If you eat, you're in!

How growing free food in a small town is now changing relationships with nature across the globe.
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Local markets are being revitalized as we remind people that everything doesn't have to be flown halfway across the globe in a plastic bag.

What wouldn't we do for our kids? We play in the park, cut down on sugar, walk them home from school, talk around that all-important dinner table - the stuff of everyday life that shows we care.

But when it comes to the impact on nature of decades of overconsumption - fossil fuels, flights all over the planet, throw away consumerism, whatever – for some reason we don't reckon that its effect on the futures of our children, let alone the children of people we may never meet, is of interest to anyone but 'environmentalists'.

Rio, Copenhagen, Kyoto, Paris? What had any of those international meetings to do with us?

Well, everything. And in the absence of real, brave leadership from those elected, millions of people are beginning to realize their own potential to build something kinder for the next generation – even when it seems too big a task for individual action.

It's not new. Ten miles from where I live is the birthplace of the Rochdale Pioneers, the founders of the cooperative movement that changed how we operate across the globe. They invented a different way of seeing things and working together because the times demanded change for the sake of their families and their communities.

Incredible Edible is just one of many similar movements worldwide demonstrating the power of small actions to bring about meaningful change. It was kicked off round a kitchen table in the small town of Todmorden, in England’s West Yorkshire, almost ten years ago. That was closely followed by a public meeting in a local café. We had a simple, basic idea.

This was to use food, which everyone understands, to connect people with nature and help everyone take part in building a kinder future. It started with my co-founder, Mary Clare, planting vegetables in her front garden with a sign: “Help yourselves”. That got people talking – and acting. Herbs and vegetables started sprouting on other sites in the town. The council decided to let anyone apply for a licence to grow food on its land; people got more free food, and the town had less waste ground to look after.

The model can be thought of as three spinning plates. One represents community action, such as growing food. The second stands for learning, not just formal, but in the lost arts of growing and cooking: to start with, every primary school was given a disused pleasure boat to use as a planter. The third is for business and the influence we can have simply by spending in support of local producers, instead of making the unthinking trip to the supermarket.

Start with any plate you like, we say, but always remember that they are a set. Get a few folks just to go out and do it. Demonstrate how things can be changed without permission, bids for philanthropic money or policy documents. Tell the story of what ordinary folks are doing and why. Have faith in the power of small actions: others also seeking a way of creating something better will find and join you.

Over time the impact of these simple actions has been amazing. Places that were unloved and abandoned now grow food to share. Roadside verges, railway platforms, hospital grounds and town centre squares have been redefined as edible landscapes.

The Incredible Edible model is now being embraced by dozens of communities all over the country, and the world. There are now more than 100 Incredible Edible groups in the UK. Internationally, they spread from Canada to New Zealand. Forward thinking local authorities – Wigan in the UK's North West is a good example – are examining how they can get out of the way and help their residents redefine health, wealth and happiness through their own actions.

Almost-lost knowledge of how to grow and eat well with little money is being rediscovered through conversations with older residents who've been through times of hardship. Exchanges over kitchen tables and raised beds increase respect across age and culture and bring friendships and collaborations that no policy action plan could ever imagine. Local markets are being revitalized as we remind people we get the economy in which we spend our money – and that everything doesn't have to be flown halfway across the globe in a plastic bag.
All this collectively can and does make a difference. It can put steel into the backbones of local politicians concerned about that all important front page of the local newspaper – or perhaps even more importantly, its letters page. It has a tremendous impact on a child growing up in a town, borough, or neighbourhood where food is available on the trees, in the park, around the health centre, everywhere. There's a reconnection with nature, the environment, seasonality, biodiversity, just through growing food locally.

Why stop there? Knowing that the spirit of collaboration is at the heart of all this – that we deliver stronger messages together – we have started another experiment. This time it's on a much bigger geographical scale aiming at challenging the status quo with all people using food across the North of England.

We aim to create a web of all the organizations and individuals in the region who are using the power of local food to redefine prosperity; to help them share and learn from each other; to collaborate not compete; to magnifying the impact simply by coming together.

This Incredible North, as we call it, is already happening, collaborating around food to reshape the North of England, and its mindset. Local authorities, hospitals and schools are using their procurement budgets on local production, redefining supply chains. Public bodies are rethinking the public realm in favour of local growing, helping citizens to reclaim the land. Prisons are growing food and teaching associated skills, pioneering a new approach to the rehabilitation of prisoners. Developers of social housing are rethinking the spaces around the homes and making it Edible.

Incredible Edible has always had one point of entry. If you eat, you're in. That's all of us. If we have the will, we can change the future.