“A lawn isn’t just for kicking a ball around, the land, the ground around us, the soil can be a willing partner in helping sustain ourselves,” said John Pickles.
John Pickles is the Community Growing Co-ordinator at Environmental Management Solutions (EMS) Ltd, a charity founded in 2009. EMS has offices in the east of the city, but works actively on both sides of the river. The charity’s mission is to work with residents and community groups ‘to alleviate food and fuel poverty’.
John explained: “Most of our work is related to food and redistributing food. We pick up a lot of short-dated supermarket food, which we then redistribute from our shop office which we have at the Preston Road Village Centre. The public can come in, Monday to Friday between 10am and 3pm, and they can take items from the shop. We’ve got all the basics, and they can put a donation in the basket, it’s very affordable.”
John’s role at EMS is to engage residents and community groups in growing their own food. The project now has several growing sites around the city, often on council-owned land that is being underused. Hull City Council are supportive of these ‘grow your own’ initiatives, helping tenants and groups to access John’s skills and EMS’ resources.
“We’ve got several sites around Hull. Usually it is Council land, where we’ve liaised with tenants and residents’ association groups. And we’ve spoken to locals who were interested in growing their own food, fruit, vegetables, and herbs. And we’ve identified a piece of vacant or underused land near where they live, and we’ve put in some infrastructure to give them most of what they need to grow their own fruit and vegetables,” said John.
I visited John at a site just off Wincolmlee, close to the city centre.
“We’re just between Aldbro’ Street and New George Street, right in the middle of Hull. You know, we are just on the edge of an industrial area, Wincolmlee. But we have got an estate here. So we’ve got a site which probably measures, I would say, 15-20m by 15-20m meters, where we’ve set up five raised beds, which we’ve had made by Humber Wood Recycling.
“We’ve brought in some top soil and good quality soil, and we’ve brought in some rainwater harvesting. We work with Yorkshire Water, they’ve got a scheme called Living With Water, and they’re able to give us a thousand litre water container, which we’ve plumbed into the guttering here, which is full. So that means that we’ve got free water, good water, for keeping everything irrigated.
“We brought in a load of wood-chip and various materials to make some nice paths. We’re using what’s called a ‘no dig’ method. We’ve got some mound beds on the ground, which are all sown up at the moment with mustard, which is a nice green manure crop, which can grow through the winter. We’ve got greenery during the winter. And some of the volunteers on the community group, back in November, were sowing broad beans, so they should start to pop up in the next few weeks.”
This particular plot of land was originally a lawn, surrounded by a number of blocks of social housing. Now, with John’s help, it’s been transformed into a food growing site. Numerous residents, whose homes overlook the plot, have now joined in with the growing.
John said: “So we’ve got five residents who live here. We’ve got Mick, we’ve got Chaz, we’ve got Michelle, we’ve got Molly, and we’ve also got Grant, and we’ve got one or two other people as well, who help out. So these are all people who live very, very locally. Two of them, literally overlooking this piece of land. One of them, Chaz, I met her on site when she was hanging her washing out, right next door to where her bed now is. So the idea is, it’s people who live very nearby. They’re able to, as they’re hanging their washing out, pick some salad or something like that, and then five minutes later it’s on the dinner table.”
Many of those taking part have never grown their own crops before, others are more experienced and happily share their knowledge.
“We’ve got a couple of people in the group who are reasonably experienced, but they’re sharing their knowledge with three or more others who haven’t done much before. They’re sharing their experience,” said John.
“Everybody’s got something to bring, other people are good at cooking. So there’s a lot of knowledge being shared, and it’s a good little group, actually, they all get on with each other. We’ve created a little WhatsApp group for communications and they chat about stuff, not just the site, but other bits and pieces as well. What I like about this is it’s brought together a group of people who live near each other, but might not otherwise have got to know each other. It’s a good bit of community bonding.”
John started working at EMS in April this year, just weeks after the nation had been plunged into the first Covid-19 lockdown. The charity’s immediate focus was to support those in food poverty by distributing food parcels.
John said: “Because EMS has some fantastic links with, I think, all the supermarkets in Hull, we were designated by the council to be the East Hull Hub for food parcel distribution. There’s one in West Hull, North Hull, and we were the East Hull hub, because we were already receiving quite a lot of surplus food from those shops, and we work with FareShare as well. And so straight away we were getting referrals for residents who were struggling. They were either isolating, not able to go out and shop, didn’t have relatives or neighbours to shop for them, or they’ve lost employment – struggling to get by.
