What's in the bags and where it comes from
About Growing Communities
If you’re going to be away for a week or more, just let us know by email or call us on 020 7502 7588 and we’ll cancel your bags for you and issue a refund the following month. The cut-off time for changes and cancellations is 11pm on the Sunday before you go.
Just let us know when you want to stop collecting your bags (tell us by 11pm on Sunday for the following week). To reduce admin, we ask people to stop their order at the end of their payment cycle.
You can change your order at any time. Simply email or call us by 11pm on the Sunday before. We'll adjust your next payment to reflect this.
We ask you to set up your direct debit mandate before you start and we'd like you try the scheme out for a minimum of a month. There is so much variation from week to week that just one bag would not give you an accurate picture of the Growing Communities experience. Plus it creates extra admin for us, which we try to avoid as we are a very small team with limited resources. If you really want to leave sooner, of course you can - just let us know and we'll issue you with a refund.
Due to the collection model of the scheme, we don’t individually label everyone’s bags, so we can’t offer bespoke bags. It would also add extra costs for the extra admin, labour and produce involved, which we like to avoid to keep prices low for our members. An alternative we offer is our swap boxes - many of our collection points have swap boxes, where you can exchange an item of fruit of veg for something you prefer.
Take a look at What can I order? which explains all the bag sizes, how many people they feed and what you might find in them.
The weight of the bag really depends on the produce we include and its relative cost. So for example £1 worth of salad weighs far less than £1 worth of potatoes. The other factor to bear in mind is the season. At the beginning of the season the cost of new potatoes, carrots, peaches etc is greater, so you get a bit less for your money, whereas in the autumn and winter, the produce is larger (cabbages, roots) and therefore heavier.
We’re committed to ordering as locally as practicable. Our salad is grown on our own Soil Association market gardens in Hackney and our Dagenham Farm, our potatoes and apples come from small farms in Kent and Essex and our oranges come from cooperatives in Italy and Spain. Last year, 66% of our vegetables and 15% of the fruit in our fruit bags came direct from local farms while overall 89% of our vegetables came from the UK. We never buy air-freighted produce or fruit and veg grown in heated greenhouses. Only our Fairtrade organic bananas come from outside Europe.
There are certain times of the year when UK produce isn’t so readily available. This is particularly the case in the UK ‘hungry gap’ – a regular time each year where the stores of last season’s vegetables (potatoes, onions, apples etc) have run out and the new-season produce isn’t ready. At that time we buy in produce shipped from Europe via our wholesaler. At other times of the year farmers may experience freak weather conditions (prolonged droughts or frosts) that have depleted their harvests, meaning we have to source extra produce from further away (in the UK or Europe). See our Buying Policy for more about how we choose the bag contents and Our Producers to meet the farmers we work with.
The UK fruit season is much shorter than the veg. For example the apple season is generally mid-August to March; the pear season is a bit shorter. In the summer we can usually source organic UK plums and some cherries but a lot of other organic UK fruit isn’t produced in large enough quantities or is too delicate for the bags (such as strawberries and raspberries).
Where we can't source UK fruit, we choose fruit shipped from farms in Europe to supplement the bags. Kiwis, for example, are relatively inexpensive and plentiful. The only exception is the Fairtrade bananas, which are shipped from the Dominican Republic or Peru. Between March and July there is hardly any UK fruit available, so we rely on produce from elsewhere. We never buy air-freighted produce or fruit and veg grown in heated greenhouses.
We generally find we do far better than supermarkets and local shops on sourcing local organic fruit. We believe there is an argument for continuing to provide access to organic European fruit and all-year-round bags for those that want it. However, some people on the scheme choose to get the fruit bag only at certain times of the year (when the UK apples and pears are around) and go without fruit for the rest of the year.
It is true that sustainable, organic produce (like Fairtrade) tends to cost more than conventional produce. Cheaper conventional produce is everywhere and it’s very difficult to resist. However we believe that ‘cheap’ food simply means that the ‘cost’ is passed further down the system either by large-scale farming and distribution systems that are highly damaging to the environment, or by giving far less to farmers. The organic farming process is more human-intensive and more land must be given to crops grown organically to avoid the use of pesticides and fertilisers.
