OrganicLea is the ideal location to choose if you want to escape city life for a day. Located in the outskirts of East London, the workers´ cooperative invites you to help in growing fruit and vegetables and enjoy the serenity of nature. We took the opportunity to join a group of volunteers in October 2016 and immediately experienced an outstanding community, in which everyone feels welcome. Theo Brown, OrganicLeas´ site development worker, talked with us about local, organic food in general and what the community food project is all about.
OrganicLea was founded in 2001. What was the idea behind this movement?
Theo: I think it was very much politically motivated. There was, particularly at that time, a lot of debate going on about GM foods. Protests at modern farming methods were popping up everywhere. People were trying to find ways round the industrialized system, to take control of where their food comes from and to make sure that it´s produced in the right way. To find some land where you could grow food was the logical consequence of this.
"We work with what nature gives us,
and we don´t ask for more."
Over a decade later, the workers´ cooperative now calls The Clove Club, No. 26 on The
World´s 50 Best Restaurants list 2017 and holder of one Michelin star, their most loyal restaurant customer. Tell us more about this important cooperation?
Theo: A lot of restaurants that we supply, including The Clove Club, are really happy with the food that we give them. They value the high quality of the products, the interesting varieties, and the fact that the food is grown really close to them. Last year, we started a new relationship with The Clove Club. We gained access to a piece of land where two former growers from OrganicLea, now employed by The Clove Club, cultivate food exclusively for them. Every week, the chefs come by to follow the growing process. They really appreciate our support and the level of attention that we´re able to give. And for them, it´s a fantastic selling point to say that all their food is grown by a handful of people less than ten miles away. In this way, we close the gap between the kitchen and the field.
OrganicLeas´ fruit and vegetables are locally and organically grown. What does that mean?
Theo: We are growing in close proximity to our consumers and in accordance with organic principles, which means that our food is not traveling half way around the country, or even the world, to reach its destination. Most of our food is actually consumed within a five-mile radius. It´s grown without using any kind of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, which are the causes of an unbalanced, non-organic growing system. Instead, we work with what nature gives us, and we
don´t ask for more.
"What we really want to see is a countryside
and even an urban area with an existing linkage
between the producers and the consumers of food.
And the stronger that link is, the better for both."
Local and organic food seem to be linked quite often. What are the reasons for that?
Theo: Both terms are part of a more conscious and sophisticated food movement. Small farmers, in particular, pursue a sustainable production and supply chain and aspire to sell their food locally.
I think it´s very important for the farmers to have a close relationship with the consumers, which motivates and contributes to an even higher awareness of organic farming methods. However, many large conventional farmers sell their food to wholesale markets, which are located far away from where the food was grown. They operate in a moral vacuum, where an exchange between them and the consumers nearly doesn´t exist. It´s quite likely that the farmers will do things that are purely profit motivated. Like, in North America, where you have these great deserts of industrial agriculture. What we really want to see is a countryside and even an urban area with an existing linkage between the producers and the consumers of food. And the stronger that link is, the better for both.
If you have the choice of buying organic or buying local, what would you choose and why?
Theo: I mean it depends. Let´s say, if an apple was grown locally but grown in a way which is damaging to the environment, then I would personally boycott that apple. But if that apple was grown with good intentions, I would still buy it, even though it´s not certified organic. Organic labels are often quite hard to get, and, particularly for smaller producers, very expensive.
Last year, OrganicLea worked with more than 200 people, with an average of 65 volunteer days worked each week. What drives so many people to help on a voluntary basis, and what was your own motivation to become part of the OrganicLea workers´ cooperative?
Theo: People who come to OrganicLea are motivated by different reasons. Most of them want to learn more about growing food, others mainly join to become part of a strong community. We have a lot of volunteers who are socially isolated and are looking to be more inclusive in a community. People of all ages with different backgrounds. Personally, I joined OrganicLea because of its non-hierarchical structure, where everyone is involved in the daily decisions, and because I really like the idea of finding interesting solutions to the ongoing problems in our food system. Being able to live in London and to enjoy the beauty of the countryside at the same time, is a dream scenario.
"The impacts of the industrial food production
on rural communities, the environment,
and public health make it an unsustainable way
to grow food over the long term."
The industrial food production is based on monoculture, which is the practice of growing single crops intensively on a very large scale. What do you think are the most significant consequences of this cultivation method?
Theo: The system basically operates because we´re constantly wanting cheaper food. And we would do anything to find that source of cheaper food, as long as we aren´t directly affected by the consequences. Large multinational food producers outsource entire agricultural branches to other parts of the world, where they can exploit cheap labor and circumvent environmental regulations.
It´s basically a colonial attitude towards food with long-term, irreparable damage. The expansion of territories leads to the forced displacement of indigenous people and tropical deforestation. And the high use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides pollutes the soil and the groundwater and causes chronic health problems among the workers. The impacts of the industrial food production on rural communities, the environment, and public health make it an unsustainable way to grow food over the long term.
Where can we buy fruit and vegetables from OrganicLea?
Theo: We offer a weekly box scheme with different bag sizes and over 20 pick-up points across Waltham Forest. We also run two community market stalls on Saturdays and our own shop in Walthamstow, where we sell seasonal fruit and vegetables from Soil Association certified organic farms, ultra-local London growers and our own organic certified Hawkwood site.
Any final thoughts?
Theo: For those who have a small income but want to buy local organic food, I recommend focusing on the purchase of products that you don´t cook before you eat them, like fruits and salads or basically anything you can eat raw. A similar product range, which is conventionally grown, would be completely covered in chemicals.
Additional info about OrganicLea and their upcoming events can be found on the website .
Photos: THE FRANK STORY