A Deliciously Resourceful Town Aims For Total Food Self-Sufficiency Within 7 Years

By Vincent Graff


Admittedly, it sounds like the most foolhardy of criminal capers, and one of the cheekiest, too.

Outside the police station in the small Victorian mill town of Todmorden, West Yorkshire, there are three large raised flower beds.

If you’d visited a few months ago, you’d have found them overflowing with curly kale, carrot plants, lettuces, spring onions — all manner of vegetables and salad leaves.

Today the beds are bare. Why? Because people have been wandering up to the police station forecourt in broad daylight and digging up the vegetables. And what are the cops doing about this brazen theft from right under their noses? Nothing.

Well, that’s not quite correct.

‘I watch ’em on camera as they come up and pick them,’ says desk officer Janet Scott, with a huge grin. It’s the smile that explains everything.

For the vegetable-swipers are not thieves. The police station carrots — and thousands of vegetables in 70 large beds around the town — are there for the taking. Locals are encouraged to help themselves. A few tomatoes here, a handful of broccoli there. If they’re in season, they’re yours. Free.

So there are (or were) raspberries, apricots and apples on the canal towpath; blackcurrants, redcurrants and strawberries beside the doctor’s surgery; beans and peas outside the college; cherries in the supermarket car park; and mint, rosemary, thyme and fennel by the health centre.

The vegetable plots are the most visible sign of an amazing plan: to make Todmorden the first town in the country that is self-sufficient in food.

‘And we want to do it by 2018,’ says Mary Clear, 56, a grandmother of ten and co-founder of Incredible Edible, as the scheme is called.

‘It’s a very ambitious aim. But if you don’t aim high, you might as well stay in bed, mightn’t you?’

So what’s to stop me turning up with a huge carrier bag and grabbing all the rosemary in the town?

‘Nothing,’ says Mary.

What’s to stop me nabbing all the apples?


All your raspberries?


It just doesn’t happen like that, she says. ‘We trust people. We truly believe — we are witness to it — that people are decent.’

When she sees the Big Issue seller gathering fruit for his lunch, she feels only pleasure. What does it matter, argues Mary, if once in a while she turns up with her margarine tub to find that all the strawberries are gone?

‘This is a revolution,’ she says. ‘But we are gentle revolutionaries. Everything we do is underpinned by kindness.’

The idea came about after she and co-founder Pam Warhurst, the former owner of the town’s Bear Cafe, began fretting about the state of the world and wondered what they could do.

They reasoned that all they could do is start locally, so they got a group of people, mostly women, together in the cafe.

‘Wars come about by men having drinks in bars, good things come about when women drink coffee together,’ says Mary.

‘Our thinking was: there’s so much blame in the world — blame local government, blame politicians, blame bankers, blame technology — we thought, let’s just do something positive instead.’

We’re standing by a car park in the town centre. Mary points to a housing estate up the hill. Her face lights up.

‘The children walk past here on the way to school. We’ve filled the flower beds with fennel and they’ve all been taught that if you bite fennel, it tastes like a liquorice gobstopper. When I see the children popping little bits of herb into their mouths, I just think it’s brilliant.’

She takes me over to the front garden of her own house, a few yards away.

Three years ago, when Incredible Edible was launched, she did a very unusual thing: she lowered her front wall, in order to encourage passers-by to walk into her garden and help themselves to whatever vegetables took their fancy.

There were signs asking people to take something but it took six months for folk to ‘get it’, she says.

They get it now. Obviously a few town-centre vegetable plants — even thousands of them — are not going to feed a community of 15,000 by themselves.

But the police station potatoes act as a recruiting sergeant — to encourage residents to grow their own food at home.

Today, hundreds of townspeople who began by helping themselves to the communal veg are now well on the way to self-sufficiency.

But out on the street, what gets planted where? There’s kindness even in that.