It can do: buying direct shortens the supply chain. However, economies of scale are also a factor: so if we’re buying from a very small farm or growing operation, which produces small volumes and cannot afford to sell at a discount, this produce will cost more. It’s about striking a balance. We want to support small-scale farmers by paying them a fair price but we also want to provide affordable organic food for our members.
We start by having a good, mutually beneficial relationship with our farmers and suppliers. We very much believe that we’re in this together and they know we are going to pay them a fair price and work to increase the number of people on the scheme. At the same time they are aware that we need to provide a great bag of veg for our customers. We also put much less of a mark-up on the produce we sell than mainstream, commercial retailers. We have a mixture of different suppliers, some very small, some larger.
We can do this by running the bag scheme in a way that keeps our operational costs low. Examples of this are:
• keeping our admin costs down by encouraging everyone to pay once a month for the month
• making our scheme a collection scheme rather than delivering door to door
• not providing bespoke bags but instead offering a swap box at many pick-up points so members can swap unwanted items.
This means that more of your money is going to the farmer and we are fairer to our farmers, our members and the environment. The other advantage of our scheme is that we are not for profit, rather than commercial, so we invest any surplus in advancing the aims of our organisation.
When you join the veg scheme, you're doing much more than buying fresh, organic produce. You become a member of Growing Communities, which is a not-for-profit social enterprise working to take our food system back from the supermarkets and agribusiness and put the power where it should be: with communities and farmers.
We believe this is the way to create the sustainable, resilient food systems that will see us through the challenges of climate change.
It has become increasingly clear to us that community-led trade is vital to this process of creating real change in the food system. While it’s really important that more people get involved in growing food, if we don’t also change the systems that trade the food then those new small producers will follow the same fate as many of the small farmers who have gone out of business over the past few decades – trying to sell their food through a system that puts them at a permanent disadvantage or being completely dependent on subsidies from a rapidly shrinking public purse.
Growing Communities’ fruit and veg scheme and our organic farmers’ market support local, sustainable farms by giving them a regular guaranteed income and helping them to create jobs in their communities. Martin Mackey from Ripple Farm told us that supplying the veg scheme and the farmers’ market helped to save his business during some very challenging winters. Adrian Izzard of Wild Country Organics has recently increased his farm from 10 acres to 40 acres, and now employs 57 people.
As we're not-for-profit, any surplus we make goes straight back into furthering the aims of the organisation. We have created a Patchwork Farm in Hackney, where we grow produce for our ultra-local Hackney Salad bags and train new growers, who then go on to tend their own growing sites. And we set up Dagenham Farm, where we produce more food and teach local people how to grow and cook.
As a member of Growing Communities, you're part of our efforts to create a sustainable, re-localised food system that can provide local people with real, practical alternatives to the current damaging food system.
You're welcome to attend our Annual General Meeting and have a say in how the scheme is run and you can become a member of our voluntary Board. Every week we send you an email newsletter with details of what’s in the bag and where it was grown, recipes for the more unusual produce and news about the scheme.
As the scheme is collection-only, it cuts down on food miles and allows you to meet your neighbours when you collect your veg.
How is GC structured?
Growing Communities is a social enterprise - an organisation that works to bring about the environmental, social and economic change it desires directly through its trading activity. Any surplus we make is invested back into the organisation.
Our legal structure is a company limited by guarantee. While we do not have charitable status, we do have an organisational structure that is based on a charitable model, with members who elect a voluntary Board that has ultimate responsibility for the organisation. We have about 30 part-time members of staff. All our core income is self-generated but we have recently received external funding for our Patchwork Farm programme and our farm in Dagenham.
Growing Communities was set up by a group of friends including Julie Brown (now the director of Growing Communities) almost 20 years ago. It started life as a Community Supported Agriculture scheme, which linked just 30 families up with a farm in Buckinghamshire. "These were the early days of box schemes," says Julie, "and it really felt very subversive to be unloading vegetables fresh from the farm at 6am right under the nose of the local Sainsbury’s!" At the same time, Julie began organising weekend working trips to the farms supplying the box scheme so members could help with the watercress harvest, plant plum trees and pick caterpillars off Brussels sprouts.
