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Big Red Food Shed

Big Red Food Shed is a community business designed to get fresh and healthy food to local people on low incomes as an alternative to food-banks.

Julie Lowe is a natural social innovator with a track record of creative trouble-making. Back in 1989 she worked at the old DHSS (now the Benefits Agency) when Mrs Edwina Currie began to introduce Income Support. Julie and one of her colleagues were taken to one side and told, in no uncertain terms, that it was no longer appropriate to use human judgement to making decisions about human welfare, in the future it was all going to be done by the computer.

So Julie resigned from the DHSS and took her first benefit payment and invested into an new initiative that she created - the Community Creation Trust. Julie persuaded National Carriers to give her disused coach repair depot, just behind Kings Cross Station with the purpose of tackling homelessness, drug dealing and the many other problems found in that community. This led to a sustained period of dynamic social action.

She created the Eco-Cabins for the young and homeless - the first example of ecological (sustainable and non-toxic) timber framed cassettes in the building industry. These pieces fitted together to create a system of housing, with turf on the roof, for the young and homeless arriving in London. 

Working in partnership with the Big Issue, Camden Council and the Homelessness Network they were able to offer short-term solutions to help people get themselves sorted.

Julie’s work also supported a whole range of interconnected initiatives:

  • Developing The Last Platform Cafe
  • Buying up from Liquidators the London Ecology Centre when it went bust
  • 12 workshops and offices
  • A conference centre

Of course, inevitably this was all swept away in February 1999 when money and power started to come to Kings Cross and the railway stations and surrounding land were redeveloped. However even these changes continue to reflect some of Julie’s Boadicea spirit. Today’s cafes, local food markets, conference centres and offices still retain a living memory of her work.

This kind of work is not easy. Julie and family lived on the site and it was “hard bloody work”. So Julie came back to the North of England, and started to learn about farming. Later she moved to Chesterfield and in 2010 she became a local Labour councillor.

Like many of us Julie was challenged by the ease with which politicians of left and Right accepted austerity and began to dismantle the welfare state and impose cuts that targeted the already disadvantaged. Instead of challenging injustice, protecting services and addressing the real needs of the community, local leaders seemed to simply accept Westminster’s agenda. In particular Julie was outraged by the growth in food-banks and the growing acceptance of food-banks as an appropriate response to the political project of austerity.

So Julie didn’t stand for election again she tried to find another way - this is what led to the development of the Big Red Food Shed, a community business that aims to reduce the price of food for people who really need good quality vegetables and creating opportunities for local people and people who’ve had a rough time to come together and do something good in their local community.

The Big Red Food Shed is a Company Limited by Guarantee, with an asset lock to ensure that there is no profit-making. In 2013 the company reached a deal with Derbyshire County Council to take over four acres of disused land in Brimington and Hollingwood, close to Chesterfield. Since then the major developments have included:

  • A friend and old colleague and Co-Founder provided a legacy to spend on the basics and to provide a very modest salary for Julie.
  • Working with a team from probation services all the land was cleared, removing years of fly-tipping, waste and overgrown brambles.
  • With the help of a local farmer all the soil was turned over and raised beds were built.
  • People and organisations, including a local church began to donate, wood, glass, recycled bricks, toilets and more (saving money and reducing unnecessary dumping).
  • A workforce was gathered: beginning with the Probation Team the workforce now includes probation placements, adults with learning disabilities who want to work, students from Landmark College, and volunteers from the community who want to do some gardening.
  • In 2015 poly-tunnels were constructed and now tomatoes, cucumbers and melons are being grown
  • Solar energy based aquaponic system will use waste from fish to provide renewable sources of nitrogen to replenish the soil.
  • Most importantly many people’s lives have been transformed as they’ve had the time to connect to the land, to other people and find a place of meaning and purpose.

Growing a community business like this takes enormous reserves of courage and determination. Community businesses don’t always get support from banks or charities. It takes time and effort to get things moving, yet Julie’s achieved an enormous amount in a short time.

In the future the Big Red Food Shed hopes to develop in its role as an educator, with classrooms on the site. In addition even more support will be offered to people seeking to recover from trauma or mental illness. There will be a sensory garden and geodesic dome, offering people a place for contemplation.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Big Red Food Shed © Simon Duffy 2016.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.