Dundee fights poverty with free food courtesy of urban orchard

While Dundee's foodbank use rises, artist and horticulturalist Jonathan Baxter is transforming the way communities think about nourishment

It’s the city with the highest level of foodbank use in Scotland, but Dundee is harnessing its creativity to find innovative – and artistic – solutions to this chronic problem.

The city is home to 25 small-scale orchards that together make up Dundee Urban Orchard. Most are open to the public so they can forage for produce or just enjoy the green space.

The city’s food poverty crisis is acute, with figures from the Trussell Trust showing nearly 4,000 people – 1,050 of them children – were referred to Dundee foodbank between April and September 2016. It’s a rise of four per cent in a year and makes it the highest per-capita figure in Scotland.

Artist and co-founder of Dundee Urban Orchard Jonathan Baxter said as well as the beauty and biodiversity the orchards bring to the city, they are also a means of highlighting the injustices that lead to food poverty.

“With this in mind, we worked directly with Dundee foodbank to plant an orchard in a small community garden set up by a former user of the foodbank,” he said.

“The aim of the garden, and the orchard we planted, was two-fold: to address an immediate need by supplying vegetables and fruit to the foodbank, and to offer an alternative means of addressing food poverty, that is, an example of people growing their own food.”

The orchards are planted across the city in sites including schools, community gardens and even a tenement backgreen.

Planting and caring for the orchards would be a practical action that both adults and children could undertake

Each is semi-autonomous – planted and tended by a designated orchard group.

Along with his co-founder Sarah Gittins, Baxter took as his starting point the search for a more just and sustainable food system.

“How would this influence urban design and development?” he said. “What role might food have in addressing issues such as long-term unemployment, political disempowerment and an increasing sense that a sustainable future is out of our hands?

“Planting and caring for the orchards would be a practical action that both adults and children could undertake.”

Helpers dig in at the orchard at Slessor Gardens

DUO also works with the community garden at the Maxwell centre in the city.

Baxter and his team dug among broken toys and rubble to get the orchard going and now it’s one of the most successful community gardens in Dundee, easing food poverty in the community.

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Project manager Alison Goodfellow said: “We are the main referral point for the Dundee foodbank and carry out on average 50 referrals a month. One referral can be for an entire family.”

The centre has always offered those in need fruit and vegetables from the garden but staff are also aware that they need to be enabling people to grow their own food in future. They’ve recently secured cash to run workshops this summer on growing and cooking.

Goodfellow added: “When we’re closed people can’t access the garden and help themselves. As a result we’ve built four raised beds at the back gate where we grow vegetables in rotation and clearly mark what’s available.

“We make fresh soup daily from garden produce and always have bread available. Our holiday garden club also helps address food poverty locally as it fills the holiday hunger where children don’t have access to free school meals.”

Baxter said the concept links Dundee’s community, environment and economy.

“Orchards become a metaphor for the way individuals and communities can work together with the ecology of their place to transform urban space into an orchard city,” he said.