What do radishes have to do with rising sea levels? How can parsnips make a difference in an age of peak oil? Why would rhubarb jam inspire hope?
The answers can be found in the west Yorkshire town of Todmorden, birthplace of the Incredible Edible movement.
Incredible Edible Todmorden began six years ago when a group of residents decided they were fed up with waiting for the powers that be to do something about the problems facing the world.
They were worried about polar bears and melting ice caps, about young people leaving their town because there weren’t any jobs, and about what their children and grandchildren would eat in the future if food and transport costs continued to rise.
But they also knew that statistics about overwhelming global issues like climate change and economic turmoil tend to turn people off. Everything seems too big to engage with.
So they decided to try an experiment: they would see if they could bring people together around local food and from there spark some conversations that might help people understand that we all have the power to make a difference to the future if we take action right where we are.
The following spring, vegetables started to pop up in some rather unusual places in Todmorden. You could find broccoli at the bus stop, courgettes outside the derelict health centre and even runner beans in the cemetery. Alongside the vegetables were some signs. ‘Food to share’ they said. ‘Help yourself.’
One Incredible Edible co-founder, Mary Clear, even dug up all the roses in her front garden and replaced them with vegetables and a notice inviting people to take whatever they wanted.
This ‘propaganda planting’, as they like to call it in Todmorden, did indeed get people talking. Then Mary, along with fellow co-founders Nick Green and Pam Warhurst, called a meeting. Not a meeting to discuss big, abstract concepts like the state of the planet but one where they said: ‘Let’s talk about how we can make our town healthier, happier and stronger; let’s do something exciting around local food.’
Six years on, the difference the Incredible Edible experiment has made in Todmorden is dramatic. Every school is involved in growing. There’s an edible walking route that links different parts of the town and guides visitors to the market, once the hub of the community but now, like markets everywhere, fighting to thrive in a supermarket culture.
More than 1,000 fruit and nut trees have been planted, providing free food for local people and important habitats for wildlife too.
The project has even spawned two social enterprises, which not only produce food for sale in the community but also train apprentices in the skills they will need to become the market gardeners of the future.
As people get more and more involved in growing, they start to engage with the kinds of issues that were worrying the founders of Incredible Edible in the first place. And they discover that small actions have great power and every single one of us can make a difference.
People visit Todmorden from all over the world to see what is happening, and many of them go back home inspired to make their own communities Incredible too. Today there are more than 50 Incredible Edible groups around the UK, more than 300 groups in France and many more worldwide , from Montreal to Mali.
This is why we’re now publishing the book of Incredible Edible. Written by co-founder Pam Warhurst with Joanna Dobson, it will explain why the Incredible Edible effect has caught on in so many places and how it could happen near you. We want to inspire a new wave of change makers.
In true Incredible Edible spirit, we’re crowdfunding the resources to get it published. You can pledge as little as £1 and if we don’t hit our funding target, nobody pays a penny. We have just over a week to make it happen, so if you’d like to support it, please join us. As they say in Todmorden: if you eat, you’re in.
(This article was written by Joanna Dobson. You can see more about Joanna at www.joannadobson.com)
(Opening photo courtesy of Estelle Brown)