The case of CoFarm
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. This report focuses on the experiences of the volunteers and stakeholders in one such local community-based agroecology (‘co-farming’) project in Cambridge, CoFarm Cambridge. CoFarm Cambridge is a wholly owned subsidiary of the CoFarm Foundation which was established in 2019 to help “bring people together to grow and share delicious, nutritious food and help build stronger, healthier ecosystems and communities” (Foundation, 2019). Following a community consultation in 2019, the farm 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 farm which so far relies almost exclusively on volunteer labour (with two paid horticulturalists on site) has been highly productive and in 2020 donated its entire produce, more than 4,5 tonnes of organically harvested fruit and vegetables, to 8 community food hubs in Cambridgeshire.
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.