Inspired by the work of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Town Brixton, a small group of friends and activists met in 2007 to discuss ways of responding to the challenges of climate change, peak oil and financial insecurity in South East Essex. We agreed that one of the most appropriate functions of any similar project in this heavily urbanised region would be around networking – enabling links and connections between the many existing positive initiatives in the area. After all, the strategy of increasing the 'edges' where not only ecosystems but people, communities and ideas can come together to create synergy for mutual benefit is a sound permaculture principle. From the start therefore Southend in Transition have had a commitment to publicise, honour and celebrate the good work that is already being done around the town – the thriving local allotment scene; sustainable building and food growing projects in local schools (see the author's articles in PM37 and PM50), as well as the households, businesses, faith groups and organisations that are doing their bit to develop local empowerment, self reliance and resilience.
One proactive supporter of Southend in Transition (SiT) from the start has been Milton Community Partnership, itself an umbrella charitable organisation, formed to address the social needs of those living in the underprivileged Milton Ward of Southend-on-Sea. As well as hosting SiT film nights and meetings, MCP initiated the Fruit and Veg Together Co-op to provide local residents with affordable fresh organic produce. Initially piloted in 2008 with twelve participants who each agreed to pay £3 a week for a bag of fruit and £3 for a bag of vegetables sourced from an organic wholesaler, the scheme now has over fifty members who use it on a regular or less frequent basis. One of the many positive outcomes of the co-op is the community dimension of collectively buying and picking up food. Project founders Eleanor King and Louise Harris have noticed many conversations about food growing, healthy eating and home cooking taking place at the church hall based after-school club that serves as its collection point. It has also been an opportunity to raise other issues concerning sustainability and Transition as well as promoting local permaculture introductory and forest gardening workshops.
Although produce supplied by the scheme has far less of a carbon footprint than that available from nearby supermarkets, Eleanor is keen to further reduce the 'food miles' associated with transporting it from the wholesalers in Cambridgeshire (the nearest that will accept the Healthy Start vouchers used by many subscribers) to 'food metres' by encouraging home growing. In the summer of 2010 MCP and SiT received funding from NHS South East Essex to set up Nurturing Health, a project aimed at empowering residents to cultivate their own fruit and vegetables. This has paid for the production of a colourful leaflet designed to encourage families to turn their gardens, balconies and patios into productive spaces, plus a 'Top of the Crops' booklet and website (www.topofthecrops.org.uk) that provides more in depth information.
Food & Health
Feedback from the Fruit and Veg Co-op highlighted that health and affordability are the primary concerns of many households in the area. This therefore has been the emphasis of Nurturing Health, whilst at the same time linking it to a wider picture that includes positive visioning of a post-peak oil society. Co-ordinator Matt King explains;
"We believe that fresh, locally grown food is fundamental to a healthy life. But what we eat can also affect the wider world... Climate change is a reality and we need to begin to adapt to a world in which oil is running out. But the future can be positive, as we transition to locally resilient and self-reliant households and communities - Imagine stepping out your front door to collect herbs from the pot on your doorstep, gathering tomatoes from the windowsill and salad from the tub out the back... Sharing a verge of land with your neighbours, where small nut trees grow and gathering blackberries from the hedgerow by the railway line... Cycling to the community orchard to get cooking and eating apples. Our children will know where their food comes from, how to grow it and consequently will waste much less of it."
The project also provides practical help, including giving fruit trees and bushes to community hubs to help them set up 'flagship' demonstration gardens, as well as a program of horticultural reskilling events. The first of these, at which children were shown how to plant broad beans in paper pots, was held at a local festival. Another workshop last autumn saw the planting of a 'micro-orchard' in the tiny courtyard of the church hall. Representatives of a number of local schools also attended and got their hands dirty, as well as an opportunity to think about ways of turning their own playgrounds into edible landscapes.
Other exciting happenings are planned for the coming year. Some SiT supporters have been working on the Southend 'Scrumping' map, an online collaborative resource charting the location of fruit trees and other wild and edible plants in the town which will form the centrepiece of an Apple Day celebration event next autumn. There are also plans to pilot a Transition Streets initiative, a grass roots, collaborative approach to energy efficiency and community building. In addition we intend to run a full Permaculture Design Course in the spring, another partnership with both MCP and Growing Together, a horticultural project that supports local people with mental health needs. This will be a first for the town, but like so many other of SiT's activities can only increase our capacity for designing sustainable solutions to the problems all of us will be facing in the years ahead.
Graham Burnett runs Spiralseed, an independent enterprise founded in 2001 to promote permaculture education and earthright living.