Digital Storytelling about Community Food Growing Project: Second Insights from autumn 2021 course

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In early 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted community food growing initiatives, while also revealing and intensifying the stark social inequalities in our society. People’s social isolation prompted even greater interest in community food growing initiatives. In the  ‘Grassroots Visual Storytelling about Community Food-Growing’ course, which began in spring 2021, participants gained skills in digital visual storytelling, while exploring and promoting their experiences of community food growing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

From the spring 2021 films, the First Insights page described participants’ efforts to overcome social isolation by sustaining or even expanding food initiatives, thus maintaining benefits such as health and well-being. Despite Covid restrictions, participants got to know each other better and extended friendship networks across social differences of ethnicity, national origin and age. While fulfilling their own needs, participants also felt they were doing socially useful activities, such as supplying food banks and learning skills for locally produced food. 

Cultivation skills were extended to homes, schools and other food growing spaces. Participants’ films described how their involvement in community food growing strengthened people’s enthusiasm and cultivation skills for localizing food production. The films can be seen here.

Stimulating stories

Extending those themes, the autumn 2021 course sought to elicit deeper feelings and transformative potentials around community food-growing. On the one hand, participants have experienced doubts about whether their food initiative could prevail over various obstacles (especially during the pandemic), thus potentially deterring or limiting their commitments. On the other hand, many participants have brought hopes for rebuilding the future differently, both within and beyond food initiatives, as an inspiration for greater commitments, solidaristic bonds and a food culture. 

© Madeleine Jubilee Saito https://madeleinejubileesaito.net/ 

To elicit such themes, the autumn course prepared stimulus materials about storytelling styles and roles. Stories can help us to understand how group experiences encounter difficulties and cope with them, thus inspiring others to develop similar practices. Otherwise stressful experiences can become bearable and be turned into social connections that evoke positive emotions. Sharing such personal stories helps participants to form  interdependent support networks where people can listen to, hold space for and support each other, thus creating or expanding community. We call this process ‘community flourishing’, which is beautifully illustrated by Madeleine Jubilee Saito‘s comics.

The course materials also introduced the concept of radical hopefulness. This means practices which acknowledge difficult issues and emotions,  as a basis of responding with care and putting this care into practice.  By such means, collective practices can not only envision a better future, but also enact or prefigure this future in the present. For the food-growing theme of this course, radical hopefulness can inspire practical steps towards transforming the agri-food system.

Visual stories from the course

In the autumn 2021 course, the visual stories encompassed a diverse range of initiatives, many of them different than community gardens. Each in its own way, novel forms of community emerged from people who otherwise would not have met each other. The films give an inside view of how food-growing initiatives have dealt with participants’ difficulties and inspirations; they elicit diverse feelings, firstly from the storytellers themselves and then from those who have seen their visual stories.

In each initiative, common practices generated group engagements, built community bonds, enhanced cooperative skills and envisaged collective contributions to a better future. Some initiatives had activities or impacts beyond community gardens, indicating a wider transformational potential. Here are a few highlights of stories told in the films:

In the Stream Walk Community Garden in Whitstable, Kent, when the pandemic began, participants managed to keep in touch through Zoom meetings, WhatsApp and emails. Amid the pandemic gloom, they followed the Covid hygiene rules, dodging each other in the garden, each keeping their tools and gloves to themselves. Nevertheless the initiative managed to flourish. It opened a National Garden scheme, an open garden weekend, and a parents and toddlers group.  Despite erratic adverse weather in 2021,  they grew fruit and vegetables and shared or sold them. Conversations shared doubts and difficulties of participants. Bringing together ‘so many people with their own stories of family traumas, we are now a family of friends and colleagues, each with our foibles and quirky ways…’ Participants express these commitments as follows: The garden protects us, while we protect the garden.

Incredible Edible Barnet was inspired by the original idea from Incredible Edible Todmorden and its wider network. When the Covid pandemic began in 2020, salad beds outside a church and a temporary allotment helped to supply local food banks. ‘The garden brings joy to anyone who passes by, and even more to anyone who decides to get their hands dirty, and wants to learn more about growing their own food.’  As one motive for the initiative,  people have lost their relationship with food, where it comes from, and its impact on the planet. This initiative stimulates people to grow food at multiple sites and encourages passers-by to pick the crop. It encourages and helps people to start a community food growing space in their area, thus reconnecting with the source of food. 

A campaign of Cambridge community groups generated the George Street Garden Share as an informal neighbourhood network. Each participant found or created their own growing space, which could be a back garden or simply a windowsill. They share all other elements of food growing, e.g. seeds, tools, compost, cultivation knowledge and the harvest. This has been shared and allocated in a food hub, especially for neighbours who most needed the food. Donations have give the donors much pleasure and a sense of social purpose. ‘Many people felt they weren’t really gardeners, but the results were fantastic’, thanks to the mutual support and inspiration.  The Garden Share film offers advice and encouragement for people starting similar initiatives elsewhere. This proliferation helps participants to create community bonds from otherwise isolated individuals, to build capacities for independence from the dominant agri-food system and to generate support for alternatives.

