Urban Roots London brings the farm to the city — and the city to the farm — while providing sustainable, fresh food to Londoners.
A group of Londoners is doing something transformative on a small patch of land near Highbury Ave and Hamilton Road. Urban Roots London, a non-profit social enterprise, is utilizing undeveloped urban space in the city of London to grow and distribute high-quality organic produce.
The Urban Roots farm, located at 21 Norlan Ave, is now entering its fourth growing season. The founding Directors established the farm to combat unsustainable agricultural practices while addressing affordable, healthy food issues.
Tackling Food Insecurity
Food insecurity — a lack of reliable access to affordable, healthy fresh food — is a persistent issue in London.
Mariam Waliji, a Director on Urban Roots London’s Board, knows that the inability to access healthy food has a genuine impact on individuals and communities. “I often think about how wealth disparity impacts access to food and also how your access to food impacts your health on a very genetic level. There are mountains of research on how much healthy eating impacts families, communities, and kids’ ability to learn. So it’s not something that should be limited or have a barrier to access.”
Waliji believes access to healthy food is the baseline of the health of a community. “Healthy communities mean you have healthy people and a thriving economy. Having healthy people is the basis of a good city, and having healthy people relies on having healthy food.”
Food deserts — neighbourhoods that don’t have or have limited access to affordable, healthy food — exist throughout London.
According to the City of London’s Urban Agriculture Strategy, “many neighbourhoods in London can still be referred to as food deserts, and, for some, it is the norm to have better access to fast food than to healthy, nutritious options. For example, one neighbourhood has 90 fast-food restaurants, 45 variety stores, and only two grocery stores.”
Waliji agrees that there are areas in London that lack access to healthy food, and it’s not just about financial means. “It’s also that it takes three buses and your entire day just to go pick up groceries at an affordable place, and the less affordable place doesn’t have good quality food. They’re also potentially working two jobs or just trying to keep a roof over their heads, and healthy food isn’t at top of mind.”
But she is hopeful. “There’s so much that can be done, and there’s so much possibility, particularly in London, with so much green space that’s just not being used right now.”
The Model of Thirds
Another third is sold at affordable prices to local organizations such as Edgar & Joe’s Cafe and Growing Chefs, at their semiweekly farm market, or neighbourhood-focused pop-up booths. In 2019, they set up a market booth in front of Old East Village Grocer on Dundas Street.
Wholesales to local restaurants and resellers make up the final third of sales. Past wholesale supporters have included Grace, Black Trumpet, Reverie, La Noisette Bakery, and The Root Cellar. These companies have committed to supporting sustainable, local, urban agriculture, and by doing so, offset the costs of Urban Roots’ donated and discounted produce initiatives.
Since 2017, Urban Roots has either donated or sold almost 19 thousand pounds of produce. As a social enterprise guided by its vision of an accessible, sustainable food system, they are committed to providing healthy food for free or at cost.
“Being able to eat well shouldn’t be a privilege,” says Waliji. The dream is to expand the Urban Roots model to other areas of the city or even to other cities. Maintaining the “model of thirds” at new locations would extend the reach of affordable and donated produce in other neighbourhoods.
Getting to Know the Land
Urban Roots London is about more than just producing healthy, affordable food. It’s also an opportunity to learn more about the entire agricultural process from beginning to end.
The farm allows people of all ages to understand what it means to connect and give back to the land. “Farming is such an unfamiliar concept, in this day and age, that growing food is something that seems really foreign to a lot of people, particularly kids. And it’s not, it’s something you can literally do in your backyard,” says Waliji. “So that’s kind of the beauty of Urban Roots, it’s in a residential area. In our current climate, we really should explore urban agriculture more.”
Last year, over 300 people volunteered on the farm — weeding, planting, watering, harvesting, and selling. This year, due to COVID-19, the farm looks a little different. Usually full of people on volunteer nights, only key staff and select volunteers are working on the farm. However, they hope to open up volunteer opportunities once it is safe to do so.
Get a Share of the Farm
While you may not be able to pull weeds just yet, there are other opportunities to support urban agriculture. Starting later this spring, the farm will begin a Community Composting program, supported by the London Environmental Network’s Environmental Action Incubator. Individuals will be able to contribute organic materials, such as fruit and vegetable scraps. The resulting compost will be used to fertilize the farm next year.
Also new this year, Urban Roots London is offering farm shares. The shares act like a loadable gift card and can be used at any of the farmgate markets this summer. Unlike scheduled produce bags or boxes, farm shares allow users more flexibility.
The farm shares are an opportunity to invest in Urban Roots’ mission and help cover upfront operating and infrastructure costs. In addition, those who purchase upwards of $100 will receive a reusable produce bag, tote bag, and/or t-shirt.
Harvest Dinner at Home
The team at Urban Roots London is also working to reimagine their annual Harvest Dinner. Local chefs cook the meal using Urban Roots produce and local organic meats.
The Harvest Dinner is held each year at the end of their season and is the organization’s largest fundraiser. It also serves as a celebration and thank you for volunteers. With restrictions due to COVID-19 likely impacting this year’s event, organizers are looking at options to replicate this special dinner and celebration at home. Updates on the 2020 Harvest Dinner can be found at their website closer to the fall.
For more information about Urban Roots London and how you can participate, visit their website.
Feature Photo Courtesy of Urban Roots London