Building communities through the universal language of food

Man picking lettuce in green house

Together We Grow CIC is a not-for-profit social enterprise based in Colchester tackling isolation through the educational, social and therapeutic benefits of organic horticulture - Credit: Archant

Together We Grow CIC empowers society’s most vulnerable by building communities around planting and growing food. As part of the East of England Co-op's #EastTogether campaign, Charles Bliss spoke to founder Wayne Setford to get to the root of the matter.  

Isolation – it's something we all have a deeper, more raw and immediate understanding of after the events of the past year. But the pandemic has only intensified existing feelings of exclusion among vulnerable groups in our society: asylum seekers and refugees alienated by language barriers and culture, or children not attending mainstream education, for example.  

A local organisation seeks to remedy this sense of isolation through the unifying power and common language of growing plants – a place where community members can use sustainable methods to harvest and share food, and feel part of something greater.  

Established in 2017, Together We Grow CIC is a not-for-profit social enterprise based in Colchester with its headquarters at the Big Garden in High Woods Country Park. From its two-acre plot, which functions like a large allotment, the company aims to improve the lives of individuals and cultivate more resilient communities through the educational, social and therapeutic benefits of organic horticulture.  

Man in community garden

Wayne Setford is founder of Together We Grow - Credit: Archant

“Together We Grow is about connecting individuals to land, food and community,” says founder Wayne Setford. “We educate and train people of all ages and abilities to help improve their mental and physical wellbeing by encouraging engagement with nature – and, in particular, growing food.”

The project was born out of a former community garden run under the remit of Colchester Borough Council that lost funding in 2016.  

“The garden and the community it served were going to be lost.”  

So, Wayne set about building Together We Grow – a diverse social enterprise that frequently collaborates with other partner organisations and charities such as Refugee Action Colchester and Essex County Council, schools and public bodies to support the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society, including refugees, asylum seekers, the unemployed, those with mental health conditions, those on the autism spectrum and school refusers, to name a few. 

In 2018, a collaboration with Sports England and Active Essex called the Essex Local Delivery Pilot focused on building healthier, more active and vibrant communities across the county. 

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“Fundamentally, we just work with people. Whether our volunteers are mental health referrals, kids or refugees – it doesn't matter. It's always about people.” 

“When you get people together doing something with a shared goal, that's where you see benefits,” Wayne explains. “It naturally creates support networks as people make friendships. We give them roles where they feel valued and see that there's a reason for them to be involved. Our volunteers are incredibly talented people that bring real skills to the project.”

Man building door outside in community garden

The volunteers are talented people that bring real skills to the project, says Wayne Setford - Credit: Archant

In response to the pandemic, Together We Grow at Home was launched in March 2020. Partnering with Refugee Action Colchester, the project encouraged families to grow their own produce at home during lockdown. Wayne and his team sent out growing packs, including seeds, compost and instructional videos. Weekly Zoom calls featured advice and support, offering an antidote to isolation and a reason to be optimistic for the future.

“If you look after something, then you tend to look after yourself better,” Wayne says. “The aim of the project from its inception was that when lockdown restrictions were lifted, volunteers would bring produce they had grown at home to the garden and replant it.” 

The project culminated at a socially-distanced outdoor event in September 2020. 

“Everybody picked the items they had been growing and we enjoyed a three-course meal in our orchard prepared by a chef. It was just wonderful.” 

Man tilling soil at community garden

Together We Grow is a diverse organisation that supports the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society - Credit: Archant

Wayne recently appeared on the East of England Co-op's Your Co-op Live! Food Matters panel to discuss the Together We Grow at Home initiative. Wayne says that organisations such as the East of England Co-op and Together We Grow are going to be instrumental as we emerge from the pandemic.

“There's been terrible loss and grief, but there is some goodness that has resulted from people slowing down and reassessing. Our volunteers were reminiscing about planting back home in Syria. One of them is a barber and he said he would never have had the time to come to the garden before the pandemic. 

“Moving forward, do we want to go back to how we lived before? Or do we want to change? Supporting communities through those changes is going to be an important thing for us to do.” 

After the events of last year, we can all empathise with the experience of isolated groups such as asylum seekers and refugees, and generate practices to become more inclusive. Wayne emphasises that it is homegrown, local organisations that can make the difference in our communities.  

“Of course, national charities do fantastic work, but with small, locally-rooted organisations the money goes to providing essential local services,” he says. “I would encourage people to be more mindful about where they commit their resources.  

“Seek out a social enterprise doing good work near you and support them. Because it's the grassroots organisations that – while they might not be as visible – are doing amazing work locally.” 

For more information, please visit togetherwegrowcic.co.uk or the Together We Grow CIC Facebook page.  

Watch more episodes from the #EastTogether series at www.eastofengland.coop/easttogether 

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