In the last decade, the UK has experienced a proliferation of food banks and there are growing concerns about a rise in food insecurity (Loopstra et al., 2019, Loopstra et al., 2015). Even when access to food is adequate, diet quality can be poor, particularly in urban settings, where stress levels and lack of green spaces have been linked to an epidemic of obesity (Dinour et al., 2007). In this context, alternative food networks (AFNs) can play a major role in producing sustainable food, free from chemicals that may inhibit biodiversity and associated ecosystem services, such as pollination, natural pest control, and soil mineralisation, while at the same time increasing human wellbeing in urban areas.
Supported by the IAA ESRC grant on “The Case of Co-Farm: volunteering on a community farm”, Department of Sociology seed funding, I have been studying the impact of cofarming, as one example of alternative food networks, on the well-being and cohesion of the local community. The first phase of the work (March 2020-December 2021) focused on a local community-based agroecology (‘co-farming’) project in Cambridge, CoFarm Cambridge. Over this period, 25 in-depth interviews were collected, 16 with volunteers in the project and 9 interviews with members of the stakeholder group and the Founder & CEO of CoFarm. Further 10 interviews with beneficiaries of the food hubs have been collected in the second phase of the project which started in January 2022. Together with the Biological Sciences at Essex, I have received further funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Co-I (£54, 745), and will focus on the health and cohesion benefits of alternative food networks.
Following an extensive community consultation and co-design process (between March 2019 and March 2020), CoFarm was developed on a site off Barnwell Road, on 7-acres of privately-owned agricultural land in the Green Belt, next to Coldhams Common. The CoFarm model is based on two paid professional horticulturists training and supervising over 500 volunteer ‘co-farmers’ from the local community, so far. The farm has been highly productive over its first two growing seasons and in 2020 and 2021 has donated its entire harvest, more than 12 tonnes of organically produced fruit and vegetables, to 8 community food hubs in Cambridge city.
The project finds that as a result of their cofarming experience, volunteers reported greater involvement with community issues and heightened awareness of food justice issues. Thus, alongside other research on this topic (Cox et al., 2008), this study suggests that this form of engagement in an alternative food network can have important community benefits which can be further strengthened through communication and the active involvement of various community actors including volunteers themselves who can bring a lot of energy and knowledge to the project. Many reported that cofarming had been responsible for keeping them in good mental health during the lockdown which aligns with findings in the social prescribing literature (Chatterjee et al., 2018, Drinkwater et al., 2019, Husk et al., 2020). None of our interviewees questioned the decision for all produce to be donated during Covid19 emergency and in fact identified it as an important aspect of the cofarming activity.
The full report on volunteers and stakeholders of CoFarm can be accessed below.