A Cambridgeshire farmer is helping to feed NHS workers, emergency responders and homeless people after starting a vegetable growing project for the local community.
David Walston, who farms at Thriplow, created the community vegetable growing programme CoVeg in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Since it started earlier this year, it has produced all sorts of vegetables for people in the surrounding villages – and further afield too.
“I’d always thought about doing vegetables on a small scale,” said Mr Walston.
“Then when Covid hit and there were food shortages, and I saw people doing nice things in the community, it gave me a nudge, and I thought, what could I do? I’d got the land, I’d got the machinery: I thought, why not grow stuff using that?”
Two 75m long strips of land 6m wide were cultivated in a field at nearby Fowlmere. To gauge local interest, Mr Walston put a message on the village Facebook group, inviting people to take part. There were plenty of willing volunteers.
There was a lot of work upfront getting the project up and running. But support came in the form of donations of seeds from agricultural suppliers, including Kings Seeds and Tozer Seeds, with irrigation equipment from Howseman Agriculture.
Half the plot was sown conventionally in rows. The other half was used to create a chaos garden, where lots of different seeds are sown together. People and families signed up for a 10-minute slot to sow a mix of 40-50 different vegetables across a given area.
They included lettuce, radish, spring onion, carrot, beetroot, courgette and pumpkins. “Fun as it is, it’s difficult to manage and you can’t weed,” says Mr Walston. ”So if we continue next year, we’ll forget the chaos garden. But we know now what’s successful, so we can focus on what’s going to work.”
The idea was for people to grow and harvest what they wanted, and for there to be a surplus to distribute among local communities. An early worry was that there might be fights over who got what, but the reverse happened – with no one wanting to take more than their share.
“First of all, we worked with the village Covid co-ordinators, and did food boxes for the elderly, or people who’d lost their jobs,” said Mr Walston. “But I always wanted the NHS to be involved somehow, as CoVeg was Covid related.
“So we did care packages for workers at Addenbrooke’s Hospital; at the ambulance station in Cambridge – I had a cardiac arrest one night last year, so I know people from the paramedic services; at Magpas Air Ambulance and the Hazardous Area Response Team at Melbourn.”
CoVeg has also supported the Cambridge Sustainable Food hub, Jimmy’s Cambridge homeless shelter and the Wintercomfort day centre for homeless people (see box). Anna Barcham, whose children attend the same local school as Mr Walston’s, is one of the regular CoVeg volunteers.
“We got involved as a family from the start,” she said.
“I was very aware that some communities and cohorts were struggling – and I wanted to contribute. From the sowing of seeds, to picking, to delivering produce to local communities, it was important for the children to be involved, and for the villages to benefit.
“In a really isolating period, it was a great opportunity to be a part of something, and to give something. It helped us feel connected to the community. David really pulled the community together at such a tricky time and I really hope CoVeg continues.”
Homeless shelter is among beneficiaries
Beneficiaries of the CoVeg project include Wintercomfort, a day centre for homeless people in Cambridge. The centre provides meals for rough sleepers and others homed temporarily under the government’s Covid emergency housing scheme.
“Food is a huge part of what we do,” said Melody Brooker, the centre’s fundraising manager. “We’re very mindful that we’re not just feeding people but feeding them well.”
Wintercomfort has supported people who are homeless or at risk of losing their home in Cambridge for 28 years. As well as hot cooked meals, it offers welfare services, advice and emotional support seven days a week.
“A lot of thought goes into providing well-balanced, nutritious meals – so fresh fruit and vegetables are hugely valuable,” said Ms Brooker. “While we obviously have a budget for food, it’s not always possible to get the freshest produce on a budget. So it’s great to have community support like this.”
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