Up early! Too early for my liking, but it enabled me to get the 6.30 train down to Birmingham and then up to Smethwick Galton station for 9.30am, and to Ideal For All for the beginning of the 'Growing for Well-Being' event.
This was excellent! The event wasn't that well attended but those who did got a lot from it, especially the delegate from Better Tomorrows, which is starting a brand new project in West Sussex which will have similarities to the community garden we visited during the afternoon.
Our first speaker was Laura Davis, who had been an organic farmer for years and is one of the people behind the Sandwell Food Network. She gave us a good overview about Sandwell, it's history of easy-to-get coal and subsequent early metalworking activities, which grew into heavy industry, and resulted in vast tracts of contaminated land and some of the most deprived communities in the UK. The story really started in 1989 when the Primary Care Trust (Health Service) published a study of the area, which contained one paragraph suggesting that the people of Sandwell could benefit by growing some of their own food. This document resulted in the area receiving Single Regeneration Budget money in 1995 and a Feasibility Study for Community Agriculture in Sandwell was published in 1996.
Laura then did her Masters degree about Community Agriculture in Sandwell and this put her in a good position to apply for the job of developing a project, when it came up in 1998. There were two applicants so they decided to apply together and do a job share, as they were both bringing up families at the time. So Laura and Veronica Barry set about looking for suitable sites for an agriculture project. The first three sites offered by the local authority were all badly contaminated (basically toxic waste dumps) so were rejected. A further 10 sites were investigated, of which 8 were toxic. But two were potentially suitable and one, a mostly overgrown and disused allotment site, was chosen. A good business plan was written and this enabled the support and funding to come in and work to start. The site was cleared and a big consultative process with local people started, and in 2001, site work started, with services going in (sewerage, drainage, pressurised water, a loop roadway) and then prefab buildings, polytunnels and soil improvement using council greenwaste compost and vetch, a legume which adds nitrogen to the soil and renders it more fertile when dug back in as a green manure. A 20 year lease on the site was agreed, and links with the newly built Ideal for All were cemented. Thus the Salop Drive Market Garden was born.
By 2003, the site was in full production. Helen Sneyd told us about the workings of the Market Garden. They grow 64 types of fruit and veg which are mainly used in a veggie bag-box scheme, costing £4 for 12 items, sometimes including herbs growing in a pot. These are collected from site, although a few are taken by 'agents', who deliver to half a dozen others and get a free bag themselves. Some of the original allotment holders are still on site, and the local school also has a plot.
But alongside the core activities of growing edible plants, there are lots of activities such as therapeutic gardening, self referrals and through the NHS, work experience for people at schools and colleges, a 'Ready Steady Grow!' project for year 4 schoolchildren (750 of them last year!), connections with 'Sure Start' (450 children), after school clubs, random volunteering opportunities, workshops on various subjects, advice and help to the allotment holders and anybody else who enquires, and 'Health Walks' to encourage physical activity and social bonds.
Members of the project participate in the Sandwell Show, and at the stall this year, they gave away 1200 herb plants in paper pots!
Most of their funding is through the local NHS under a 'public health' banner, through a service level agreement.
The future holds another 'Community Supported Agriculture' project, as another site has been identified which is twice the size and has just as many 'issues' to deal with!
The next speaker was Rosie Edwards who is the local Anti-Poverty Strategy Manager. One of their main jobs is to help people maximise their income by helping them take up benefits that they are eligible to claim. But they also have a good relationship with the 6 Towns Credit Union, who I was delighted to hear are enabling their members to pay for gas and electricity by direct debit, which makes it cheaper, and payments to landlords. There's also a scheme to help local businesses and individuals source services and supplies locally called Find It In Sandwell, which I think is an excellent scheme for keeping it local!
Then we had lunch. After which we got on a bus which was far too big for our little group, which took us to Salop Drive Market Garden. It was good to see 'in real life' what we'd just been learning about and seeing a few photos of. We were given a tour and had a coffee and chat; I gave the chap some yam bulbils and pea beans.
Then, with only just a bit of difficulty, back to Ideal for All, and saw their 'Malthouse Garden' which is, like the rest of the building, designed with access in mind. So, mostly raised beds, some at standing height, others at wheelchair height. All the raised beds had a place at their base where wheelchair foot-rests could easily fit, to make using the beds from a wheelchair somewhat easier. Great design feature!
Finally, we had a presentation form Vicky and Maxine, who administer the Direct Payments scheme for people with disabilities, and Yvonne and her helper dog Noddy, who demonstrated some of the useful things he's been taught to do. Amazing. We were told about the new Individual Budgets scheme, which gives the user more freedom to what they spend their budget on. Really interesting.
What a day... and I still had to get back to Birmingham and to the Paragon Hotel.