‘The ticket man at the railway station, who was very much loved, was unwell. Before he died, we asked him: “What’s your favourite vegetable, Reg?” It was broccoli. So we planted memorial beds with broccoli at the station. One stop up the line, at Hebden Bridge, they loved Reg, too — and they’ve also planted broccoli in his memory.’

Not that all the plots are — how does one put this delicately? — ‘official’.

Take the herb bushes by the canal. Owners British Waterways had no idea locals had been sowing plants there until an official inspected the area ahead of a visit by the Prince of Wales last year (Charles is a huge Incredible Edible fan).

Surplus vegetables grown at the high school go on sale, with all proceeds going directly back to the school.

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Estelle Brown, a 67-year-old former interior designer who tended the plot, received an email from British Waterways.

‘I was a bit worried to open it,’ she says. ‘But it said: “How do you build a raised bed? Because my boss wants one outside his office window.”’

Incredible Edible is also about much more than plots of veg. It’s about educating people about food, and stimulating the local economy.

There are lessons in pickling and preserving fruits, courses on bread-making, and the local college is to offer a BTEC in horticulture. The thinking is that young people who have grown up among the street veg may make a career in food.

Crucially, the scheme is also about helping local businesses. The Bear, a wonderful shop and cafe with a magnificent original Victorian frontage, sources all its ingredients from farmers within a 30-mile radius.

There’s a brilliant daily market. People here can eat well on local produce, and thousands now do.

Meanwhile, the local school was recently awarded a £500,000 Lottery grant to set up a fish farm in order to provide food for the locals and to teach useful skills to young people.

Jenny Coleman, 62, who retired here from London, explains: ‘We need something for our young people to do. If you’re an 18-year-old, there’s got to be a good answer to the question: why would I want to stay in Todmorden?’

The day I visit, the town is battered by a bitterly-cold rain storm. Yet the place radiates warmth. People speak to each other in the street, wave as neighbours drive past, smile.

If the phrase hadn’t been hijacked, the words ‘we’re all in this together’ would spring to mind.

So what sort of place is Todmorden (known locally, without exception, as ‘Tod’)? If you’re assuming it’s largely peopled by middle-class grandmothers, think again. Nor is this place a mecca for the gin-and-Jag golf club set.

Set in a Pennine valley — once, the road through the town served as the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire — it is a vibrant mix of age, class and ethnicity.

A third of households do not own a car; a fifth do not have central heating.

You can snap up a terrace house for £50,000 — or spend close to £1?million on a handsome stone villa with seven bedrooms.

And the scheme has brought this varied community closer together, according to Pam Warhurst.

Take one example. ‘The police have told us that, year on year, there has been a reduction in vandalism since we started,’ she says. ‘We weren’t expecting this.’

So why has it happened?

Pam says: ‘If you take a grass verge that was used as a litter bin and a dog toilet and turn it into a place full of herbs and fruit trees, people won’t vandalise it. I think we are hard-wired not to damage food.’

Pam reckons a project like Incredible Edible could thrive in all sorts of places. ‘If the population is very transient, it’s difficult. But if you’ve got schools, shops, back gardens and verges, you can do it.’

Similar schemes are being piloted in 21 other towns in the UK, and there’s been interest shown from as far afield as Spain, Germany, Hong Kong and Canada. And, this week, Mary Clear gave a talk to an all-party group of MPs at Westminster.

Todmorden was visited by a planner from New Zealand, working on the rebuilding of his country after February’s earthquake.

Mary says: ‘He went back saying: “Why wouldn’t we rebuild the railway station with pick-your-own herbs? Why wouldn’t we rebuild the health centre with apple trees?”

‘What we’ve done is not clever. It just wasn’t being done.’

The final word goes to an outsider. Joe Strachan is a wealthy U.S. former sales director who decided to settle in Tod with his Scottish wife, after many years in California.

He is 61 but looks 41. He became active with Incredible Edible six months ago, and couldn’t be happier digging, sowing and juicing fruit.

I find myself next to him, sheltering from the driving rain. Why, I ask, would someone forsake the sunshine of California for all this?

His answer sums up what the people around here have achieved.

