I was immensely honoured to receive the Vice Chancellor’s Social Impact Award for ‘Local Community’ in recognition of my efforts to create a positive impact in Clare Hall college’s community and bridge the gap between the university and town in this unique place. I’ll take you through how the community allotment project started, food sovereignty in relation to human and planetary health and what it’s meant to me.
When I received the email, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had already unknowingly interacted with one of the judges, Dr Alison Wood, most Saturdays. She comes to Maison Clement, a French patisserie and bakery (objectively, the best in Cambridge) with her daughter after ballet class. There’s usually a coffee, hot chocolate/babyccino and a treat involved. I work here one morning a week and really enjoy getting to know the regulars — whether that is Ian who comes in at 7am on the dot for an artisan baguette before his wild swim, Mr Ng who orders enough patisserie to feed a small army, Graham my shoulder doctor who checks in on me after his Americano order is in or Sarah whose face lights up when she collects her pre-ordered, highly sought-after croissant loaf. Anyway, Alison and her daughter are included. I always felt moved by the way she sits with her daughter giving her undivided attention and presence, listening to the post-ballet debrief. The point is, community is important and food is powerful: it brings people together. The realisation that Alison was one of the regulars felt very poignant and full circle. In that moment, I felt a strong sense of community and how my roots have become embedded in the soil here over the past 5 years during my MPhil and now in my final year of PhD.
The community allotment was founded at my college, Clare Hall, in 2020. This project started during lockdown at a time when we were confined to our houses and in parallel at a time where I needed to do a lot of personal growth and healing. I was home in Scotland, and started sowing various seeds in my parents’ conservatory. I’m a cancer-immunologist by training, so there were many parallels and transferable skills to being in a wet lab. By the time the lab reopened, I felt passionate about continuing this new-found hobby in college. I firstly suggested starting a college community allotment to my tutor, Dr Trudi Tate, who gave me her full support. Soon after the idea was pitched, Stella Felsch and I found a site in West Court, actually an old tennis court historically which looked South on Rifle Range Road. We had been kindly allocated some seed money and were off. In the beginning, I kept the tools and seeds in a beautifully sturdy wheelbarrow outside my college room at the time. Housekeeping wasn’t too pleased, along with my trails of mud and various seedlings taking up space on the windowsill in the college kitchen. Like all projects, it started slowly but we kept permaculture principles at its core; care of the earth, care of the people and sharing of surplus.
To date, we have had over 80 members come over the last 2 and a half years each member contributing and benefitting. It has been a joy to see families enjoying the space, especially the kids during lockdown enjoying the worms in the soil and sunflower competitions. Along the way we accrued a shed, greenhouse, chain link fence and soon an off-grid solar panel kit. It is now an established, flourishing space where we can come together as a community all year round, connect to each season and cook on site. A typical Sunday session involves sowing, harvesting, foraging and noticing changes in the landscape. After each session we decompress further with a yoga class from Floss, our yoga instructor, who helps us understand the philosophy of yoga while we move our bodies. This is something university-spaces lack and I feel proud we have created a beautiful community on college-owned ground open to all who want to come and enjoy.
Next, I’d like to highlight the immense power growing and harvesting local, seasonal, fruits and vegetables can have on human and planetary health. Food is medicine and its properties have immense prophylactic power. The world health organisation reports that 40% of cancers are preventable with lifestyle changes and this includes what we put into our mouths. For example, an active ingredient in turmeric has visibly been shown to slow down the rate of cancer cell growth in vitro. Spinach is full of iron which helps carry oxygen from our lungs to the rest of the body, carrots are an incredible source of vitamin A stored in our livers, peanuts are high in unsaturated fats (the good kind) which help improve our cholesterol levels, chickpeas are high in protein made from amino acids (the building blocks of our DNA), courgettes are a good source of potassium, peppers which are rich in antioxidants like beta-carotene etc. Meals made with healthy nutritious food should be accessible to all and I think this ultimately comes from education; something community gardens offer without any discrimination.
In parallel, growing your own food has an impact on food miles and carbon footprint as an individual. In 2022, Raubenheimer et al reported global freight transport of fruit and vegetables contributed to 36% of food miles emissions. It is easy to forget the power we have as consumers to tackle these types of statistics especially when we come together at grassroot level.
Lastly and more personally, I live and breathe at the allotment. It allows me to completely switch off, connect to myself, others and nature and move with the seasons. It has taught me so much about life, its fragility, its cycles, how time isn’t always linear, patience, friendship, and reminded me/reinforced how much we need to holistically nurture and protect human minds, bodies and our planet. It has allowed me to take my mind out of my own research during intense periods which is centred on understanding the immune system in the early stages of liver cancer. For me, the last 5 years have been a beautiful journey of self growth, realigning my priorities and connecting with incredible minds from all over our planet that have congregated in this city. Here, I have unconventionally found my purpose and role to play in contributing to society to ultimately create positive change. Afterwards, I hope to create a fully sustainable allotment-restaurant which emulates the community we have built here; one which I truly believe in and am incredibly proud of.
To finish, this project would not be possible without the passionate members over the last three years, including Claire Coffey who I met at the allotment and co-founded the University Allotment Society with, all staff at Clare Hall particularly the gardeners and maintenance. Alan the president of the college and his talented wife Slaine who is a botanist and landscape gardener who both enabled this social investment at college and my family for their continued support throughout different iterations of my life.
Li, M., Jia, N., Lenzen, M., Malik, A., Wei, L., Jin, Y. and Raubenheimer, D. (2022) Global food-miles account for nearly 20% of total food-systems emissions. Nature Food, 3(6): 445–453.