Abundance Manchester

Abundance Manchester was established in the summer of 2008 with the aim of collecting fruit from public trees and people’s gardens and redistributing it to people in need. The volunteer-run organisation now collects fruit from around 60 gardens every harvest and drops off the produce on bike trailers to a homeless shelter, a centre for destitute asylum seekers and the Salvation Army in south Manchester. Inspired by groups such as ‘Grow Sheffield’ which highlights the amount of food waste that occurs in an urban environment, the volunteers at Abundance Manchester also say their work illustrates the ways that environmental groups can help with social issues such as homelessness.

“It’s such a simple idea, you take fruit from people who don’t want or need it and then you give it to people who do. Most people can’t believe it hasn’t been done sooner – everyone benefits,” beams Nicola Scott, a volunteer at Abundance Manchester. Passionate about growing food locally and organically, Nicola says that what drew her to Abundance was a realisation of the amount of food waste that occurs in people’s gardens: “People seem to just inherit these fruit trees or buy houses with existing trees and just don’t know what do with them…There are some people who really care about their trees but then you do get people who still go out and buy apples from their local supermarket even though they have an amazing apple tree growing in their backyard!”

Tackling Food Waste In The City

Once the organisation was set up, the core members set about tackling this issue of waste by advertising their project and asking people who had a glut of produce to contact them so that they could collect the extra fruit. Gradually, they built up a list of available fruit trees and so they started working on developing links with local charities and organisations who could make use of their harvest. “We had one volunteer at the time who worked with an asylum seeker project called The Boaz Trust – they help destitute asylum seekers who have no recourse to any funds at all, either because their asylum application has been rejected and they are going through the appeals process or they have just newly arrived in the UK. It was decided that they would be the key recipient.”

Since then, Abundance Manchester has worked with projects such as the Cornerstone in Hulme which helps homeless people, the Safestop Hostel which assists young homeless women as well as the Salvation Army. They have built up an e-list of 300 volunteers offering to pick fruit during the harvest season – which runs from late July to the end of October – and also to make chutneys and cook fruit pies for those organisations without a kitchen. As they rely on bike trailers to transport their goods, the projects focuses on small area in south Manchester which covers Didsbury, Chorlton, Withington, Whalley Range and Ladybarn. Despite this limitation, they often struggle with the logistics of carrying the abundant fruit they pick, “Sometimes we have so much we have to drop off the first lot at our base and come back for the rest- it’s amazing how much free food is available even in inner-city neighbourhoods,” says Nicola

‘It Doesn’t Look Like That At The Supermarket!’

It seems that hundreds of fruit trees across the city go unpicked because people think it’s not safe to eat fruit from the trees or they are not sure who the trees belong to. “People are so disassociated from where our food comes from that when the fruit has got blemishes – which are completely natural – they think well it mustn’t be safe to eat,” explains Nicola. “It’s a shame really, we’ve become so detached from our food, we expect it to be all shiny like it comes from the supermarket.”

The reluctance of people to pick from public trees is also an issue which Nicola thinks could be easily resolved with a couple of signs encouraging people to take the fruit at the time of harvest. “Last summer we found that there were loads of cherry trees in Moss Side, literally ten metres away from Princess Parkway and so we started picking the cherries in late June. We got loads of people coming out of their houses saying ‘What are you doing? ‘These are public trees, are you allowed to pick them?’ and we were like ‘Yeah, of course’ and eventually there were loads of people coming out to pick the trees.”

Growing With Asylum Seekers

As well as connecting people with the food available on their neighbourhoods, Abundance Manchester has also helped raise awareness of social issues such as homelessness and immigration amongst people who wouldn’t normally engage with such matters. “Working with Abundance meant that I got to find out more about asylum seekers through our workshops and they taught me stuff like how in Zimbabwe they use the young leaves of courgettes as spinach leaves,” says Nicola. “So you get all these cultural exchanges and I learnt about issues I normally wouldn’t be involved in.”

Nicola adds the fruit donors, who open their gardens to Abundance volunteers, also make links with socially marginalised people such as refugees and homeless people. “When we go to the richer areas of Manchester where we collect fruit, it’s very unlikely that these people will be in contact with destitute asylum seekers and I think sharing the food is a way for them to give and help other people.” Indeed, Nicola says that what Abundance Manchester wants to see in the future are more people and organisations with fruit trees taking their own initiative to link up to local groups and charities who could put the food to good use. “For example, the Hulme garden centre asked whether we would take their excess fruit but then we realised that there was a community café round the corner from them, so it made a lot more sense for them to just get together and work out a way to share the produce,” explains Nicola.

