Rhubarb Farm: Therapeutic Horticulture and the repair of talking to others.

I have been doing some case study work to see how surplus food is being used by community organisations.  One of these is Rhubarb farm.  Let me introduce you to them.

What is Rhubarb Farm?

Rhubarb Farm was started in 2009 by Jennie Street, who saw that a wide range of vulnerable people were falling through the nets of various agencies supposed to help them and that social isolation, mental ill-health and a range of other issues were obstacles to integration, health and resilience.  She wanted to address some of these problems by establishing an organisation to engage hard-to-reach people, and provide more holistic, flexible and intensive support to enable people to improve their lives.    She set Rhubarb Farm up as a Community Interest Company (CIC)[i]in order to achieve this goal and to enable sustainability.

The Farm grows vegetables organically, flowers and keeps chickens.  There are also pigs in residence part of the year. The produce and eggs are sold to the Welbeck estate Farm shop, pubs and restaurants, and customers who collect a weekly veg bag.  The Farm also has weekend pick-your-own events for local residents, hosts school visits so the children can see how food grows. Every day volunteers and staff take turns to cook lunch for all those on site and the Farm also runs a Community Café with a meal for 15 older people, whom they collect from the local villages every Monday. All meals are cooked using Fareshare food and Farm produce. There is also a forest school.  Rhubarb Farm supports about 100 people who are referred to them as volunteers to acknowledge the contribution they make to the Farm, and to give them a sense of self-worth.   The Farm employs 21 people, of whom 13 had been volunteers.

Voluntechutney makingers coming to Rhubarb Farm can engage in a wide range of activities—from participating in the Men in Shed project where woodworking and crafting takes place, cooking lunch or making chutneys, sauces and jams for the veg boxes, and tending the chickens.  The Farm is also currently running a Food Project commissioned by Bassetlaw District Council through Bassetlaw CCG, and financed by Public Health, Nottinghamshire County Council.  This involves encouraging people to learn about healthy eating, cooking and food groups, in order to give them the confidence to make some changes to their eating habits. The Farm is also an ASDAN training centre where students who struggle with formal schooling can improve their English and Maths skills and also learn other essential life skills, including healthy eating and cooking.  At the centre of all this is the core activity of therapeutic horticulture.

Film actors often say “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” to create the noise of several simultaneous conversations in the background and this is what Jennie aims to grow—the sound of people having multiple, simultaneous conversations—joking, learning, but also talking through their issues. It is these opportunities to talk and engage with others that are the primary produce of Rhubarb Farm and overshadow the material products that are produced. Jennie said, “We could grow more if we just farmed in a more traditional way.  But we have what is known as therapeutic loss because people who come generally need to learn how to farm…What we are is a family that is enabling people who need support  to find a purpose and be productive.”

Volunteers at Rhubarb Farm are, indeed, diverse.  There are people with physical and learning difficulties; recovering drug and alcohol users; people with mental and physical ill health; teenagers; older isolated people, people doing Community Payback, and ex-offenders.

Anita, the Farm Manager, explained that despite this diversity, most have become isolated or excluded from mainstream society and struggled to make friends in their daily lives prior to coming to Rhubarb Farm as a volunteer.  For example she explained that those who come as supported volunteers through the ASDAN programme may still attend regular school part-time or may have been excluded. At school, they are usually quite isolated and do not mix with the other children. But, she said once they come to Rhubarb Farm they do not demonstrate the issues that they present at school.  While there are quite a few young people referred from schools, these are a minority.  The majority of volunteers come from this rural and highly deprived ex-mining area and its small communities.  These volunteers are referred by friends, family or social services because of concerns for their wellbeing.  Some also self-refer because the Farm is now well-known in the area, with a good reputation for supporting people in a non-judgemental way.

Through their engagement with the Farm friendships are formed, some of which extend beyond the Farm. For example, a group attends car boot sales together, while others meet on online gaming platforms.  However, coming to the Farm is their primary social life and they love it.  Some are creating their own niches, for example, Jennie noted[ii], Bess and Louise grow flowers together that not only enhance the Farm itself but also are picked and sold in the Welbeck estate Farm shop that is nearby.  Louise, who is 81, moved to the area to be near her daughter, but because it is so rural in this part of Derbyshire she found herself feeling very alone.  Coming to the Farm really helps her.  Likewise, Matt came to the Farm as an ex-offender and loves to cook, which he learned to do from his mother.  He is now a full-time employee and organises the Community Cafe meals, the daily hot lunch for the volunteers and coordinates chutney, jam and sauce-making for the veg boxes.  Nicholas, who was originally a volunteer who struggled with mental health issues and is now employed by the Farm, has responded to the suggestion of some of the volunteers to refurbish one of the sheds to make a forestry school at the bottom of the site.

For some of the volunteers, like Matt and Nicholas, for whom the Farm offers a pathway into employment, this might start as a micro-job, just a few hours a week. Then, as their confidence grows so does the employment. For example, one of the current volunteers will be working on a Community Pantry scheme that draws on surplus food delivered by the FareShare warehouse and will be available to the volunteers for a small subscription.  Initially, this job will be just a few hours a week.

