Welsh information
Row of buckets with letters on each spelling welcome - each bucket has plants growing in them and they're in a residential area Row of buckets with letters on each spelling welcome - each bucket has plants growing in them and they're in a residential area

Leeks and languages during Refugee week

By Sara Venn


We say ‘if you eat, you’re in’ and sometimes it’s important to think carefully about how to put that into action to truly connect communities.

During Refugee Week (17th to 23rd June), we hear a story from Incredible Edible Bristol about an event they attended several years ago that really made them think…

Each year Bristol holds its Food Connections Festival and for us at Incredible Edible Bristol the stuff we enjoy most and learn most from is the community based, shared food events that take place cross the city in community centres, gardens and other small community venues. Each year there has been an opportunity to talk with people from a marginalised community, really listen to them and learn about their food cultures and the issues they find trying to continue that culture whilst having children and young people immersed in our food culture. Subjects that have been spoken about include the realities of living in food desserts, free food provision for families in crisis, food activism in the community and how to make a difference and quality of produce, especially produce that we might not be able to grow here in the UK but that is a vital part of certain food cultures. But one conversation always comes to mind as it really made us think about how we engage with people who may be refugees, asylum seekers or just new to the UK.

It’s slightly painful to talk about privilege but it’s a discussion we have often here because of this conversation. Privilege is not something that many of us think about but it is an important, not to be shied away from topic. Few of us understand our own privilege, but it’s worth thinking about. Being born in the global north, being educated, having a home, knowing there is going to be food on the table, being able to give of your time to volunteer, are all privileges which many of us take for granted, and of course it goes much deeper than that and encompasses race equality and gender and LGBTQ+ equality amongst many other things. But it was at this point that the core team took a breath and openly began to discuss the subject, knowing that it was vital if they were to be successful across the very diverse city we live in, where at least 91 languages are spoken every day.

So let us tell you how the conversation went. We had had a wonderful lunch, with the food provided by Fareshare South West and cooked by their then catering arm, the Surplus Supper Club, along with a group of Somali women from the Easton area of the city. The focus of the conversation turned to food accessibility and there was talk about quality of produce, as many crops that are culturally appropriate are not available in most UK stores so they are brought in, and by the time they arrive they often past their best. That led to a conversation about using local produce and cookery classes and that led to this, from a wonderful woman who was part of the Somali group who spoke through an interpreter and said…

It’s amazing that you all want to teach us how to cook your produce but if you send me an email, in English, telling me to buy and bring leeks to the class, firstly I am sorry but I can’t read it, and secondly, I don’t know what a leek is

And at that moment something went click in all our minds. Our assumption is that everyone knows what everything is, but how on earth would you know about produce from the northern hemisphere if you are used to food grown in sub Saharan Africa? Why is it that we assume the world eats the same food as we do when we know, as part of our food culture, that we go out to eat Mexican, Chinese, Indian foods amongst others? It’s so interesting how, as a nation we can be so diverse and yet so utterly blinkered to what really matters. But we thought laterally and discussed with the group how they could be involved. Many of the women have mobility issues brought on by lack of Vitamin K so gardening per se is often not the easiest thing, but we convened a group, talked about herbs and spices, bought some, to us, if not to the women, exotic seeds and gave them a go. And gave them out to the group with pots and compost so they could be grown on kitchen windowsills and balconies.

The following year we had really had time to percolate this information, so armed with lots of knowledge from the women, we set about creating a bed in Bristol’s Millennium Square filled with more exotic crops. Sweet potatoes, tree spinach, oca, schezuan pepper, mashua and yacon jostled with dahlias and calendula and different varieties of climbing beans, and we all stood back and were amazed at the variety of crops that would come to fruition in a windy site in central Bristol.  And so we continue each year, in the knowledge that there is much more than cabbages and leek needed to truly connect a community and that sometimes listening can change your Incredible journey.