Sharing Food and Becoming Sustainable

In January 2009, Abundance Manchester acquired an allotment in West Didsbury which its now uses as a base to store fruit and as a drop-off point for those wanting to donate a glut in fruit or vegetables from their own allotments. The allotment also means that they can now host workshops encouraging locals to grow food in their own homes and gardens with limited resources, space and time. “I think with food price hikes as a result of climate change, we’re going to need to know how to be more self-sufficient and growing your own is a simple way to live more sustainably,” says Nicola. “It may not be for everyone, I understand that completely, but I think there are things that everyone can do like growing salad leaves and herbs in a container on their balcony.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

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Hulme Community Garden Centre – A Green Regeneration

After decades of social and economic decline, Hulme was regenerated in the 1990s with the demolition of problematic flats such as the Crescents and some improvements to social housing. However, the regeneration failed to create green spaces which were open to all so in 1998, four local residents came up with the idea of establishing a community garden centre. Richard Lockwood, Geraldine Wall, Andrew Stewart and Neil Francis got together to work on securing land for the garden and in April 2000 they opened Hulme Community Garden Centre on Old Birley Street just two miles from Manchester’s city centre. Whilst only one of the four founding members – Richard Lockwood – is still part of the project today, the ethos of sustainability and a belief in the role that green spaces can play in the well-being of the community still leads the organisation.

“What you have now is a very mature and established garden but originally it was a brownfield site – just a patch of wasteland,” explains Jamie Dickinson, the manager of the centre, as we sit in the garden. “The land is still council-owned and we basically pay a peppercorn rent because, in fairness, the council realise that we add value to the area and sees the benefit of what we do.” As well as selling cheap seeds and plants to green-fingered locals, the garden centre is a maze of trees, willow arches, allotments and classrooms where free workshops are held for local residents, school children and a wide range of socially excluded groups such as ex-drug users and those who have abused alcohol.

Jamie explains that the Centre has worked with over 200 organisations ranging from the usual green and environmentally focused groups to allotment societies, mental health agencies, housing associations and refugee support network. “What we’ve found is that access to green space and horticulture covers such a broad cross section of needs. On a basic level, there’s mental and physical well-being of just growing and planting… It can help people in so many ways, whether it’s exercise, being with nature, healthy living or even how it connects to people’s faith,” says Jamie.

A not-for-profit organisation, the Hulme Community Garden Centre employs ten members of staff and welcomes over 5,000 visitors every year, all of whom have access to free expert horticultural advice. “We get the yummy mummies of Chorlton, an 80-year old African Caribbean through to Iraqi refugees walking through our doors. It’s such a broad group of people and that’s the strength of what we do,” adds Jamie. “It’s not a passive space – I mean, yes, you can come here and just read a book or have a sandwich – but we actively work to help people and that’s what’s really important.”

As well its role in the wider community, the centre has become an education hub, promoting the importance of growing food and biodiversity and wildlife habitats. Schools and college groups visit the centre regularly and although Jamie states that they don’t focus on any age group in their community outreach, he admits that it’s important to get people into healthy living and sustainability sooner in their lives. “This centre was founded on principles of sustainability,” says Jamie. “I read the various documents that were submitted to funders before this place opened and what you see all the way through it is the principle of sustainability, maybe not in those terms but you see the three Rs again and again… Recycle, compost, growing organic- all these things are now what we would class as sustainability and they were the ethos at the centre of this place which we still follow.” In fact, on my way in to find Jamie I witness a local resident quiz the staff (who seemed very knowledgeable) on everything from the best organic feeds to the best season to grow your own ginger.

When I ask Jamie if he thinks growing our own food in an urban landscape is important, he replies, “Well, I don’t mean to sound dramatic but it’s a matter of life and death. Growing food and being green is a big part of what we’re about and people are going to have to learn how to do it because otherwise they ain’t going to eat! In terms of sustainability, local food is going to be the only food and so we want to skill as many people to do that as we possible can. It’s not that we bully or hector people about this – we don’t feel that’s our role or how we will educate and improve people’s lives – we’ve just have to show and explain.”

Indeed, the garden centre was recently granted permission to take over a council-owned car park right next door, again on a peppercorn rate on a ten-year lease, to expand the garden. On May 15th 2011, a community discussion and design day was held to gather ideas about what to do with the acre of land they have acquired. “We invited all the community and I mean ALL the community – we leafleted every house and flat, we contacted every organisation we work with, we told everyone – so that the local community could come in and say ‘well, this is what we want’,” says Jamie.

The main requests put forward by the locals includes things like renewable energy generation, wind turbines, community allotments, a performance space and green workshop where they could make things out of wood without using any energy. Many gardeners also pointed out that they would like more space for growing food. “We are a community organisation, and we need people to give us our mandate to go forward,” explains Jamie, “At the end of the community design day we had a clear idea of what people want to see and the nice part was that it was what we thought should be there in the first place, which means that we’re getting something right!”

Looking into the future, the Hulme Community Garden Centre faces the same problem that many voluntary organisations are now struggling with: funding. Or to be more precise, long-term funding which allows an organisation to plan ahead, develop and exist without the threat of financial ruin. “We’ve been lucky because we did get a pot of funding for five years in 2007 which has been a springboard and helped us get from 3 staff to ten and do stuff like put up the green roof, refit the classroom and the staffroom and plan to eco-retrofit the shop,” says Jamie. “We’ve also done what lots of other organisations do, which is build our resilience by selling things…We sell plants and seeds and that, hopefully, means we’ll always have something to fall back on to help keep this community garden open.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa