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incredible edible

August 3, 2010

There is plenty of advice out there about how to promote good mental health. Common themes include: eat sensibly, take exercise, don’t get isolated, take time to relax. Most of this advice is aimed at the individual. What if we took a bigger view and considered how to make our towns and cities places where mental wellbeing is a priority?

We might want to start by looking at Incredible Edible Todmorden.

Todmorden is a small market town in west Yorkshire. Despite stunning scenery and some impressive architecture, it doesn’t usually attract much attention. Or it didn’t until some of the inhabitants started to campaign seriously for more local food. Now the idea that started with a few communal herb gardens is attracting interest from all over the world. A lot of that comes from people concerned about food security at a time of climate change and soaring oil prices -the organisers of Incredible Edible are hoping the town could become self sufficient in veg by 2018.

I visited Todmorden at the weekend and found myself fascinated with the potential of the incredible edible idea for promoting mental wellbeing.

First impressions count for a lot. If you arrive in Todmorden by train, you find herb gardens on the station platform with signs that encourage you to pick what you fancy. The signs also point out that if you’re waiting for a train, you could, perhaps, indulge in a little weeding. As a visitor, this lifted my spirits at once. For commuters, these beds must surely create a healthy sense of belonging.

In a culture that puts a high value on the private and the individual, there is also something incredibly refreshing about this upfront approach that says food is for sharing and that some things are more important than profit. Outside the community college, for example, is a row of raised beds. Anyone can ‘adopt’ one for free: the only provisos are that you must look after it and you must produce food that everyone can share. The labels on the beds, giving information about who is tending them, also strengthen the sense of community and belonging.

There is something unbridled and a little anarchic about all this growing. Further up the street is a disused church with a large graveyard. It’s a bit run down and depressing until you spot the incredible edible influence.

Even the boarded-up health centre, where the notorious Harold Shipman once worked, has a defiantly joyful note to its exterior, thanks to some nifty guerilla planting.

The local bobbies are in on the act too: this splendid sweetcorn is growing outside the police station.

This emphasises another aspect of the incredible edible effect: it’s fun. People have embraced it because they enjoy it. You get outside, you create something, you connect with your community. It’s good for you but not in a boring, worthy way.

There is much more going on in Todmorden, far more than I could take in on a single visit. Every school in the town now has some kind of garden and the secondary has just been given the funding for a state of the art food and education centre. There are plans for a fish farm and a campaign to become self sufficient in eggs. The organisers have worked with the local council to get a licence that allows people to grow veg on disused land. The local social landlord has been giving free seeds to tenants, along with access to land they can cultivate.

Not everything is perfect, of course it’s not. So far, only a minority of the population appears to have embraced the vision. And even here you can find examples of dreadful municipal planting.

But there is a buzz in Todmorden, a sense that it is possible to do things differently and in a way that makes people feel better. The US community activist Alexie M. Torres-Fleming once wrote: ‘Communities are not just streets and buildings: they are the sacred spaces made up of living, breathing people whose hopes and dreams are wrapped up in those same streets and buildings.’*

Growing veg might seem like quite an ordinary thing to do. But growing veg in a way that draws a community together around a common purpose – that could change lives.

*Taken from this book.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2010 8:15 am

    Absolutely brilliant and inspiring! Rock on Todmorden.
    Thanks for the lovely photos too.

  2. August 4, 2010 11:55 am

    What a cool little town! I particularly love the idea of the herb gardens in train stations. Thanks for sharing such beautiful pictures of this unique and inspiring place!

  3. August 6, 2010 9:45 am

    What a great project and thanks for letting us know about it.

    Whilst not on the scale of Todmorden’s efforts, I noticed that our town centre Institute of Modern Art has invited people living nearby to plant vegetables in what was a shrub bed at the entrance. It’s a start.

  4. September 1, 2010 7:43 pm

    A fabulous article Joanna, I’m so glad you came to visit, and were inspired by what we do…it’s true to say that it doesn’t matter how small a start we all make, so long as we make a start…

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