Image: Jonathan Goldberg,

Justine Taylor, a human rights activist and student on the School of Advanced Study’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights, was invited by the Victoria and Albert Museum to argue the case for urban farming, which she says is not ‘just a trendy hipster gimmick.’

‘Can you tell us a bit more about food autonomy – what does that mean? What is the extent of food poverty in London? How does Transition Heathrow address this?’ were the questions I was asked to prepare for.

The panel approached them from four directions. Hege Sæbjørnsen from Ikea’s sustainability development department, explained the company’s sustainability policy which is embodied by its new hydroponic garden. Alice Holden argued that Growing Underground’s urban method of germinating micro herbs in two of Brixton’s war bunkers, solved the CO2 problems of transportation without impinging upon London’s space for homes. Meanwhile, Olivia O’Brien of Grown in Dagenham, highlighted how Peri-Urban Farming reduced transport by using land nearest to the city while helping local people understand where their food come from.

Empowered by what I learned from my human rights studies, I know there is important work to be done which, to me, means taking action to relieve people’ suffering. This is especially key in London, where the juxtaposition of economy and poverty is too stark and too ironic. For example, food banks proliferate, and last year half a million of the capital’s children struggled to find food during the summer holidays.

For six years Grow Heathrow has squatted and worked to return an abandoned four-acre market garden to productivity. We now have four outdoor growing areas and two green houses. The movement seeks to address the inequality and pollution issues posed by Heathrow Airport’s plans to build a third runway and destroy numerous homes.  Its aims are multifaceted, but we have to address poverty issues in our urban setting on a daily basis – confronting food poverty in the food-bank era.

London’s food poverty issues are ultimately structural. Food autonomy, the solution put forward by the panel’s chair, could not prevail without serious rejigging of our economic systems regarding land and land rights. This is why Grow Heathrow alone doesn’t solve food autonomy issues outside of our own four acres.

Food poverty in London
There is a clear consensus between organisations seeking to further children’s rights, that austerity is a major contributor of child hunger. Although not entirely to blame, the absence of a government scheme that systematically seeks to end child hunger means innovative solutions have to come from the city’s communities. But acknowledgement of the widespread hunger is lacking even among those affected.

A report from Ipsos MORI (in cooperation with Greater London Authority) show that in 2013, 42 per cent of London families had to cut back on food spending, affecting 74,000 children. In those families, 21 per cent of parents skipped meals so that their children could eat.

Parents in this study believed existing policies are ineffective because they don’t take into account the social world of food poverty including the stigma of free school meals and food banks. Government, they said, should have focused on the issues of rising food prices at time of low income (64 per cent of London boroughs do not guarantee employees a London living wage). Those surveyed were largely aware of London’s mountain of food waste.

Research in 2015 by Trust for London revealed that since this 2013 report, ten London boroughs have stopped their meals on wheels service, which provided nutritious food for vulnerable and isolated older people at risk of malnutrition. In addition, more than 1 and 4 eligible London mothers are not getting their food and vegetable vouchers.

Ultimately, food poverty is a societal thing. It is ridiculous to blame families or individuals for their situation when employment and wages are so low, when benefits are difficult to access, and food is regularly discarded by supermarkets instead of sold at a fair price.

Land poverty
There is no lack of space: there are ten empty homes for every homeless family in the UK. Thus, to an extent, London’s housing crisis is an unnecessary construct. Although there will always be restructuring issues related to an increasing population, as is the case in London, the property bubble exacerbates unnecessary poverty within the city.

If land is being held empty and people are going hungry, from the point of view of a human rights activist, this surely indicates a mandate to make use of the land. But we need to link communities to the solutions for their own problems, to make activism start at home. In my own experience this is how we make the transition from burdened by poverty, to innovation and empowerment over our futures. From the point of view of being a custodian of Grow Heathrow, our greatest allies were not hardened activists – it was the local community. On the day were we set to be evicted, 200 people turned out to protect the project.

‘Grow Heathrow’ and positive change
How does Grow Heathrow address the problem of urban hunger? It is clear that in an era of absent state initiated change, the solution can come from elsewhere. Urban farms are indeed springing up, and as people feel empowered to repurpose space, attitudes to sharing food also change.

The antidote to food poverty can be founded in change in attitudes about our rights to fresh food. This is where Grow Heathrow comes in. We redistribute our crops for free, often via the food bank, but also to anyone who visits our gardens. We actively ensure that our surplus is shared, even if this means stocking a shelf in the local post office without asking for donations. Our solution is inelegant, and specific to each community. Elsewhere other schemes may prevail.

Future food
Finding solutions to ongoing problems won’t be neat, policy-based changes. However, around every corner springs a community garden, or a protest, or a social centre. Although protesting and squatting is not yet a scheme that appeals to the masses, as one activist turns the soil, a new community becomes involved in shaping its own path, and it is the members of these communities who have the real power to protect each other.

We live in a diverse era. The great ideas represented during the panel discussion at the Victoria and Albert Museum provided perfect illustrations of the many innovations and people working towards a lush future.