By Jane Powell. This article was originally published by Renew Wales
Aberystwyth resident Tom Thomas leans on his hoe and remembers how he got involved with the Penparcau Planting Project back in the spring. “It was soon after lockdown started, and I was just popping out to get a paper,” he says, “then I noticed that someone had been clearing the ground around the community hub, so I stopped for a chat. Jon, the caretaker, asked me if I wanted to help which of course I did, and now I do two mornings a week. I love it – it’s great to be outside and doing something for the local area.”
Tom has taken over the wildlife garden near the entrance, which is now a mass of flowers feeding bees and other pollinators. A former farmworker who worked for many years as a groundsman at Aberystwyth University until his retirement last year, he is happy to share his skills. “We couldn’t have achieved half of what we have, without Tom,” says Clare Jackson, Local Conversation Officer at the Hub, which is run by Penparcau Community Forum and includes a café and an outreach programme. “He is so experienced, and he turns up regular as clockwork, whatever the weather. He has an amazing work ethic and a cracking sense of humour that always brightens our day. You can tell when Tom is in the garden as people keep stopping to talk to him. Just meeting him has been one of the highlights for us. Jon, Tom and I are like the ‘Three Musketeers’ of the Penparcau Planting Project.’’
Clare, who was brand new to gardening, has transformed the site. She and caretaker Jon Evans have also cleared another large area on the other side of the entrance, where they are growing vegetables in pots around a large lawn. Tomatoes, lettuces and herbs have been the main crops this summer, with a few peas and beans, and she has been giving produce away to local people who have been intrigued by the developments, which are clearly visible from the road.
She is full of plans for expanding the project. Thanks to various funding applications she is confident of a greenhouse to extend the food growing season – and for Tom to raise more flowers – and hopes by next year to be serving homegrown food in the Hub’s café. “It’s all going to be chemical-free and no-dig,” says Clare, who has also been inspired by national networks such as Social Farms and Gardens. She also wants to encourage local families, many of whom live in food poverty, to eat well. “Before lockdown we were working on a programme to teach families how to cook from scratch on a budget, and how to use leftovers to make delicious meals. With the planting project we can do both these things and actually have the families grow the food they are going to cook.”
Plans are also afoot to start a community composting project which will collect kitchen waste from participating households, to set up a growing area at the Football Club, and to extend existing activities with the local primary school. “Community growing does so much,” says Clare. “It means more control over our food, healthier diets, and more social interaction. People just drop in now because the garden is so welcoming, and it does them good. We have the older generation like Tom, who have gardening skills, and young people wanting to learn. We can start to be more self-reliant, bartering and recycling for instance, and that is so important in the response to climate change.”
The Penparcau Community Forum is part of larger network of food projects in the town, which are all sharing ideas, as well as food and plants. Many of the vegetable plants this year came from a seedling swap that was organized in the spring by Renew Wales supported groups, Aber Food Surplus and Penglais Community Garden, with local residents. This year also saw the start of the Aberystwyth Seed Library which will encourage local residents to save and swap seeds, building up a repertoire of varieties that are adapted to the local area and saving money too. A heritage apple orchard just outside the town is also getting involved.
Aber Food Surplus, which began a few years ago as a student volunteer project to distribute supermarket surplus food and is now a social enterprise with Lottery funding, is a leader in the town. Director Heather McClure has a radical vision of how community food projects can drive social change. “It’s not a simple story of food waste going to poor people,” she explains. “Food waste is just not a reliable way of feeding people, and there’s no dignity in it. But what we can do is use surplus food to engage volunteers in creative projects, such as catering for community meals, which brings people together in a new conversation. Through working with people in this way we get to see where the cracks are in our food system, and we can come up with long term solutions, rather than emergency food.”
Over the summer, Aber Food Surplus used part of a Welsh Government food poverty grant which came through Ceredigion County Council to supply 59 households around Aberystwyth with growing kits, consisting of paper cups, compost, salad and herb seeds and compost. They are keen to partner more closely with the Council and one of their plans is to set up a Food Council for the town, which would engage local residents with food growing, cooking and eating, and give them a voice into local government.
The embryonic Food Council includes Penglais Community Garden, Borth Family Centre (another group supported by Renew Wales), the Council’s Youth Justice team and a farmer who is raising meat and eggs for sale locally. This follows the example of Food Cardiff, a partnership of voluntary organizations, businesses and individuals which has adopted a Food Charter and is coordinating food activities across the city. Local food plans are just one way to tap into the enthusiasm that emerged during lockdown and are a means by which communities can partner with their local authorities to drive change. A recent Renew Wales seminar brought together inspiring examples from around Wales and found strong interest in changing our food system ‘from the ground up’.
Community food projects have tremendous potential to change people’s lives for the better, and also to drive national change. Food unites policy areas such as health, climate change, mental health, education and the economy, not to mention cultural and spiritual concerns.
Penparcau Hub’s Brwydr y Bwgan Brain display, organized with support from Welsh language promoters Cered, won ‘Best in Wales’ and brought a lot of smiles, community engagement and pride in the village. That, and the forthcoming Halloween celebrations, show how gardens can be the setting for drawing in hearts and minds.
Everyone should be able to join in a community garden,” says Tom. “It brings people together and cheers everyone up. It’s great to bring some beauty into people’s lives.”
Jane Powell is a coordinator with Renew Wales, a practitioner led programme which helps communities in Wales reduce their carbon footprint, adapt to the impacts of climate change and live more sustainably. She also writes at www.foodsociety.wales.