A New Year’s resolution for a local sustainable food system

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

If you have ever spent time fretting about the state of the world and wondering why the policies and actions taken by our leaders seldom address the everyday concerns of most citizens, maybe it’s time to decide to do something positive for your community.

About three years ago, two women, Pam Warhurst and Mary Clear, came up with a simple plan to do something positive for their town of Todmorden in the United Kingdom. They initiated a project to rebuild the local economy and asked people to join them in an effort to improve the lives of the people in the former industrial town.

They focused on increasing the available supply of local foods. Using a small amount of their own money to get started, they assumed with success additional funds would become available to support their efforts.

While many communities have initiated local foods projects, what sets their efforts apart is their method of capturing public interest. Their first 18 months focused on planting vegetables and fruits in the town center and placing signs at the sites telling citizens to feel free to take some.

A bed of rhubarb was one of their first plantings, assuming that people were familiar with it and would recognize when it was ripe for picking. Fruits and vegetables were planted on the lawn of a health clinic with the expectation that people would make the connection between healthy eating and healthy living. A pinch of fennel along a route they walked to school provided students with a taste of licorice.

Vegetable beds were planted near the entry to the police station — perhaps to help convince citizens that the signs indicating the vegetables were free for the taking were legitimate.

Eventually, more than 70 large local food beds were scattered around the former mill town, and the movement gained wider acceptance.

The project is in its third year, and goes by the name of the Incredible Edibles. Their goal of being the first town in the U.K. to be self-sufficient in food by 2018 adds another unique element to their efforts. Roughly 6,000 of the town’s 17,000 citizens have signed on to the project.

Planting and tending the gardens has produced 50 new jobs. Two orchards consisting of more than 500 trees have been planted. At 41 homes, chickens are being raised for eggs with the intent of having the community produce 30,000 eggs per week. Students at each of the schools are served locally-produced meat, vegetables and fruit at lunch.

The movement extends beyond beds of vegetables and fruits and includes courses such as gardening and food preservation. A fish farm is being built to provide food and teach high school students the skills necessary to operate it. A 50-meter-long hoop house will produce a larger volume of vegetables for the community.

Local farmers, farmers’ markets and citizens have all benefited from the Incredible Edibles project. For more information, Google Incredible Edibles and Todmorden to check out the range of newspaper articles about it.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Dec. 28, 2011-Jan. 3, 2012, issue

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