The success of these trips helped inspire Julie to find sites in Hackney that could be transformed into flourishing organic vegetable plots with the aid of a grower and volunteers. “I st [Allens Gardens] arted looking for land in Hackney by cycling around and peering over hedges and under fences.” In 1997 Growing Communities got its first site: a tiny piece of land by the old butterfly tunnel in Clissold Park. This was followed by the Oaktree site on Bethune Road later in 1997 and then the Springfield site in Springfield Park. In 2004 we set up a new growing site at Allens Gardens on Bethune Road, Stoke Newington, to replace the Oaktree site, which became a housing development.
Meanwhile, the box scheme (which by now was a bag scheme, as bags are so much easier to carry home than boxes) continued to grow and in 1999, Growing Communities moved out of the coordinator’s garage and into its current offices at the Old Fire Station Community Centre in Stoke Newington.
“We always wanted to be about more than just veg,” says Julie, so in 2003 Growing Communities set up the UK's first all-organic farmers' market: Stoke Newington Farmers’ Market. Initially the market took place next to Growing Communities' office at the Old Fire Station, but a need for more space led to a move to William Patten School on Stoke Newington Church Street in April 2005 and then to St Paul's Church on Stoke Newington High Street in 2011.
Through our Start-Up Programme, we have helped groups across the UK to set up new community-led organic bag schemes based on the Growing Communities model. They are the Better Food Traders.
We believe that animals have a part to play in a sustainable agriculture system but that the scale and nature of most current livestock systems result in negative effects on the environment, animal welfare and human health. There is a case for the sensitive inclusion of livestock in an ecological farming system, and in the human diet.
All the meat on sale by farmers at the market comes from small farms with high environmental and animal welfare standards. We define these as mixed farming systems, grass-fed livestock and farms that are aiming to reduce their dependency on bought-in animal feeds.
The farmers’ market aims to support small sustainable farmers from around London, and by having meat produced on mixed farms at the market, we are doing just that.
Using sustainable, farming methods, Matthew and Louise Unwin of Longwood Farm in Suffolk rear chickens, sheep, pigs and beef cattle. By farming on a much smaller scale than most livestock farmers (whether organic or conventional), Matthew ensures the quality of life for his animals is very high.
Hook and Sons from Hailsham in Sussex sell raw, unpasteurised butter, cream and buttermilk as well as rose veal at the market, while the Bath Soft Cheese Company offers a choice of hard, soft and blue organic cheeses made from cows' milk.
We appreciate that some members of Growing Communities prefer to be vegetarian or vegan – and the bag scheme sells only fruit and veg, with eggs available to buy at the Old Fire Station collection point for those who want them.
Visitors are always welcome at the farmers’ market on Saturdays, where the market manager will be happy to answer any questions about the market or our other work. You can also come and see our growing sites on the days they are open (see Patchwork Farm page), and take the self-guided tour. Please bear in mind that the grower, apprentices and volunteers are very busy on those days, so will not have much time to stop and chat. Every few months, we run Discovery Days, when you can come and meet the team, find out more about what we do and share a delicious lunch. For details of the next date, please email us. The veg scheme now packs well over 1200 bags of fruit and veg every Wednesday at The Old Fire Station so it’s not possible to come and see us then. Our website has a lot of detail about what we do, so please check whether your questions have already been answered somewhere on these pages.
If the event is in Hackney, then probably yes – if we are able to staff it. Please give as much notice as possible and email for further details. If it is further away, then probably no. As a not-for-profit organisation, we don’t have a budget to attend events where we would have to pay for stands.
If it is relevant to our work, then possibly, depending on our current workload. Again, we need as much notice as possible.
See if there is a Better Food Trader near you.
In the summer, we have extra Hackney-grown salad to sell, as well as herbs and other items in season. Contact our grower, Sophie Verhagen. For any other produce, it would be better for you to order from a wholesaler.
Can I interview you/write about you for my PhD, thesis etc?
As you can imagine, we receive a lot of requests and we can't meet them all – we all work part time and we don't have an information officer to deal with such requests. You can find a wealth of information on our website; our principles, manifesto and Food Zone are good starting points. Our Discovery Days offer a chance to meet and interview our director Julie Brown and other members of the team. To book a place, please email us.
Yes, you can access them through our media archive.
We advertise for new trainees in January or February. Please check our jobs page around that time.
Do you have any job vacancies?
Please see our jobs page.
If you can't find what you're looking for here, please email us or call 020 7502 7588