‘There’s a nobility to growing food and allowing people to share it. There’s a feeling we’re doing something significant rather than just moaning that the state can’t take care of us.

‘Maybe we all need to learn to take care of ourselves.’

Enjoyed this story? Read more article by Vincent Graff here

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  • Anne

    Great story! I wish every town would do this! :o) It is definitely the way to go – shut down Monsanto!

    (One little thing, please could you change your font? Very difficult to read) :o)

    • Dawn

      Very well said Anne 🙂 This really is a fantastic initiative, so simple too. The sooner every town is involved the better. Amen to shutting down Monsanto too!

      • T.J.

        Totally with you guys on that one, go green or go home! We need to save the planet from corporate greed!

  • Chris Higginson

    How fortunate this town is in Yorkshire, England.
    Imagine if it was in New Zealand, where they are about to introduce a law to ban home growing of food, and its distribution to family and friends.

    The Tod Police would have to arrest and charge themselves!

    I have taken up planting walnut trees in out of the way public spaces, mainly for the wildlife but also for people to enjoy. So easy and so effective, particularly if you name each tree after a local dignitary!

    • Nexxy

      wait, what? NZ is banning giving food to relatives and friends? and growing it in your home? wtf wth; are they stupid or something?

    • Is that true? How is it legal? Food is our right to grow. I think this free public food is great. It promotes eating healthy too!

    • Michelle

      In fact we can still grow our own food and distribute it to family and friends. Our government knows that Kiwis would never wear a ban on the home growing of food. What a great article…I would love to dig out the lawn and plant up…but the landlord might not be so wild about the idea!! One day I will have my little slice of heaven.

    • Anna

      Um I’m from New Zealand and this is definitely not true!!! No idea where you got that from! 🙂

  • Danielle

    What a fantastic and inspiring story!

  • Laura

    I’d love to see this in our neighborhood. I’ve just posted it on the neighborhood association Facebook page. We’ll see if anyone else agrees.

  • Sharon

    What a feel good story! Thank you! I have been wondering for some time now how much food a town could grow if lawns were turned into gardens and the trees lining sidewalks grew fruit and nuts…this article shows that vision is doable! Plus it’s just so nice to read about people taking action to make a difference, not complain and blame. 🙂

  • Dana

    This is amazing idea. I believe the government in USA should provide every town, city, community the seeds to make these gardens, use the government property ad empty lots for the gardens, lower the give out amounts of food stamps to people to buy the seed and teach people how to provide and live off fresh garden food when season allows it to be grown. Its alot cheaper to buy seed for a good cause then provide people with extra food stamps to buy pizza, candy, pop, junk food. Just Saying……………

    • [email protected]

      I agree, and btw, you CAN use food stamps to buy seeds but people are just too lazy to put in the time and energy to do it. They would rather eat frozen pizza, (which btw the government has deemed to be a vegetable so the,schools could continue to serve it to our children)… I’d like to see them grow THAT in there gardens.

      • Shaka Mama

        I get food stamps and use them to buy seeds to plant my garden. I know other people who do the same thing. It really does not pay to make generalized statements, especially when you are talking about something you have never personally experienced.

  • b

    this is what everyone needs to do,but unfortunately here in America we are a police state now AND THIS IS FROWNED UPON BY THE GLOBALISTS THAT WANT TO CONTROL EVERYTHING.

    • Elise

      For that very reason would I be afraid of accepting any seeds from the U.S. government. They would most likely be GMO. I will plant my own saved seeds, thank you! If they think they can stop me from saving my seeds, they can kiss my butt!

  • Ed

    I wish my town will do this. It may take some time as they are deeply rooted in the buying mode for decades. This mindset won’t go away overnight.

    But this story may help convince them.

  • Debra

    I adore this concept! My husband and I have 6 kids, 2 grandkids, and 2 dogs. We’re both from big families. In the past two years, our gardens have become larger, we’ve pulled out non-fruit bearing trees and shrubs. This coming year is when our veggie greenhouse will be going up. Would love for this to spread to our community. Btw, we live just outside of a large metro area, so we know it can be done!

