Community gardens need to be age-friendly and inclusive through COVID-19 recovery
Growing our own food does not just provide a local source of fresh fruit and vegetables at a time of uncertainty for the food supply chain, but it also plays an important role in maintaining positive mental health and a sense of connectedness.
Sustain’s Fiona McAllister explains that at a time when older and more isolated people in the community have been some of the hardest hit during this pandemic, community growing spaces and allotments should be adopting age-friendly practices to support people of all ages.
Jacky Erwteman has been involved in an allotment garden in Regent’s Park for several years now, and she has recently started volunteering again since the lockdown measures have eased. She describes how important her return was for sense of wellbeing: “Since I started volunteering in the allotment garden in Regent’s Park, I could never have imagined not being there. And then lockdown. But now we are back and isn’t it wonderful? I can breathe again... not something I get in a two roomed flat on the seventh floor.”
Despite a spike in interest in food growing across the UK during this crisis, millions of older and more vulnerable people were shielding and staying at home with little opportunity to participate in their local community gardens and allotments. The message was to stay at home in order to stay safe, but there was a price to pay. For too many people, staying at home and not seeing loved ones or taking part in normal activities outside the home meant increased social isolation and detrimental mental health.
Now, as the shielding programme ends and many people start to return to something closer to normal, it’s vital that gardens, allotments and food-growing spaces are able to support older and more vulnerable people to get involved.
A new age-friendly guide and toolkit
With funding from the Centre for Ageing Better and DCMS through the Age-friendly and inclusive volunteering programme, Capital Growth have launched a new Growing Connections guide and toolkit to inspire age-friendly and inclusive volunteering in community food gardens.
We worked with 15 gardens to discover good practice, and also paired gardens with local food growing projects to learn from them, as well as recruiting a team of community leaders to form a Community Garden Group. This all culminated in an easy to access Growing Connections Guide, full of top tips from the gardens who took part and includes a simple tool designed for community gardens to baseline and monitor their progress in being inclusive.
The launch was initially delayed by the pandemic, but we feel that now is a crucial time for community gardens to incorporate these principles. With more and more gardens starting to re-open and re-introduce volunteers, we’re really starting to value the benefits of community gardening for people of all ages.
So what can gardens and projects do to reintroduce people of all ages to volunteer and participate safely in community food growing?
First, we believe that encouraging gardens to continue growing and clarifying the guidelines is the first important step and we’re trying to make this easier for gardens by updating our Coronavirus page with guidelines and best practice. Second, we hope gardens will be inspired to incorporate our four principles in their settings, summed up in the short video accompanying the guide: be welcoming in everything you do; create a culture of care and respect; recognise that inclusivity does not mean your garden has to be perfect; and listen and be open to feedback.
We must also remember that some volunteers, particularly those who are older, are not yet comfortable or able to start volunteering again. That’s why we’re so heartened to see how community gardens and projects are continuing to support volunteers and local residents remotely through these challenging times. One example of this is in South London where Incredible Edible Lambeth launched a campaign to encourage neighbours to share seedlings to promote home food growing. Spitalfields City Farm and St Mary’s Secret Garden are just two examples of community gardens that continue to support their more vulnerable volunteers remotely through innovative solutions such as sending videos of the gardens and delivering seedlings.
Creating a resilient community food growing movement
Capital Growth has seen how its members mobilized and responded bravely and creatively to this crisis. Now we have to learn from the crisis by creating a more resilient movement. One of the ways we must learn from it is to ensure that the community food growing movement supports people of all ages and that we find practical ways to include and support the most vulnerable members of the community. We hope this new guide and toolkit will help gardens do just that.