Many of those who attend as volunteers struggle to eat regular meals that are healthy at home.  The lunches that they eat together at Rhubarb Farm, made from the Fareshare delivery, are for many the only warm or freshly-cooked meals they eat.  For some this is because they are not interested in cooking, but for others this is because their experiences of drug and/or alcohol use, incarceration, health and/or learning difficulties have meant that employment has been hard to find or cope with, and their incomes are insufficient to help them meet their food and nutritional needs.  Not only is the Farm providing people with a route into a more meaningful and fulfilled life experience, but it is also feeding them as they take that journey.

How surplus food supports Rhubarb Farm.

IMG_1761It is odd to think that a place that grows and sells food might need the support of surplus food as well.  Wouldn’t they just do what they already do if the food were not available?  Anita assured me that the surplus food that is delivered every two weeks though FareShare is a vital and integral resource for the Farm and they have plans to increase this to a weekly delivery once the Community Pantry is up and running.  However, the key way that the food matters is how it is incorporated into so many different cooking activities.  Those who are doing the ASDAN programme have cooking and healthy eating as part of the bronze, silver, gold accreditation or they can focus on food as a unit (Foodwise).  For example, David, supported by Anita, made red pepper soup from donated peppers that were then eaten by about 30 volunteers at lunchtime.  Jonathan, whose normal diet is very bad, and who doesn’t normally eat with other volunteers, is doing the Foodwise unit as a way to improve his diet.  He has been helped to use FareShare potatoes to make oven-baked chips, that were then also eaten by other volunteers. Speaking to Jonathan, it is clear that his dietary choices and favourite foods are not healthy for him, but he said he really enjoyed the chips and would have them again.

The random nature of surplus food means also that those working and volunteering in the kitchen are learning to plan and to do research about these foods. They see what comes in and then work out what might be combined to make meals that people will enjoy. An example is a the way cereal was made into cornflake pie for the Monday Community Cafe meal.  When the delivery arrives, those who help with this learn how to store different kinds of foods, how surplus food arises and the value of circular economies.

The main contribution of the food, however, is when volunteers are eating the lunch itself.  When observing the lunch, you see lots of mixing and conversation.  People are eating together who may not necessarily be working together in the same activity during the day.  Meals are hearty and include vegetables, but also proteins and starches, for example, pasta with a meat-based tomato sauce, or fish pie, salad and a desert.  It is clear that people enjoy eating the food because of the comments they make.  The real key here is not the financial benefit though, but what the hot meal offers in terms of enabling a social connection.  Before they started getting the food from FareShare they did not cook everyday, instead only when there were surplus vegetables from the Farm made into soups.  On the days when there were no meals everyone brought a packed lunch and did not mix so much at the lunch time.  The difference here is that as the hot, cooked lunch is plated and served over a counter, people queue up and that creates an opportunity to talk.  They then sit and eat together at the tables.  Anita said they could not feed 30-40 people every day without Fareshare food and the pound that everyone pays for the meal covers the cost of the FareShare subscription.  Buying the food in would be too expensive and the volunteers could not afford to pay more than they currently give for the meal.

None of the food goes to waste.  If it is short-dated, it is frozen.  If there are leftovers, these are packed up and given to people who Rhubarb Farm knows are struggling. This gifting is always done in a very dignified way and the fact that it is surplus helps this process.  For example if there is a lot of a particular item, staff can say “I have loads of cereal this week, we’ll never manage to use all this.  Could you use some cereal?”   The volunteers would not ask, but they are very willing to take the excess.

How can we support these organisations more?

Both Anita and Jennie had a number of ideas about what could support them more in what they are doing.  Both felt that they would benefit from being able to know what other charities are doing with the surplus and how they are supporting their communities.  They would also like the opportunity to show others what they do on the Farm.  They thought an ability to exchange ideas and talk to other organisations about how they do particular food activities would help them understand how they might offer more.  We talked quite a bit about how to run a Community Pantry, and some general information about the various ways that others are running their own pantries and what works and what does not work.

Rhubarb Farm at certain times of the year has excess produce that they struggle to eat or sell.  Green beans, swedes, and potatoes are currently in glut.  When this happens, they tend to give the food for animal feed to a nearby petting zoo. They would really like to be able to offer the surpluses to other charities who are supporting their communities. They said if there was a way to transport it, they would be happy to donate the food.

Finally, recognition is something that is important for charities and CICs and awards can make a difference in terms of how outsiders view, engage with, and provide resources to these organisations.  Jennie felt that it would be helpful if there were recognition scheme to both celebrate the food donors (food manufacturers, supermarkets etc) and the organisations that help them to create social benefits from surplus food.  A yearly conference with an awards ceremony would also offer up the chance to network with other surplus food-using charities.  Including some participation by public health, food alliances and national charities (e.g., Sustain, Incredible Edible, Church Action For Poverty, British Red Cross), funders, and industry would also help them to expand their professional networks.

[i] CIC’s are not-for-profit  social enterprises, whose   primary purpose is to provide a social good. All CICs are asset-locked in the same way as charities (i.e. the directors cannot take money from the enterprise in the form of dividends), and all profits are used for the work of the enterprise


[ii] The names of those whose individual experiences are reported have been given pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

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