Community Food Initiatives: How we can take control of what we eat
Róisín Devoy (centre), community food initiative co-ordinator, with Alfie Palmer and Breda Hanaphy, at the community garden at Corduff , Blanchardstown. Photograph: Eric Luke
Healthy food doesn’t come cheap. For many, especially those on low incomes, it’s virtually impossible to access. Around Ireland, however, a new model of community partnership is empowering people to eat a varied diet. Community food initiatives (CFIs) use a community development approach to improve the availability of healthy food, especially for low-income groups.
“CFIs help people to recognise the issue of food poverty, and to access a healthy diet and knowledge around nutrition through courses and activities,” says Róisín Devoy, who lives in Blanchardstown and co-ordinates the local CFI.
“We don’t talk about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods; there is already a huge guilt that comes with people making food choices. Instead, we organise activities, including grow-your-own community gardening initiatives, and courses in how to cook with this produce. We have also hooked up with Blanchardstown Institute of Technology to offer a Level 4 Fetac course in horticulture.”
Central to the CFIs are community gardens, which provide education about food, environmental sustainability and the causes of food poverty. They also work with local businesses to promote locally grown, healthy food choices. There are 10 CFIs in Ireland so far. They are all different: each has its priorities set and guided by members of the local community.
As part of the Blanchardstown CFI, the local national school, St Patrick’s, has also built its own garden, with children learning how to grow and cook their own food. They’ve used the potatoes to make low-oil chips, as well as leek and potato soup.
“It’s about connecting the kids with the food,” says Devoy. “They jump for joy when the strawberries and the peas ripen. Nobody is telling them to eat them because they’re healthy; they’re doing it of their own accord because they are engaged with the process.”
Breda Hanaphy is in her mid-50s and has been involved with the Blanchardstown project from the start. She says the involvement of the Corduff Community Centre has been critical to the success of this project. “They’ve been so good at facilitating us and creating space . . . You can come over any time you want: there’s an open door here – and it’s a meeting place. There’s something very therapeutic about talking to people while you work.”
It is, says Hanaphy, an educational and empowering experience. “We all learn from each other about growing, harvesting and preparing the produce. There are classes about cooking. Among the more interesting items we made was a beetroot and chocolate cake; it sounds horrible, but it was really delicious.”
Everyone shares in the spoils. “The food is for the whole community, if they want it. Older people work alongside the youngsters too. In the local school, the kids are picking the carrots that they grew themselves, bringing them home, and tasting them.”
Hanaphy recognises that it’s not easy to eat well on a budget. “Going back a few years, before Lidl and Aldi brought in very low-cost fruit and veg, they weren’t always affordable. Now, families can buy and parboil and freeze the veg, and make [their own] soups. Rent, bills, water charges, property tax: it all means that some families have only €10 a week, and food has to fall to the bottom of the list. This is heartbreaking, especially for couples with young families.”
Alfie Palmer is 57 and has been involved in the local Blanchardstown community for decades. “I’m learning how simple it is to grow your own, be self-sufficient, and not have to spend all your money in a supermarket. This has had a knock-on effect within the local community. It’s spurring on other change: the residents’ association is putting flowers up around the area, and the kids are involved in that.”
Palmer is on a disability pension and says it can be difficult to live on a tight budget. “The likes of these gardens will save me a few quid, and you know that what you are getting is healthy because you’ve grown it yourself.”
Safefood, which highlights awareness and knowledge of food safety and nutrition issues on the island of Ireland, works with the all-island charity Healthy Food for All to promote and fund CFIs. Both organisations are attempting to mainstream CFIs in every community in Ireland but, with funds limited, it is an uphill struggle.
“Food poverty is not the fault of the individual,” says Devoy. “It is a structural issue that requires a collective, cross-departmental response at Government level. There are many barriers that people on low-incomes face in accessing a healthy diet, including affordability. People on low incomes are often expert budgeters but they have no margin for error and will feed the family the cheapest option – often full of fat, salt and sugar – because they know they are being fed . . . CFIs can help to combat all of this.”