“So we were able to put together a food parcel for them, which would last a week. Over the course of April, May and into June, we did 1,100 food parcels, containing a week’s worth of food for individuals, families of up to five people even. They were really good food parcels that had all the essentials in there. We work with Cranswick Foods plc, so there was meat in there, and they got a really good parcel.”
EMS also cook and distribute ‘ready meals’. Produced from ingredients supplied by many of the city’s food producers and processors, and cooked during down time in the Freedom Centre’s kitchens, these meals are very popular, especially over the winter months.
“What we produce,” explained John, “is a four portion meal, generally in a foil tray or in a pouch, which people can buy from us for £2.00. It might be something like a lasagne, cottage pie, pork dinner, something like that, quite traditional. It’s good hearty food. And they’re able to take it home, reheat it in their oven.
“What happens is, when the clocks change at the end of October time, and the temperatures drop, the ready meals become really, really popular because people are then able to just spend a couple of pounds on a four portion meal, and they can save money on other things, they can save money on their heating.”
Following the success of a similar project in 2019, and now supported by some funding from Reckitts and others, EMS are again planning to deliver Christmas hampers to regular customers. This year they’re hoping to give out 80 hampers.
“The idea is that it brings some Christmas cheer to a lot of people. We’ve all had a difficult year and this hopefully is just going to cheer people up, people who are stuck indoors on their own through Christmas – it’ll just let them know that there’s people out there who are thinking about them. So yeah, it should brighten people up at the end of the year,” said John.
Growing veg is in John’s genes. His family were market gardeners in Brough, growing lettuce which was sold on Humber Street up until the 1980s. John, however, trained as an engineer, and ended up working as a draughtsman, ‘drawing straight lines all day’.
“I went into a career in engineering, and I did that for seven or eight years, but kind of being stuck in an office – I was a draftsman. I was drawing plans all day, straight lines – and I thought ‘there is more to life than this’.”
So, in 2006, John took a two-week vacation grape-picking in the Beaujolais region, France. He said that after those two weeks he didn’t want to come back.
“By then I’d already met other people who were interested in working away, working their way around farms. I got a few contact details of different places, and then I went on and I spent a couple of years working my way around farms, small holdings, some of them were organic farms or interested in regenerative agriculture.”
John worked his way from farm to farm for a further two years. Eventually, though, he felt the need to return home to Hull.
“And so I landed in Hull and straight away I got involved in urban food growing. So I’ve been working on various little pockets of land in Hull and trying to pass on the things that I’ve learned on my travels,” he said.
This year, as the pandemic has affected supply chains and workforces, many businesses have begun to think more seriously about food sustainability. There’s been an uptick in individual households also thinking about how they can become less dependant on large-scale food producers, and more self-sufficient.
John said: “Well for years and years I’ve always been interested in self-sufficiency and trying to encourage other people to grow their own. You know, it doesn’t have to be a lot, it could just be a little bit of salad, a few herbs. I’ve been on at people, I’ve been going blue in the face, telling everybody you’ve got to grow more, you’ve got to do more, be more self-sufficient. And actually this year people are listening. They’re listening more readily, for several reasons.
“There were worries in the first lockdown about people running out of food, about the supermarket shelves being bare. Thankfully, back then, they weren’t, but people were interested in growing a little bit more themselves.
“Also, you had people on furlough who were stuck at home, had more time, and were suddenly thinking about growing.
“I’ve got friends of mine who, for the first time in their lives, thought about growing a few vegetables in their front gardens, and really enjoyed it.
“So hopefully, from an awful situation, a few seeds have been sown literally, that get people interested in growing a little bit of food for themselves,” said John.
Growing food at home has wider benefits than just producing ingredients for the table, explained John.
“I think it’s not just about physically growing food. What I’m also trying to do at some of these sites is to get people to take a little bit of pride in their neighbourhood.
“When you grow food, you’ve got to look after the land, you’ve got to care for it, you’ve got to water it. I think, people are starting to look at the land around them and think ‘I can do something here, we can make use of it’.”
John, and EMS, are now actively looking for more underused plots of land in the city to turn into veg growing sites, with the help of local residents and community groups.
John is currently compiling a ‘Hull Growers Network Guide’. The guide will map the sites across the city where residents are working together to grow food locally to them, right on their doorsteps. It will also help people who are new to growing vegetables, fruit, and herbs to find support from those who are more experienced.
John concluded: “I’m really passionate about people growing food locally. It’s really positive and uplifting. I think it’s spiritually, almost, uplifting. It’s not just about food, it’s about living with the land and taking joy from the neighbourhood.”
[Jerome Whittingham – @photomoments for Hull Food Partnership]
EMS Ltd is one of the partners of the Hull Veg City campaign supporting the growing and promoting of fresh vegetables across the city.