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Rochdale, Barnsley and Cleveland, Ohio-Unlikely Links!

By Sara Venn


It is not often you see these three places connected. Perhaps they should all be ‘twinned’, in that quaint way we often do to demonstrate that there is more that connects us than divides us. If they were twinned they would be connected by a common thread – business really matters and can make build a better world.

A couple of months ago, as the Director of the Incredible Edible Network team, I was privileged to do the job I do each week; spend some time with our IE groups, either the ones which have been going for a long time or the ones just starting out. We have lots of great tools on the website gathering together our 11 years of history of growing together as a network of groups. These tools are great, but there is nothing that replaces a cup of tea and a chat, that face to face contact that reaches out and reminds people that they can do immeasurablly more than they think they can and make change happen right here and now.

We were visiting Incredible Edible Toad Lane… for those who know about these things, that title is a bit of a spoiler!

The group at Toad Lane had travelled a great journey together. They had been a pay-as-you-feel café and a food co-op to help families stretch their budgets further. As a co-op supporting each other and not wanting a hand out, they had shared food and made some surplus profit. They wanted to invest this in making food more accessible for more people by not only buying it and sharing it through the co-op, but growing it out on Toad Lane.

Their name indicated their local interest. Some of our groups are city, borough and town wide, some just cover a few streets. It doesn’t matter, if you eat, you’re in! As we talked about the plans for the groups and all the great things they were going to do to use growing to make food accessible to all, I looked around and the penny dropped. There was something different in this conversation. There was something that wasn’t about wanting funding to help do something ‘to’ people. There was a zeal and a pride that people were doing this for themselves. I realised that spirit was seeping out of the stones. The room we were standing in, sharing this story and sharing this vision, was ‘the room’. It was the room that on the 21st December 1844, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers had shared their first meagre selection of butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and candles and candles as a Co-Operative. In the very room we were talking about this Incredible Edible model of co-operative people-powered food access those first 28 co-operators had stood 175 years before. It reminded me of one important lesson, business done right can change the world and make lives infinitely richer.

Then I went off to Barnsley.

Incredible Edible Barnsley had been asked to be a part of a consultation around building an inclusive local economy. Ted Howard from the Democracy Collaborate in Cleveland Ohio had come along to share their story. Long story, short, one of the greatest contributors to chronic ill health and early mortality isn’t eating your seven a day or smoking, it is being poor, closely followed by being lonely.

In Cleveland they realised that in the very communities where the most deprived citizens lived there were large organisations like hospitals, council services, police and fire, academic institutions which sought to improve the lives of citizens. They also procured lots of goods and services. They spent multi-million pounds on contracts to deliver food, laundry, facilities management, pens etc. All of this was contracted with large multi-nationals and the profits went offshore or if not offshore, not back in the community. Inspired by Mondragon in Spain https://www.mondragon-corporation.com, Ted and the team asked ‘what if we call these organisations Anchor Institutions and encouraged them to spend their money in local worker own co-operatives. Would that shift the dial on poverty and deliver the very outcomes many of these institutions were set up to deliver’. Would changing their procurement be the most effective route to delivering their purpose.

So Ted and the team worked across multiple partners to create Everygreen http://www.evgoh.com/ to offer laundry services, energy and food production which served the needs of the Anchors, had minimal impact on the planet and ploughed all the profits back to the community. It reminded me of one important lesson, business done right can change the world and make lives infinitely richer.

Incredible Edible has one vision to build kind, confident and connected communities for all. We move towards this vision by spinning the three plates – community, learning and businesses.

As I travel around the UK, business is the one plate we struggle to engage with most. Often we think it is asking people to donate to or sponsor our work, at worse we think that business is the enemy of community and the planet. Some are, some aren’t. we make a mistake if with think in a one size fits all. Rochdale to Ohio (via Barnsley) reminds us that business has the potential to make enormous social and environmental impact. Our three plates remind us that business, done right, is always at the heart of being Incredible Edible.