A food co-operative set up by a GP surgery is helping patients to grow food in Lambeth, one of London’s most deprived boroughs.
Set up in 2013, the Lambeth GP Food Co-op includes patients, doctors, nurses and local residents who created a network of food-growing NHS gardens.
On 23 March, it launched a new venture with Stockwell GPs at Grantham Practice/Beckett House Surgeries.
“It’s a simple concept – build gardens at GP surgeries,” said director Ed Rosen, one of the leaders of the project.
The initiative – inspired by the work of food co-ops across the UK and abroad – started at three GP practices, with initial funding of £160,000 from the clinical commissioning group and Lambeth Council.
As part of the project, 11 GP surgeries across the borough have turned unused outdoor space into gardens where patients can grow fruit and vegetables. The produce is sold in King’s College Hospital via a market stall, a joint venture with Medirest, the hospital’s catering supplier.
The launch was awarded the Best Sustainable Food Initiative in the NHS by Public Health England and the NHS Sustainability Unit.
There are more than 37,000 people in Lambeth with long-term health conditions, and many of them are managing depression or loneliness.
“We are a co-op, one of the first health co-ops in NHS,” says Mr Rosen, who has worked in the NHS as educationalist for a long time.
As well as helping patients with long-term health conditions, the co-op aims to influence food procurement within the NHS, serving both an economic and a therapeutic purpose.
Its long-term aim is to encourage NHS hospitals to buy locally sourced food by drawing on community capacity to grow food in an urban environment.
“The trick is to engage patients in the management of the co-op,” added Mr Rosen. “We wanted to experiment and innovate and draw on knowledge expertise of ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”
The benefits of gardens and gardening on health are highlighted in a report by the King’s Fund. These include reductions in depression and anxiety, improved social functioning and wider effects, including opportunities for vocational development.
The Lambeth GP Food Co-op has so far been unable to conduct a full evaluation of its programme, due to a lack of funding.
The co-op is looking for funding to grow the business and will be launching a crowdfunding campaign in the near future.
“We’re modest but hope we’ll improve people’s lives marginally by offering them opportunities to meet other people, make new friends, have fun and grow food,” said Mr Rosen.
The co-op was one of the 15 recipients of the “Celebrating Participation in Healthcare” community grant by the NHS England, which enabled it to create a professional video to tell its story.
The patient group makes decisions on what is planted, what happens to the produce, when meetings are held and whether they should get involved in other food-growing activities.
Other GP practices and councils have expressed interest in the model but Mr Rosen says they need to develop their own model, deciding what work they want to do and how to fit it into their business plan.
“Give yourself enough time, we gave three years to develop what we have now, he added. “We’re not building an empire but we are trying to support patients doctors and nurses and the model we have is a co-op.”