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Our urban farm in Dagenham has faced some challenges since Covid-19 struck, but some lovely new community connections have emerged too.
The farm team have put a lot of time and consideration into how it can be run safely – processes have been re-assessed, hygiene procedures have been heightened and there's been a bit of a shift in staffing.
We've lost some of the labour on site: our farm worker Ashlea has had to self-isolate and we've had to suspend volunteering activity for all but one of the volunteers. Our growers Alice and Shelagh are working solo to enable social distancing.
Alice in the red clover green manure, at a safe distance from volunteer Dave
The first week was stressful, says Alice, dealing with all the adjustments that had to be made, before finding a new rhythm of work.
And she still worries about the lack of connection: “We are not open to our college student group and volunteers. I worry about local people who relied on the farm as a place they could connect with others and gain the benefits of working outside in nature. I think connecting to nature for our overall health is more important than ever. Not having a garden through this is hard, especially with young children. I feel for all those stuck inside.
“I feel grateful to be able to be at the farm during this and it's made me more aware of the importance of such places in cities for those who don’t have much access to outdoor space. Especially spaces where you can get physically engaged with nature. I really hope to offer our Dagenham community access to the farm again soon.”
New ways to build community
Needless to say, restaurant sales aren't happening anymore. Alongside huge deliveries to the veg scheme, Alice has started selling salad to families near where she lives instead. She's also getting salad to families who wouldn't ordinarily be able to afford it – a local nursery has started a collection for families who are struggling to afford their food bills. Through this Alice has been able to supply 30 more families with Dagenham produce.
This has been an expected reward to emerge from Covid life, says Alice: “Forging more direct links with the local community where I live through veg deliveries. The extra appreciation of fresh food and things generally that we would have previously taken for granted. Also I think a heightened awareness of those in need around us, with the general communal response of a desire to help is heartening.”
Alice has also been collaborating with the Better Food Shed on a project working with Barking & Dagenham council supplying food to vulnerable groups. The council’s food access programme delivers food parcels to hundreds of households each week, for people that are falling between the gaps. The Shed is supplying £1000 worth of veg per week. This is partly donated and partly discounted produce and includes produce from the Dagenham Farm. Shed manager Danny says: “The aim is to get more of the Dagenham farm food into the scheme so that local people are eating local food, with minimal food miles.”
Alice hopes this will be one of the longer-term benefits post-Covid: “I think it may create a more direct dialogue with local networks (such as the council) connecting food suppliers with those who need it locally, and a greater practical understanding of the many benefits of local food generally.”
This has all been made possible by central government grants to local councils. We really hope these schemes continue beyond lockdown. It's hard to make local organic, small-batch food affordable for all, but look at what's possible when the government provides some help. We've been campaigning for many years for government farm subsidies to be used to help level the playing field and make our produce more accessible. Hopefully this could be a testing ground for future change.