Interview with Sue Sheehan, Incredible Edible Lambeth

| Azad Sharma

We caught up with Sue Sheehan, co-founder of Incredible Edible Lambeth, a London-based strand of a global movement working towards re-localising the food industry and building community in the process. We heard about Sue’s journey into urban food growing from an expert in co-production to a mother who wanted to contribute to eco-friendly living to help future generations.

Tell me about yourself and how you came to be working for Incredible Edible Lambeth

Soon after I had children, I was at home worrying about climate change and how I was going to save the planet. And so, protect my children’s future. I got very interested in how we spend our money and the sorts of things we could do, including growing food. I ended up building a community in my neighbourhood around sharing resources and skills to grow our own food and understand how we could have a lower impact on the environment through the type of food that we choose to eat.

As a result of that, I ended up changing my career completely. I was a journalist and became a community worker for Lambeth Council where I set up a program that helped other people set up food projects. I became a bit of an ‘expert’ or model of co-production for the council. Then I started working with colleagues across the council, across all areas on co-production. But for me it keeps coming back to food. Food is such a good way to engage people. Everybody eats. Incredible Edible is a national and international movement, it’s not just here in Lambeth, and one of our mottos is ‘if you eat you’re in’. It captures everybody and it’s such an interesting area. Food has become my area of focus. Whether you’re talking social action, improving lives or improving health, food is always a good starting point.

Who has been your greatest inspiration or influence?

Pam Warhurst who is the founder of Incredible Edible. She has spent a lot of time with us here in Lambeth. She visits regularly and thinks about how we’re developing which is actually quite different to some of the other Incredible Edible groups across the country, because we’re in such an urban area which creates all sorts of issues for us that they don’t perhaps have in a more rural setting.

I think when we started the urban food growing movement we thought it was just about growing food. And it’s not. It’s about community. It’s about people.

If you eat you’re in

Sue Sheehan

We’ve helped the profile of food and food activism in Lambeth. We are now and becoming increasingly, a trusted partner of the council and other statutory partners. We’re now seen as an organisation that does help deliver real outcomes for people. Even though sometimes it’s not us that are doing it. We’re just raising the profile of all community activists who are out there doing it, who on their own don’t have a loud enough voice. It’s only by singing together that we are often heard.

What’s the best mistake you’ve made?

We have several! It’s a journey, we’ve been together as an organisation for about eight years. We’ve perhaps trusted the wrong people sometimes. We’ve entered into partnerships particularly around funding where we actually haven’t managed to achieve the goals that we wanted, but we’ve helped other people achieve their goals and not really achieved our own goals or those of our members. I have a lot of belief in being open, sharing, working together, working towards a common goal. I think the danger is we don’t always set that out clearly right at the very beginning. And you have to be so clear with your partners because they don’t necessarily share those broad ambitions. Don’t sweat the small stuff, that’s what I would say.

Did anything surprise you during the project?

I think when we started the urban food growing movement we thought it was just about growing food. And it’s not. It’s about community. It’s about people. It’s about growing people and ways of being together. It starts off being about food and ends up being about building society.

What piece of advice would you give to someone thinking of doing something similar?

In another urban environment I would say don’t worry about starting off with very small spaces. In fact, nurture those small spaces and think about growing food in unusual spaces. That’s one of the really interesting bits about urban gardening. I would say try stuff out. You don’t know what’s going to grow in your local area. We have learnt that things like root vegetables are quite difficult for us to grow. Partly due to climate, but also due to soil. We have to bring in a lot of soil or make our own because we don’t have good soil beneath us. You know, it’s mainly rubble here. Herbs and salads are great for an urban environment and they’re really good for impacting on climate change as well. There’s a lot of carbon in those bags of salad and little tiny packets of herbs, or dried herbs.

What’s next?

We want to build ourselves as a network and be a better network. That involved holding more networking events and more opportunities for people to come together and learn from one another. And support one another so that we can grow more food and improve health and wellbeing in Lambeth.

Also last year we were awarded a big contract to work with Lambeth Early Action Plan (LEAP) with families who are living in four of the most deprived wards in the borough to help create a healthier environment. We’re doing that by helping people get their food hygiene certificates so they can access cooking spaces and cook together to do communal meals with a healthy vegetarian food policy. We’re also growing food on those sites and encouraging people to get out and be physically active and to pick the food. We’re really focussing on salads this year because that’s something that really works. You can grow salads in all sorts of different corners. Also, rather than just say ‘this is how you should eat’, we’ve been sourcing surplus vegetables through City Harvest, which is a great food redistribution organisation, and packaging up bags so they can take them home. We’re giving out a hundred bags of vegetables a week to our families and we think we’re going to be able to increase that this year. In our current cohort there’s a couple of thousand families so we’ve got some way to go.

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