Encouraging people to grow more of their own food is not only beneficial to the environment but leads to improved health and wellbeing and creates stronger local communities, according to new Coventry University research released today.
In a study of the Master Gardeners programme run by the UK’s leading organic growing charity, Garden Organic, researchers at Coventry University’s Centre for Agroecology and Food Security (CAFS) and the Centre for Sustainable Regeneration (SURGE) found that those involved enjoyed an increased sense of community and improved life satisfaction, as well as having a significant impact on their food growing and consumption habits.
Through this new mentoring programme, Garden Organic recruited, trained and supported more than 400 volunteers in five areas – North London, South London, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Warwickshire – to become Master Gardeners.
These volunteers, aged 16-81, then worked with their local community to encourage more people to grow food. As part of their commitment volunteers then recruit 10 households to mentor in horticulture for a year.
The Coventry University research found evidence of real behaviour change as the majority of both volunteers and households grew more food and a greater range of food after joining the programme. 63% of volunteers and 79% of households have increased the amount of food they grow, and as a result a quarter of households and a third of volunteers were able to reduce the amount they spent on food each week.
A third of mentored households now report spending 3-5 hours a week growing their own food, with a further 50% giving it a go for 1-2 hours a week. It is not just the households that are learning more about growing food; over 95% of both volunteers and households say they have increased their knowledge about food growing through involvement with Master Gardeners.
As a programme built around a network of local volunteers, the Coventry University researchers were keen to explore any possible impact on community. 94% of volunteers said that they felt part of a community, with two thirds saying their sense of community had increased since being involved in the Master Gardeners programme. And the average life satisfaction scores for both Master Gardener volunteers and households has increased; from 7.4 out of 10 to 8.4 amongst volunteers, 7.2 to 7.8 amongst households.
Dr Moya Kneafsey, a researcher in CAFS and part of the University’s Grand Challenge Initiative in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security, said: “For many years we’ve been told anecdotally that gardening is good for you as well as good for the environment. What these results show is how significant the impact can be in terms of health perceptions, life satisfaction and involvement in the local community. It also highlights just how important volunteering organisations and networks are in creating stronger, more engaged communities regardless of whether this is in an inner-city borough or a rural county.”
Philip Turvil, project manager for the Master Gardeners programme at Garden Organic, said: “We have always felt that our Master Gardeners programme has wide-reaching benefits beyond growing food. It’s also about lifestyle, community and improving the environment. We don’t want to just teach our Master Gardener volunteers the best way of growing a cabbage, we want to teach them how to pass this information on to others in their community, to share their passion and experience so that everyone is learning from each other and feeling the benefits. The outcomes of this research show us that this approach is working. By working with volunteers in their communities we’re proving that the initial challenges of growing your own food can be overcome. So if that first crop ends up slug eaten, rather than feel demoralised people look for advice and support instead of giving up.”
The Garden Organic Master Gardeners programme is supported by the Big Lottery Fund’s Local Food Scheme, Sheepdrove Trust and local authorities.
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