a community? 

    Food unites us all, across age, income, culture and ability. Share food and you share the future, together. Living well, being active and eating good food to stay healthy is a central plank of any community. In a future when we need to be able to grow and process more food locally, because of all the issues around climate change and because others we may never meet need to be eating their own food. It’s important that together we work out how we’re going to do it. You don’t need a national policy document, you need to let people just get on and do it.

    How does Incredible Edible change the way you eat?

    People who didn’t know how to cook from fresh, now do. Families who didn’t pick food together can now be seen collecting berries from the health centre site. Walk along the canal and see the number of raised beds that have sprung up over the last ten years. All this changes what we eat and how we get it.

    Have you made any friends through the community? 

    I’ve been blessed with meeting and working alongside the most inspiring folks. Being part of something so important as the IE movement over the last ten years has made my life so much richer. I wouldn’t change a thing that’s happened.

    What has Incredible Edible taught you?

    It’s taught me that what I suspected is most definitely true. We have leaders and incredible individuals through all our communities, who, with the right support, can help transform difficult times into times of hope and happiness. It’s taught me that we already have what it takes to create a kinder more inclusive prosperity. We just need to bend what we’ve got and invest in more local solutions. It’s taught me to stick to my guns, and never doubt the power of small actions.

    What advice would you give to someone with their own idea for sustainability?  

    Just get on and do something! Demonstration is key. Focus on telling the story and spreading your ideas.

    Do you have a favourite recipe to make from the produce of your local Incredible Edible patch? 

    My favourite is a simple pasta dish made out of anything green that’s growing. Chop leeks or onions, garlic, add green beans, peppers, chard, cavolo nero, whatever’s growing. Chuck in loads of herbs like basil, parsley, maybe a touch of tarragon, stock, simmer. Easy as that and delicious with pasta and local grated cheese.

    What do you have planned for the future of Incredible Edible?

    Incredible North! Linking those who are using food to redefine how we do things, whichever sector they are in. We’re experimenting across the North of England - rethinking supply chains and procurement in favour of local growers and processors, encouraging investment in the urban farmers and food entrepreneurs of the future, and using our public realm, much of which grows grass at present, to grow food where it’s needed. Watch this space.

    What are your top tips for growing your own?

    Don’t worry if you have never cooked or grown before. Everyone starts somewhere and the only way to learn is to have a go. Others will help you, I promise. 

    Fruit or vegetables? 

    Veg.

    Spring or autumn?

    Spring.

    Owl or lark? 

    Lark.

    Over or under dressed?

    Under.

    Word you over-use?

    Incredible.

    Last time you laughed out loud?  

    Yesterday at my daughters cat pouncing at nothing.

    Guilty pleasure?

    Gin and tonic.

    Book you wish you'd written?

    Lord of the Rings, Wolf Hall or any by Margery Allingham.

    One thing you couldn’t live without? 

    Coffee.

    Life motto?

    Just do it.

    To find an Incredible Edible group near you visit their website!