Grassroots: meet Bristol growing activist Sara Venn

Incredible Edible Bristol is a charity that grows food in un-loved sites around the city. Its founder Sara Venn explains how breathing new life into forgotten spaces can challenge attitudes to litter, and how growing-your-own can change your perception of food waste.

So much food goes to landfill as people don’t know about preserving. Catch the stuff that you know tomorrow will go in the bin

“Growing gives you an awareness of the huge amount of effort it takes to grow something from a tiny seed to when it fruits. If you’ve made that effort, you’re not going to throw it away.”

Sara has developed more than 30 edible gardens around Bristol with the help of volunteers and other partners. The beds can be found in parks, street corners, Temple Meads station and Millennium Square. 

Passers-by are encouraged to pick the fruit and vegetables when they are ready. Most of the pumpkins in the beds in Millennium Square, for example, have recently been harvested.

Preserving

For growers, this is the time of year for gluts. Time to be making chutney, jams and preserving seasonal produce. 

But this way of thinking doesn’t just apply to food we grow ourselves. 

“So much food goes to landfill as people don’t know about preserving. Catch the stuff that you know tomorrow will go in the bin”, Sara says. 

Use the vegetables in your fridge that are on the turn to make soup, chutney or pickles, or just roast them and put into the freezer for another time.

Photo: Ramona Andrews

Food routes and shopping lists

Last year Incredible Edible Bristol worked with the charity FareShare Southwest to link people in Bristol with surplus food through a text messaging service, with the help of European Green Capital funding. This project was concerned with waste from food retailers, cafés and restaurants, but Sara points out that domestic food waste is still a big problem. According to The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the average family throws away around £700 a year of food waste.

So how can we reduce our kitchen waste?

“Write a shopping list. It’s as simple as that. If you organise your meals for however many days you’re shopping for, you won’t get to the end of the week and have an iffy cabbage at the bottom of your fridge. Think of it as saving money.”

Food is fuel

Bristolians collected over 10 million kilos of food waste for recycling last year - the stuff that goes into your brown caddy. A specialised treatment plant at Avonmouth turns our organic waste (food and sewage) into biomethane.

This clean energy source is set to power 130 new bio-buses over the next three years, and more than 3,000 homes in Avonmouth and Shirehampton are already powered using this same biofuel.

But Sara wants to go further in her use of food waste.

“One of my big things is composting. Not enough people do it. There are plenty of ways you can compost - even in the tinniest flat, you could have a wormery.”

Sara also recommends a bokashi bin, which pickles your waste and then it can be put straight into the ground. 

“If you don’t have an allotment, I bet you know someone who does. Don’t be inward-looking. Look out and see how your waste can help other people.”

Photo: Ramona Andrews

Spooked by cooking pumpkins?

Sara is pleased that the Incredible Edible pumpkins in Millennium Square have been picked. She says pumpkin waste around Halloween is one of her biggest bugbears

According to Hubbub UK, a charity dedicated to reducing pumpkin waste, there was 18,000 tons of pumpkin waste last year in the UK. 

“That’s food. Cook it! Make soup, make risotto, make pumpkin pies, purée it and put it in the freezer. Cook it and put it in the freezer.”

“We don’t even see it to be food. It’s a decoration. And yet we have people who are having to choose whether to eat or heat their homes.”

Clearing spaces, opening minds

“Because we find lost and un-loved spaces, first we clear them. That can be pretty unpleasant.”

Sara has cleared nappies, human faeces and needles before planting beds around the city. For example, a whole lorry-load of rubbish had to be removed from Quakers Burial Ground, by St Mary Redcliffe, when the beds were built there.

“It’s about far more than bins and waste - it’s how we treat the city as a whole and how we see it as a healthy city.

“Once people see that we’re making an effort to improve a space, they fiercely want to look after it. You would think the beds in Millennium Square would be covered in litter. Yes, the odd can or fag butt, but there’s not loads.”

Photo: Ramona Andrews

Get involved

If you would like to get stuck in, Incredible Edible have a regular work session on a Thursday - either at Millennium Square or at Quaker’s Burial Ground, and there are other sessions at the other sites from time to time. 

Check the Incredible Edible website to find out more.