Posted by: Colin Wiles26/07/2012
In 1914 potential recruits for the British army had to undergo a physical examination and it was discovered that ex-public schoolboys were, on average, six inches taller than their working class counterparts. The situation has improved since then of course, but social class and malnutrition still walk hand in hand, and there are clear links between deprivation, poor nutrition and conditions like obesity and diabetes. For example, the most deprived people in the UK are two-and-a-half times more likely on average to have diabetes at any given age and diabetes in Wales is almost twice as high in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived.
In a free society, the only thing more important than decent, affordable housing is decent, affordable food. Yet food poverty is increasing. The Trussell Trust now runs over 200 food banks and has seen a 100 percent increase in users over the past year. They provide regular food parcels to 130,000 people. And, as supermarkets head out of town, more and more poor people are living in food deserts, where they cannot buy affordable, good quality food.
So what has this got to do with housing providers I hear you ask? Purists will argue that our job is bricks and mortar and that it would be patronising to tell tenants what they should or should not eat. But I think it would be morally wrong to ignore something that we have the power to change, particularly when decent nutrition could dramatically improve the health and life chances of our tenants. Increasingly, housing associations should see themselves as social enterprises that happen to specialise in housing, and their remit should aim to cover every aspect of the health and wellbeing of the communities they serve.
It is good to see that more and more housing providers are taking up this challenge and developing projects that address food and nutritional issues. This ranges from healthy living advice to urban agriculture projects. For example, I carried out some recent work for Cross Keys Homes in Peterborough and discovered that they are running a project to grow free food for residents. Modelled on the Todmorden Incredible Edible scheme, Cross Keys, working with their tenants, have planted up several communal areas with vegetables. Local residents can pick this produce as soon as it crops. Claire Higgins, Cross Keys’ Director of Operations, described the benefits; “In Peterborough we know that in some areas of the city a man has a 10-year lower life expectancy from others. As a responsible organisation Cross Keys Homes wants to make statistics like this history and we hope by using our open spaces we can help everyone access fresh, healthy produce…” Many other housing providers are now running food growing programmes on their estates and organizations like Cultivate London are making use of derelict land to run training and employment schemes, using polytunnels to grow vegetables for local outlets and restaurants. Some providers are also engaging with land share schemes, that link up potential growers with people who have spare plots. I think there is huge scope to expand projects like these, because we are rich in the key asset required to make them successful – land. The BBC’s Mark Easton recently calculated that 78.6% of England’s urban areas are natural – grass verges, gardens, allotments and open spaces of one sort or another. Too many of our housing schemes were designed with pointless patches of communal space, which could be commandeered for food-growing projects, or even for livestock. I think this is something that could really capture the imagination of tenants. It will need community champions to make it work but how wonderful would it be if a single parent living in an inner city flat on benefits could just pop outside and pick some tomatoes or a few runner beans?
Food growing projects hit at least four nails with a single hammer: they can get residents to take ownership of semi-public communal areas and therefore promote community cohesion; they make use of unloved open space (and save on the costs of upkeep); they provide healthy affordable food and they are truly sustainable, saving on the cost of transporting produce to distant supermarkets.
If the idea of urban agriculture inspires you, I recommend you have a look at the video on the Todmorden site. It would be great if all housing providers started to think seriously about nutrition and the health of their tenants. We have the necessary assets – the land, the partnerships, the money, the skills and the people. So map your area, speak to your tenants, develop a food strategy and get growing!
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles