In Conversation With Sarah Alun-Jones And Lucy Hollis, Organic Food Pioneers At GROW
There’s something about plunging hands directly into the loam that leaves us all feeling a little more connected to life.
It’s a philosophy that guides GROW, a charity based at The Totteridge Academy in north London that bridges a widening gap between young people and the natural world. By growing sustainable, organic produce to sell to schools, restaurants, florists and the local community, they hope to help children feel more passionate about their place in the ecosystem.
It seems fitting, then, that we should let a gang of them loose among the fields and polytunnels of their beautiful six-acre farm in Barnet for our autumn-winter kids campaign.
We caught up with Sarah Alun-Jones, GROW’s Farm and Outdoor Learning Director, and Lucy Hollis, its Managing and Education Director, to talk agroecological methods, mindfulness and how the organic food revolution can empower us all.
How did you both get involved with GROW?
Sarah: I got into community food growing by accident really. I grew up in the countryside so I spent a lot of time outside (and knew lots of farmers) as a kid. After living in London and working as a filmmaker for a few years in my twenties, I started to miss it and began volunteering at community gardens. I remember feeling like I’d come home – I was hooked. After spending a few summers working on farms abroad, I decided to retrain and became a food grower. I’ve worked on everything from roof gardens right up to 16 acre farms, and have done lots with schools and young people. I was offered the job to set up the GROW farm on what was a field of grass, and I’ve been here for three and a half years now.
Lucy: I originally trained as an actor, and went into theatre production after setting up my own company. I then moved into education about six years ago, working as a learning mentor and department coordinator in a secondary school. At the same time, I completed training in counselling and worked as a workshop facilitator in a community centre for over 50s. I started at GROW as a project manager, becoming education manager after a year and then managing director last year. It’s been a very steep but totally rewarding learning curve – every day is a total pleasure. Alongside my role at GROW I’ve studied mindfulness and yoga in schools, which I bring into my work and teaching.
You grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers with agroecological processes. Can you tell us more about this approach?
Sarah: Agroecology is more like a philosophy than a strict way of growing. Part of a global movement that originated from peasant farmers in South America, it broadly sits within organics, which means that we prioritise looking after and improving the soil and our environment and don’t use any nasty chemicals. There are ten key principles, which include things like education, diversity and resilience – it’s about farming beyond the farm gate. That might mean making our own compost from school canteen waste, buying from sustainable suppliers or connecting with the community through educational programmes.
How do you think getting outside and learning more about food and sustainability can enrich the lives of young people?
Sarah: Being on the farm and growing food is fun – it’s great for children and young peoples’ wellbeing. We’re also introducing our participants to certain vegetables and plants, the taste of freshly-harvested foods, new smells, feelings, insects and more. We do a lesson where we get our participants to calculate the food miles of certain foods (e.g. from asparagus grown in Peru to the school) and then harvest something from the farm and compare the distance to the school canteen. Lessons like this can introduce children to ideas around climate change and sustainability whilst being positive and inspirational.
You’re also focused on fostering a positive relationship with nature. Why is this so important?
Sarah: We’re trying to teach our young people that everything in the world is connected. Even the way that we talk about ‘nature’ in the English language reveals how disconnected we are from it – the definition of the word means the world without humans, which suggests that we’re not part of it! We believe that once you can get children to feel a connection to plants they’re growing, or animals they’re looking after or to their peers and teachers, they can understand that they are a part of their ecosystem, and can have an impact on it. That comes with a sense of empowerment and purpose. There’s no better place to experience that than the farm.
Lucy, you have a background in mindfulness. Do you think there’s a connection between mindfulness and nature?
Lucy: Absolutely! Mindfulness, put simply, is paying attention to what is happening now, without judgement. It plays a vital role in connection – that’s with yourself and others, but particularly in connection with nature. It allows us to see, hear, smell, touch, taste without judgement and in its purest form. It is impossible to create a deep relationship with something without deep attention.
What are the main educational programmes on offer at the moment?
Lucy: We run free after school clubs, holiday programmes and saturday clubs for different in-need groups, all centred around outdoor learning and teaching sustainable food growing. Our key programme is our early support referral-based programme GROW Outdoors, which we offer to Year 7 to Year 9 students who have been identified as needing extra support with their wellbeing.
What’s one of the most rewarding aspects of being involved in GROW?
Lucy: Every day we see a young person experiencing something new that they may not have come across if we weren’t here. That is very affirming.
Sarah: I’ve learnt how important green spaces – and places to grow food – are for communities and how naturally green-fingered all children are, given the chance.
What about the biggest challenges?
Lucy: Funding! As a new charity it’s an everyday challenge. Alongside that, I’d say not always having the capacity to reach all the young people we could – what we are doing is so valuable.
How has your experience and knowledge changed the way you consume and eat, as well as the way you think about plants and food?
Sarah: When I started working in food production, my eyes were opened to the damaging effects of industrial food and I have changed my lifestyle over the years quite a bit. I buy organic wherever I can and like to support local, sustainable producers. When you grow your own food you start to think about value in a very different way. If we want to get serious about changing things, I firmly believe that we have to make these things accessible to underrepresented groups and address other injustices that are tied up in our food and farming systems.
What advice would you give to those who want to start learning about organic food growing?
Sarah: Just have a go. If you don’t have a garden, you can do great stuff on your balcony like chillies, basil and sprouting seeds. If you do have an outdoor space, pick a few things that you actually like to eat, and spend as much money as you can afford on good quality compost. Some easy things to get started with are potatoes, radishes, salads, kale and courgettes.
Be patient and learn the art of accepting defeat. It will always be a good year for something and a bad year for something else, and that’s what makes it interesting. The way you learn in growing is by making mistakes, killing the odd plant and improving year on year.
Could you tell us about the volunteering opportunities at GROW?
Sarah: There are lots of ways you can get involved with GROW. We have weekly open adult volunteering sessions every Wednesday from 10am – 4pm. We feed everyone and it’s a great way to spend a day getting your hands dirty, meeting new people and learning about growing. We also have long term volunteering opportunities on Thursdays and Fridays on the farm and some weekend volunteering opportunities too. Check out our instagram or website for more info.
As part of our ongoing commitment in becoming a more responsible, socially aware and sustainable brand that is continually evolving, we’ve partnered with GROW, London on our Kids Autumn Winter 2022 campaign.
GROW works with schools and communities delivering bespoke programmes in sustainable food growing and outdoor learning, and our donation to the farm will pay towards ‘GROW Outdoors’, a food growing and wellbeing sessions for young people aged 11-14, who are struggling with the transition from primary to secondary school due to the following areas of need; social, behavioural, SEND, or mental health.
GROW is a newly established charity with ambitious aims. They rely on the support of generous individuals and organisations to continue and expand our work. Find out how you can donate to GROW today
Photographer: Tami Aftab
Art Director: Daniel William Hynd
Stylist: Aurelia Donaldson
Stylist Assistant: Lila Vitos
Model: Serafina Otero Donaldson, Oliver Man-Hong Menendez Poon, Sienna del Mar White
Hair + Makeup Artist: Anna Chapman @ Julian Watson Agency
Photography Assistant: Jacob Ray
Feature Editor: Helena Stocks
Feature Writer: Cat Olley
Special thanks to Lucy Gray, Lucy Hollis and the team at Grow, London.