    • Just do it, don’t wait for someone else to start, do like we did, just go out and do it. We were staggered at how people came together and the thing just grew. people are basically good but we have become lazy and dependant on the grey they. how often do you here, the street need sweeping, “they should do something about it” that land is a mess “they should do something about it”, everyone should stop waiting for “them to do something”, let’s all stop being victims and do it ourselves

  • you can like Incredible Edible Todmorden face book now too

  • Love it!

    What an incredible idea. Way to go and maybe others will take note and do the same in their communities.

  • Charles

    I’d miss tea, bananas, oranges, pineapples, wine, beer, whiskey…

    • Greenhouses!
      But yeah, I totally agree. Sustainability doesn’t mean 100% locally grown; I’d say 90% is worth shooting for

  • Bekki Shining Bearheart

    What a lovely story! In our county( Athens County in OH, USA) there is a strong movement on local sustainable food. We have a worker-owned restaurant which is almost entirely locally supplied, and several community gardens in the county seat. Community Food Initiatives is a local NGO started by a community member which has taken on the community gardens as a project. We’re proud of our community and always glad to see other similar projects in other places.

  • Charles

    Good luck with sugar, tea, chocolate, or even fish.

  • Wow! What a magnificent story. Todmorden is a living example of a return to a local food economy. Has everyone seen the Economics of Happiness? This is the director’s main message – When you return to a local food economy, most, if not all, other worries (e.g. decreasing vandalism, personal security) disappear. Let’s take back responsibility for our own personal livelihood guys. We may not be able to rely on the government for national security, but we can sure as heck rely on one another. This is the revolution! I feel blessed to be part of it.

  • zachary

    Reading this from Texas USA and VERY proud of my ancestral town! And Hello to any Marshalls there. Todmorden can be a “teaching town” for all of us.
    Very best wishes to all.

  • Allure Nobell

    I want to go live there!

  • Tina Scislow

    I find this absolutely brilliant and uber intelligent. What a pity that governments are trying to take away the rights of all of us to grow things. I love the fact that vandalism has also dropped. It gives people useful things to do, definitely. I have wanted to grow food on the rooftop of my house for quite some time now, and I do intend to do so as soon as possible. Absolutely brilliant. Maybe people in NZ can grow things in secret underground facilities if the law passes. It is time to make a stand. God bless us all.

  • This will not work for the majority

    This is a fantastic idea and project, but I want to correct some of the wrongful assumptions previous commenters have made.
    There is an assumption among the middle class that the entire working class has access to the same resources as they. This may be exacerbated by the difference in free time between middle-class workers who can afford to own their house & browse the internet extensively and the working class who work incessantly to survive in an economy where unemployment, underemployment, and consistently low wages force millions into poverty.
    These solutions of gardening are simply out of reach for a majority of the population, even moreso in the US than in Canada or the UK. While urban permaculture has a brilliant future, it cannot be implemented without broad government support and funding. The fact that the rich own the US government makes that quite unlikely, but the solution is not so simple as “grow your own” for most people, who are also saddled with thousands in debt.

  • Roland Dulac

    My congratulations to all participants.
    The World will follow your example.
    Keep it up.

  • Robin

    This is what I believe. Food is supposed to be free. We should all just walk outside and find all we need. NO ONE should go hungry, because food should be everywhere. Civilization has perverted the world. This is what every city, town, province, and Country should do. Everyone deserves to eat. It should be free.

  • Oregoner

    Damn socialists. What next free health care? Mark my words, these fascists are up to no good! It’s time we bring them “Democracy!”. They haven’t per chance got any oil we can extract, er uh, I mean trade for?

  • Glad to see folks making the preparations to be sustainable..less use of resources of our world which will be come more costly as they dimish, Great Waves of Change free book, to help us navigate a changing world. We all need to do our part to assist the Planet in sustaining us all..Good job Folks..