During the pandemic, students from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, escaped their dorms to create a college gardening group. Motivations to join the group were diverse, ranging from environmental concerns and desires to save money to the therapeutic and physical benefits. In between breaks for classes and papers, volunteers fertilised the soil on their six raised beds, planted seeds indoors and outdoors, watered the plants, uprooted weeds, and harvested the mature vegetables. They used only organic material and maintained communication through WhatsApp. While vegetables grew, the gardeners quickly developed a sense of attachment towards the soil, plants, and others. For one volunteer, it notably helped her establish roots in the community. The student group organised outdoor jam sessions, poetry nights, picnics, and potlucks to strengthen bonds between the gardeners and the broader Oxford community. As the head student gardener explained, “eating together is just as much important as producing the food or what you actually eat.” While participation sometimes dwindled and food distribution to students halted, the group expressed its desire to extend its impact outside the college gates. It organised clothing drives for local charity shops and hoped to distribute fresh produce to food banks and shelters next springtime. 

Hosted by Reading’s Food4Families programme, the Lavender Place Community Garden was created on a half-hectare site of the former Civic Centre offices. Numerous volunteers put raised beds of veg around the site,  soon becoming abundant with fruit, animals, birds, their songs and of course people (both visitors and volunteers). It features a Global Garden with plants from places from where refugees have volunteered at the site. They have tried to do things in a sustainable, often quirky way, maximising benefits to its volunteer gardeners and the wider community around the space. The Garden has held many events promoting well-being and social inclusivity. Many participants experience the site as a paradise. Like many ‘meanwhile’ spaces, however, the Garden was potentially facing eviction for a long time.  It finally got the bad news around the time when the autumn 2021 film was finished. The Garden team has been campaigning for an alternative site by various means, including new films using skills from this course.  

The Wolves Lane site, once a plant nursery run by Haringey council in North London, has been turned into a web of interdependent activities. Before the pandemic, there were at least 20 volunteers per week helping maintain the palm house and the outdoor landscaping. Six other greenhouses produce food; two grow for charitable distribution and four are small business start-ups, one of which served an organic box scheme also located on the site. A flower-growing coop uses the eighth greenhouse. Several of these organisations have additional volunteers. Site overheads were covered about half each by grant funding and rents.  Meanwhile donations came from visitors to the tropical greenhouse, Haringey’s ‘mini-Kew Gardens’, an urban form of agri-eco-tourism. In early 2020 the pandemic hygiene restrictions ended the visits and so jeopardised that income stream.  As another  way forward, volunteers responded by selling seedlings and plants grown from cuttings from the palm house stock. Thus the pandemic occasioned an important new source of income generation, crucial for all the site’s activities. Their interdependencies have analogies with alternative agri-food systems, whose economic viability depends on more than food sales, especially solidaristic commitments. 

Building the future differently

During the Covid pandemic, many such initiatives have described themselves as building social resilience – which has diverse meanings. On the one hand, it can mean filling in gaps (e.g. supplying food banks) and so perhaps inadvertently helping the dominant system to bounce back. This is sometimes called ‘building back better’, implicitly within the dominant agri-industrial food system. On the other hand, social resilience can mean strengthening capacities and solidaristic bonds to build the future differently beyond the dominant system. The visual stories highlight the role of cooperative sharing activities, which generate a wider transformative potential.  

In this Visual Storytelling course, the introductory materials suggested analogies between people’s diverse responses to the pandemic and the 1967 children’s story, Frederick the Mouse. It begins during the summer: the other mice busily gather nuts, wheat, and straw for the winter, while Frederick instead gathers sun rays, colours and words. When all the food supplies have been exhausted, the mice ask Frederick for his contribution. His lush words bring the warmth of the sun’s golden glow, that paint within their grey minds the bright colours of blue periwinkles, golden wheat, and berry bushes.

During the pandemic, this classic story attracted greater interest from adults as well as children.  In a recent commentary,  Kirsten Hall posed these questions:  How does a community work together to prepare for challenging times ahead? What must we stockpile? And how can it be shared?  And what is the role of the storyteller?

Indeed, we could ask: How do storytellers help to inspire different futures? and practices that can realise them? 

You too as a storyteller

You likewise can play a storyteller’s role.  We encourage community gardens, organizations and volunteers to share, screen, and discuss this project’s stories.  Likewise to generate new stories by taking our online module ‘Grassroots Visual Storytelling about Community Food-Growing’.

For further details, please feel free to contact the project lead, Les Levidow, Open University, [email protected] , or the course coordinator, Julia Jung, Cobra Collective, [email protected]

Project Partnership: The Open University, Cobra Collective, Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC), Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming

Julia Jung
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Marine Social Scientist

Julia holds an MSc in management of marine biological resources from the international IMBRSea programme (2020). She is interested in using participatory approaches and action research for community-based environmental management. Julia is also highly interested in the use of technology for outreach, innovation and teaching within communities and in higher education.