June 2020

Lambeth GP Food Co-op - planting gardens to improve health and wellbeing

Lambeth GP Food Co-op

The food we eat is vital to our health and wellbeing. Yet as Edward Rosen (International History & Politics 1971) has proven, food can enrich our lives in ways far beyond simply filling our stomachs.

The Lambeth GP Food Co-op, an innovative scheme which Edward helped to pioneer, improves the health and wellbeing of NHS patients in Lambeth.

Established in 2013, the Lambeth GP Food Co-op takes unused spaces near NHS hospitals and GP surgeries and turns them into community gardens. Through partnership with experienced gardeners, patients learn how to grow fruit and vegetables which are then sold to NHS staff at King’s College Hospital. As Edward reflects, “there’s something quite special about NHS staff buying and eating food that has been grown by the very patients they’ve helped.”

Hilda, Mary and Amber - members of the Co-op in the garden at the Pulross centre Co-op members Hilda, Mary and Amber in the garden at the Pulross Centre

Generating income is important for the Food Co-op, which, although established in collaboration with Lambeth NHS and Lambeth City Council, runs independently. Decisions are made by its Board which represents the local community of patients and doctors, and includes Edward, who works as the Food Co-op's Director.

Having been involved in the project since its conception, he has faced unique challenges, including procuring space for gardens in inner-city London. This problem was overcome by using planters to fill any space available, from alleyways to yards at the back of surgeries. Now, the Co-op runs nine gardens in the borough of Lambeth. Patients from any of Lambeth’s 45 surgeries can use these gardens and many participants have been prescribed gardening sessions by their GP. The scheme has reduced social isolation, increased patient confidence and improved their sense of wellbeing.

"There’s something quite special about NHS staff buying and eating food that has been grown by the very patients they’ve helped."

Edward Rosen (International History & Politics 1971)
Director of the Lambeth Food Co-op

Edward has held a keen interest in co-operatives and their potential for creating community change since his student days in Leeds. “That time piqued my interest in the concept - an interest which has stayed with me throughout my career,” says Edward. It is this interest that led him, more than 40 years later, to establish the Lambeth GP Food Co-op. “It just seemed that the time was right for the project to take flight.”

Edward’s time at Leeds also influenced his later career. He remembers a day when classes were cancelled so a debate could take place, and he struck up a conversation with a professor of Medieval History. They ventured onto the topic of the role of exams in education. “Exams are a form of torture!” the professor exclaimed. “They should be abolished.”

It was a moment which would stick in Edward’s memory for more than 50 years and it influenced his professional work. After leaving Leeds, he pursued an advanced degree in Curriculum Development in Higher Education from the University of Sussex which he used in designing widening participation schemes. He later worked as Education Advisor at the London Deanery and then Head of Learning and Teaching for the NHS University (NHSU).

These roles at the forefront of innovation within the NHS led Edward to managing the Co-op project. And with the Co-op now successfully established, he has grand plans for the future.

“One big asset that the NHS has to its advantage is land,” says Edward. His next project aims to see unused space on the roof of a hospital transformed into a farm to grow food. The fresh produce grown there will then supply the hospital’s kitchens. Edward is confident that, if approved, the project could become an example for other hospitals across the NHS. “If we’re able to capitalise on this space to grow saleable produce, we could help the NHS to evolve, and provide vital funding that will protect our NHS for the future.”

Lambeth GP Food Co-op Seeds For Life project

But for the moment, there is another cause that demands Edward’s attention. As so many of the Lambeth Co-op project’s participants already suffer from long-term health conditions, they have been particularly affected by the Covid-19 crisis. With patient safety a top priority, many of the Co-op gardens were closed in March. Instead, the Co-op brings the benefits of gardening to the safety of their homes.

Seeds for Life began in April in direct response to the lockdown, and the idea was a simple one – to distribute packets of seeds to vulnerable members of the community. The project has partnered with the Lambeth Food Distribution Hub, which has been coordinating food and care package distribution throughout the crisis. The seed packets have become a welcome addition to food parcels and they also include recipe cards alongside instructions on how to plant and care for the seeds.

Janet Baker helping prepare food parcels Janet Baker helping to prepare food parcels for distribution

Seed donations have been welcomed from several companies, and the project has already received more than 8,000 packets of seeds. Seven kilograms of cress seeds were donated, which required packing before they could be distributed. And that’s when a small community in Yorkshire stepped up to help.

When Ian Rogerson, a West Yorkshire resident, heard about the Seeds for Life project and the need for volunteers, he called on his neighbours to help. Together, they divided the cress seeds into more than 5,000 packets which were sent to Lambeth for distribution.

As Edward summed up, “It’s a mark of solidarity and people’s willingness to help each other. Thanks to the support we’ve received from all around the country, we’ve been able to reach out to the most vulnerable members of our community and let them know that they are not alone.”

It’s clear that Edward’s work has had a huge impact upon the community in Lambeth, and through the combination of the Seeds for Life project and his future plans, he shows no signs of slowing down. The Co-op hopes to reopen gardens as soon as they are safely able to do so. Until then, Edward and the rest of the Co-op community will continue to find ways to support those who need it most.

You can find out more about the Lambeth GP Food Co-op on their website.