Help us to continue our organic growing project in Southwark

  • Last updated: 28 November 2022
In 2016 we launched a new project in the London Borough of Southwark. The project was funded by the Hirschmann Foundation to train Master Gardeners, and Food Buddies, to go into the most deprived wards in the borough and teach residents how to grow and cook their own organic food.
Trowel and herbs at our Master Gardeners project Wales
It’s a successful model we’ve followed many times and we were confident we could make a difference.

The London Borough of Southwark was chosen for this project because it was a test area for universal credit. Whilst there are pockets of wealth within the borough it has a large percentage of social housing and a significant number of residents at risk of food insecurity, often brought on by lower incomes relative to disproportionately high housing costs. Residents are often faced with difficult life choices between heat, food or a roof over their head. The borough also has a childhood obesity rate of one in four – the national average is one in ten.
This is a place where people have lost connection with their food.
I’ll let Debbie Mitchener, Garden Organic’s Project Co-ordinator, tell you her story.
“Within Southwark very few people have access to a traditional ‘growing space’ – no gardens, allotments, balconies, many don’t even have a windowsill. But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t able to enjoy the experience of growing and eating organic food. It’s our job to show them what they can do with what they have. And that’s exactly what we do.
Supported by a team of Garden Organic trained volunteers, I started to go round to events, community groups, all sorts, to encourage people to grow something organically. We put on a suite of free organic growing classes. Time and time again we were met with people saying they’d love to grow their own food but they had nowhere to do so.
I disagree! Everyone has space for a jam jar. And if you have a jam jar you can try your hand at sprouting. So that’s what we show people.
The uplifting power of watching something grow from a tiny seed to food you can eat is perhaps something you and I take for granted. But it was really brought home to me recently when I was running a little organic growing stall at a community café attached to a food bank.
I was approached by a gentleman from Somalia, who came to the UK as a refugee. He was telling us about all the fantastic crops he used to grow in Somalia, but how now all he has is a small room with a mattress on the floor and nowhere to grow. He was struggling to adapt to his new situation and was in desperate need of help.
We convinced him to sow some seeds in a pot made from old newspapers and explained how he could grow it by his window. He walked away with a huge smile on his face, carrying his pot, and said
At least I have something I can look after now.
This, to me, is what this project is about. It’s about reaching people who have a real need. A real need to be supported to grow. Gardening isn’t just a support in terms of putting organic food in your belly, it’s giving you hope. Growing allows you to see further than what’s right in front of you. It makes you think to the future.
I’m sure you know this already, you know the excitement of planning a growing season. Of imagining all those tasty crops and beautiful flowers decorating your garden and filling your plate. But some people simply have never experienced that, or don’t believe they can any more.”

We’re immensely proud of what the team are achieving in Southwark, but my frustration is that the funding of this pilot project is due to end in September. We’ve only just got started. Debbie has people begging her to continue the organic growing classes. Organic food is growing in high rise flats in central London thanks to Debbie and the volunteers. People are enjoying organic food on their plates who, regardless of how strongly they believe it’s the right way to shop, couldn’t dream of being able to afford the organic produce in the supermarket.
We think these people deserve the chance to grow, and if they’re going to be taught to grow, they should be taught to grow organically. That’s why we need your help to extend this project.
But it’s not just the residents who benefit. The experience can be life-changing for the volunteers too. Christina is a volunteer Master Gardener. Before getting involved in the project, Christina was in a women’s refuge. After moving to Southwark to live with her mum, Christina wanted to get involved with food growing on her mum’s estate.

“After being in the refuge my confidence was on the floor. I knew I wanted to help people grow food but I didn’t know where to start. When I heard about the Garden Organic project I contacted Debbie as I wanted to have the confidence to be able to teach people and get them excited about growing.
All this great organic food, we couldn’t normally afford it where I live. But by growing it ourselves we can get good organic food into the older people and the children on our estate. I teach people how to do it themselves, but I couldn’t do it without Debbie on the other end of the phone, and the resources Garden Organic provides.
I now run a school gardening club, I would never had imagined that possible. Garden Organic has given me that confidence. We’ve gone from the children telling me the green tomatoes were apples, to them growing a big range of vegetables to make into soup. We have 40 children on the club waiting list now.

Whatever the type of day I’ve had, as soon as I get near the school I feel like a million dollars. We’re leaving a legacy in the area, a new generation passionate to grow organically. And these kids are loving it!”
37% of the children in the school Christina volunteers in are receiving free school meals. And when children are on free school meals they often don’t have another meal at home. The organic fruit and vegetables they eat from the school garden aren’t just a nice snack, they make a big difference to the health of these children.
We need to continue this work. There are other organisations who could do it, yes, and we work with some fantastic ones, especially within the council-backed Southwark Food Power Action Alliance that we set up. But no one else is reaching these people in the same way we are.
That’s why I’m writing to you to ask you to help us continue this work. Continue to teach volunteers like Christina organic growing practice for them to pass on. Continue to get more people growing organically - people who don’t have the means to buy seeds, pots and compost or have the opportunity to attend a course, or visit gardens and garden centres.
These people want to learn to grow organically. As Debbie said, growing gives them hope and gives them a future. If you can, please help us to continue to support them.
Thank you for your support.