Meet… Edward Rosen, project director at Lambeth GP Food Co-op

‘I’m confident that co-ops
have a contribution to make
to the reshaping of the health
service within primary and
community care’

Ed Rosen is project director at Lambeth GP Food Co-op, and has also worked in the NHS as an educationalist. Set up in 2013, Lambeth GP Food Co-op brings together patients, doctors, nurses and local residents who have created a network of food-growing NHS gardens. The co-op serves both an economic and a therapeutic purpose, helping patients with long-term health conditions while encouraging local food procurement.

What does a regular day look like for you and Lambeth GP Food Co-op?

We are a co-operative, but we are distributed across the whole borough of Lambeth, so our work is spread across a large area. One of our core activities is growing food; at the moment we are coming to the end of the growing season, so we’ll be selling our vegetables to NHS staff. Tomorrow we’re going to visit Sutton Community Farm – I hope to build a relationship with them as we’d like to increase our growing activity. On a regular day we focus on supporting patients, some of whom are members of Lambeth GP Food Co-op. Then once a month we have a co-operative activity, such as selling produce at King’s College Hospital. The idea is to create a network of NHS gardens across Lambeth

How did the project start and how did you get involved?

The project started as an idea that was being discussed in the Department of Health to fund pilot projects focusing on social enterprise, mutuals and co-operatives. This was in 2006. Nothing happened, but it led to some of us reflecting on how difficult it was to create co-ops and mutuals within the public sector, especially within the NHS. There just didn’t seem to be a way in or an alignment between the ideas and values of the co-operative movement as we understood it, and the NHS. The NHS has the value of ‘free at the point of need’, but has a very different organisational culture. Fast forward a bit, and in 2012 I made an initial proposal to Lambeth Council, which at that time was a co-operative council and part of the Cooperative Councils’ Innovation Network. Lambeth said ‘Yes’. We then talked to the NHS in Lambeth, and they said ‘Yes.’ We had three years’ funding to get it up and running, and we started with three GP surgeries in Lambeth in March 2013. Next March is our 10th anniversary.

Members at the Jennie Lee Garden, which has been part of Lambeth GP Food Co-op since 2015

How many GP surgeries do you work with at the moment?

We started working with GPs based on the simple idea of building gardens at GP surgeries, in alleyways and unused spaces. The aim was to transform these spaces into  a living and flourishing vegetable gardens for patients who have long term health conditions like diabetes and arthritis. We’ve built gardens at 13 GP surgeries in Lambeth, but not all of them were successful.

At the moment we are working with five GP surgeries, and we also have vegetable gardens at two large teaching hospitals, Guy’s and St Thomas’ and King’s College Hospital.

Who are your members?

Our members are patients, nurses, doctors, NHS staff and local residents. We’re actually starting to rethink what it means to be a member of Lambeth GP Food Co-op. So we’re going to talk about membership and different categories of membership in the autumn to create a membership drive.

How did pandemic impact your work?

The first wave happened in spring and we had to close all the gardens because they’re in hospitals and GP sites. We transformed our activity to support people who were self isolating. I mentioned that we were working with patients who have diabetes and arthritis; they tend to be older and a bit more isolated, because they have long-term conditions.

We started working with Lambeth Council on its emergency food pack distribution network, and included a simple recipe and a pack of seeds. This was packed for us by the Co-op Group, particularly Ian (head of wine procurement) and his friends. 

Then we went on to launch the Gardening at Home project, which supported 13 patients. They were given a garden at home pack and were linked with a gardening buddy who was a trained gardener and also had a background in either nursing or social work. The buddy would phone them every two weeks, asking them how they were getting on growing their tomato plant. It was important to ensure they didn’t feel abandoned by the NHS. We gave them a focus – growing plants and veg at home. 

The buddies weren’t clinically trained, so we kept the boundary very tight. If there was a problem, they’d come back to me or to one of the nurses who was overseeing the scheme, because they weren’t trained to deal with medical issues. They were there just to provide support for them going through that difficult first winter. So that’s what we did. We were funded externally to do that work.

One of the co-op’s members was involved in an oral history project about the gardening and horticultural heritage of people of Caribbean descent living in south London. How did the project start?

The project was called Sowing Roots and it was led by Janine Nelson from the Garden Museum, who also helped set up the Lambeth GP Food Co-op in 2013. Lambeth GP Food Co-op community gardener Earline Hilda Castillo Binger was one of the 15 gardeners interviewed as part of the project. 

The project journeys into the history of the gardening cultures and traditions that Caribbean people carried with them when they moved to the UK after World War II: from breadfruit, provision grounds, and botanical gardens, to chocho, ackee and the green spaces of South London. The oral history recordings are now part of the Garden Museum’s archive.

What role can co-operative and mutual models play within the NHS?

As the social crisis has deepened in the UK, the NHS has become more alert to the model that we have developed at Lambeth GP Food Co-op, which we share with everyone. We don’t franchise it so people in their communities can develop their own models.

I’m confident that co-ops have a contribution to make to the reshaping of the health service within primary and community care. We have at least 780,000 people managing long Covid-19. The GPs can’t do anything for them because it’s a long-term condition, and we don’t have a pill that cures it.  We also have thousands of people who are still either self isolating, or semi self isolating at home. 

I think that what we’ve developed is a very first stage model around growing at home that offers a platform for thinking about developing a co-operative that is helping people improve their health and well-being when it looks hopeless. And that’s going to be really challenging, but there are many people that we’ve spoken to who we couldn’t reach out and help because we didn’t have the resources. So we’re planning to rerun the growing at home project this winter, if funding permits.

Although we’re a food co-op, our activity around food is only one aspect of our work. We have plenty more ideas that we want to explore.