Growing lettuces, transforming livesFormer drug addicts growing healthy, local food
When Steve Glover, a former addict and recovery counsellor decided to support fellow addicts and ex-offenders after treatment, he ended up creating one of the UK’s leading sustainable urban food businesses. Read More
In 2010, recovered drug addict and recovery counsellor Steve Glover started a project to help fellow addicts and ex-offenders re-integrate into society. What began as a social project aimed at supporting the socially disadvantaged has become England’s leading business for locally grown, healthy food.
Behind Bristol’s main train station, on an abandoned piece of land bordering a recycling unit, is where – until 2015 – you would have found the headquarters of the Severn Project. It was nothing more than a bunch of polytunnels and a few sheds placed on the arid land between industrial containers and railroad tracks. At first glance, no one could have imagined that the tunnels were filled with organically grown parsley and lettuces. And probably nobody would have expected that this was where many of Bristol’s hippest and most exquisite cafés and restaurants would ultimately purchase the locally grown, fresh food they touted to attract customers.
Around the globe, urban growing initiatives are on the rise and trying to ensure access to fresh and healthy food for city dwellers. The Severn Project in Bristol in England’s South West is one of the leading examples in the UK. Last year, the team moved from behind the train station to a new plantation site in Whitchurch, where the urban farmers now grow lettuce, spinach, herbs, and even edible flowers. In the first year, they distributed approximately 150 tons of their nutritionally dense food to over 120 cafes and restaurants across the city and people who ordered their produce online from the website. In 2014, the project made it onto the Nesta New Radicals List 2014 that showcases individuals and organisations who are using radical thinking to change Britain.
In the first year, they distributed approximately 150 tons of food to over 120 cafes and restaurants across the city.
From addict counselling to a food initiative
What has apparently become a model urban farming initiative started off in a pretty atypical way though. Not only was the Severn Project founded with almost zero funding; the team also had to grow food in rocky, arid soil and amongst recycling plants and railroad tracks. What’s more, founder Steve Glover had no previous experience with or expertise in agriculture. He had actually never grown food before, nor had any of the members of his team. His initial mission was completely different: he wanted to offer former addicts and offenders an opportunity to continue their recovery.
“I got a degree in addictions counselling and went to work in residential treatment,” he told the BBC in 2014. “And it was so destroying because people would relapse. […] So my determination was to provide something for people once they’ve left treatment. I took 12 people who were in recovery from substance misuse and the plan was to learn how to grow food and to run a business together.” Steve had never grown food before and the team turned to the internet as their source of know-how. But he chose horticulture for a good reason: “If you do a lot of exercise, you stimulate endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. Those three neurotransmitters are also stimulated by substance abuse. So if you want to stimulate your serotonin system in a non-sustainable way, take ecstasy. But if you want to do so in a sustainable way, do some work outside, get some sun, get lots of exercise, be out in the fresh air.”
Started in 2010, today the Severn Project is a social enterprise and community interest company that works with 11 individuals who either have mental health issues, are recovering from drug and alcohol misuse, or are ex-offenders. It offers them an “alternative to drug treatment and relapse” – a real purpose that is changing lives. Furthermore, it wants to act as a food hub for people who want to start their own production sites. Steve is convinced that people recovering from addiction or prison have to create jobs for themselves in order to become independent from subsidies and government support. The Severn Project gives them a chance to become urban organic farmers in their own right. They can rent land and borrow machinery, then feed their own produce into the project’s marketing system.
Steve also told us that in his view, urban gardening can be a means for improving society: “I always draw a parallel with the mining and logging industries in the United States and point out that as an industry moves through a landscape, it doesn’t leave behind social infrastructures like doctor’s surgeries, community centres and libraries. It leaves behind fractured communities riddled with unemployment and attendant social ills such as low educational attainment, substance misuse, anti-social behaviour, criminal activities, xenophobia etc. Market gardening is one of those industries. Up until the 1970s, we were self-sufficient in temperate produce – all of that was produced by local people for local people. Employment was assured and because the people who grew the food felt part of the community; the community was cohesive. Since the Common Agricultural Policy, growing food is not part of our communities in and around the cities. Re-establishing these systems addresses a raft of social ills.”
The Severn project has proven successful in the six years of its operation. To date, Steve and his team have worked with and supported over 400 individuals. They have generated £750,000 in sales and developed urban farms on three different sites. In 2016, they opened their main Whitchurch farm site, where they package, process and produce approx. 750kgs of produce per week and supply 120 partner organisations. Sales have doubled in the last three years.
Recently, the Severn project ran a successful crowdfunding campaign and raised in excess of £21,000 to fund the next part of their ambitious plans: To develop a new farm on a 7.3 acre site in Wiltshire, South West England, where they will apply their urban farming model to a rural setting.
“We have established that it’s possible to grow a large amount of food on a relatively small piece of land,” Steve explained. “Our 2015-16 accounts show an agricultural income of over £200,000 from approximately 2.5 acres of land. We also employ 11 people, many of whom are from challenging backgrounds. We want to bring this model to the rural environment where unemployment rates are just as high as they are in the cities.”
The success of their campaign is a testament not only to the project; it also demonstrates that people strongly support local produce and understand the importance of this type of initiative.
Although urban farming alone may not solve the many challenges of our cities, the Severn Project is proving itself a significant component in the transformation of Bristol’s food system and contributing to the region’s future resilience and well-being. It has become clear that it is not just a trend in which restaurants can boast (quite literally) of local produce on their menus or a fad people can engage in.
Steve Glover is a visionary leader, who through innovation, sheer hard work and determination, has created sustainable social change in Bristol and the wider community, empowering individuals to believe that the lives they want are possible and that our communities can become better places to live. The Severn Project is a real example of how we can aspire to change lives and create better futures for people and the planet, providing hope and opportunities for an uncertain future. And that is something we all desire.
With more people living in cities than ever before and reports of this trend continuing for the next 20 to 30 years, food security is becoming increasingly important for cities. Food poverty – “the inability to afford or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet” (UK Department of Health) – has become a serious challenge. Locally produced, fresh organic food is especially important for a healthy diet because it holds important nutrients that often lack in processed, imported food. Bringing redundant or unused inner-city spaces to life and recovering arid land can provide fresh food and offer more self-sufficiency.
As cities worldwide seek innovative approaches to sustainability and resilience, urban gardening has become a global movement. Various initiatives bring a host of environmental, economic and social benefits, offering green oases within our hectic and concrete-covered cities. Urban farming promises three key assets: improved food security, a reduced carbon footprint (since food is grown very near the point of consumption), and greener, happier cities. It brings people together around food, encouraging individuals to eat and grow fresh local produce and take an interest in food provenance.
As space is limited, innovation and creativity are needed regarding how and where plants can be grown. Growers turn to alternative growing methods, such as vertical gardening, and modern technologies, such as hydroponics, to increase crop yields. Previously redundant or unused spaces are brought back to life. Whether it is a community city garden, where volunteers can develop green growing skills, or a working city farm: urban gardening is supporting better economies, empowering people and, in some cases, creating meaningful employment.