I was watching James Martin last Saturday, one of my guilty pleasures, and there was a wonderful lady talking about Incredible Edible Todmorden. This inspirational story is about two, down to earth Yorkshire women who began turning disused verges in the former mill town of Todmorden into free food plots. It’s a simple idea to take over unused or unattractive bits of public land and to plant food to feed the local community. But little did they realise they would inspire a global movement of growers.
Mary Clear and her friends, sitting in a kitchen with no money, asked themselves, “What can we do to create a kinder world?” They decided to make their ‘community stronger, educate their children in a different way, create jobs and have fun’. They got together their neighbours; local doctors, firemen, teachers, school children, even the police, and turned their town into an edible landscape where the produce is freely available to anyone who wants it. The Toddies didn’t set out to start a food-growing revolution, they only wanted to bring their small town together at a difficult time for communities throughout the UK.
Where is Todmorden? It’s an old mill town in Yorkshire’s Calderdale Valley. It rains a lot, there’s not a lot of sun, and it has experienced major flooding problems for several years. Still scarred by the memory of its declining industrial past. Many buildings lie abandoned and decayed, almost 20% of the residents are income deprived and an estimated 28% of children in the town live in poverty. These are ordinary people, not rich, or famous or influential. They practise the art of ‘propaganda gardening’, planting up every available public space in their town and from their efforts have started businesses, social enterprises, school gardens, a permaculture training centre, even ‘vegetable tourism’. Their work has invigorated the town’s economy. The Incredible Edibles say they’re inspired by Todmorden’s own history of activism. It was home to John Fielden who campaigned for the protection of child workers leading to the Ten-Hour Act of 1847, reducing the hours for factory workers.
Since a group of a dozen residents began gardening in March 2008, hundreds of people from around the UK and abroad have travelled there to see how the “Toddies”( what they call themselves) do it. Communities throughout the world have taken Todmorden’s model and replicated it. In France, the movement has taken root as Les Incroyables Comestibles, with 300 groups around the country. There are sister groups in Israel, Palestine, Colombia and Brazil, all growing food to share with others. In total as many as 500 community food growing groups across the world using the Incredible Edible name. The model is adapted to suit different needs. For example, In Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the group supports farmers and street children.
“We do say that if you can grow it in Todmorden, you can grow it anywhere,”
Estelle Brown, one of the founding members of Incredible Edible
Every first and third Sunday of the month, despite the weather, IET volunteers (of which there are an estimated 300 in the town of 16,000) get together for a morning of Guerrilla Gardening. They walk down the canal, following children carrying litter pickers. Every so often they pause to pick up cigarette butts or chocolate wrappers. There are lessons in pickling and preserving fruits, courses on bread-making, and the local college is to offer a BTEC in horticulture. The thinking is that young people who have grown up among the street vegetables may even make a career in food.
There are no paid staff, buildings or funding from statutory organisations. Their only income is from voluntary donations and fees for talks and tours. Yet they grow vegetables to share all around Todmorden, run cooking and other demonstrations and workshops, organise festivals, encourage people to shop local, and work with other local organisations to build a stronger, kinder community, a truly incredible achievement and an amazing inspiration to others. Incredible Edible Todmorden continues to grow and thrives and I hope it will continue to do so, for many years to come.
I have found several similar schemes in my own city and as soon as I able to, I hope to contribute myself in some way. Eating seasonally, buying locally and building better communities is such an important way forward and the work they do in engaging and involved children is crucial to this been a long-standing movement. Please see the website for more information in how to get involved.
I leave the final words to Mary Clear- the founder
There’s a nobility to growing food and allowing people to share it. There’s a feeling we’re doing something significant rather than just moaning that the state can’t take care of us.
‘Maybe we all need to learn to take care of ourselves.’