‘It is important to be networked’ — how to tackle problems in the food system from the ground up

Sue Sheehan is a Senior Policy Officer and Green Community Champion at Lambeth Council. She tells us the story behind Incredible Edible Lambeth, ‘a collection of people and organisations who work together to make sure that healthy, sustainable, locally produced food is available to everyone living in Lambeth, regardless of income, both now and in the future.’

FS: Can you tell us how you got involved with Incredible Edible?

SS: I became interested in food growing as a political act — a response to climate change and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. I immediately networked with others and got involved with various groups to start growing food. I then got a job with the council to help set up food growing across the borough. I ended up spending a lot of time networking groups with one another to share skills, experiences and resources and, fearing that my role in the council was not guaranteed long-term, and that if I left there would be no-one to do the networking, I set up Incredible Edible Lambeth as an independent community-owned network.

FS: Can you give us a few examples of how Incredible Edible is impacting the local food industry?

We helped gain Flagship Food status for Lambeth and work closely with the Council and Public Health to do things like campaign for regulation for the siting of takeaways so they are not too close to schools, take up initiatives around food waste, address food poverty and generally find ways to engage and influence the food system in Lambeth.

FS: You must be very aware of the social pretext around sustainability as a Green Community Champion at Lambeth Council. What have the reactions been from people who didn’t know about the value of sustainable and local food?

SS: I think there is a lot of awareness around food and sustainability but it is difficult to take action and feel as though you are having any impact. That is why it is important to be networked.

FS: Can you tell us how Incredible Edible is funded and the biggest problems in that process?

SS: Incredible Edible Lambeth is led entirely by volunteers. We have had some funding from Esmée Fairbairn through a major collaboration with Groundwork which has paid for us to get a new website, run a small grant programme for food growing projects and pay a coordinator. That funding soon comes to an end so we are becoming reliant on volunteers again. There are lots of things we want to do and we have a business plan.

FS: As a council officer you must be very aware of the social and environmental problems surrounding you. What kinds of models do you think are most successfully tackling these issues?

SS: I am going to leave the council to focus on developing Incredible Edible Lambeth. I think any model that connects people together, at a neighbourhood level or at an issue level, is hugely valuable. If we know one another we can support one another, share knowledge and resources and increase personal and community resilience.

FS: What piece of advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a sustainable food project?

SS: ‘Just Do It!’ Get started in a small way but know there is support out there. Find people who have done something similar and copy! Ask for help and don’t do it on your own.

FS: What is your dream for the future?

My dream is that we will reduce our dependency on supermarkets and that it will become easier to shop sustainably. It is already becoming so much easier in Lambeth thanks to our many markets and sustainable food shops and bakeries but it is still too easy to go into a supermarkets and be seduced by buy-one-get-one-free offers, knowing that the staff there are not even paid London Living Wage.

Find Sue and Incredible Edible Lambeth on twitter.