We Are Newham, We Are Food Growing

We Are Food Growing is an initiative to support schools to develop their own food gardens in playgrounds.


As part of the Net Zero Innovation Programme, in Newham Council, we assessed the existing efforts of growing food at schools, analysed the common challenges, and built ways for the council to support schools to start growing food. We also provided funding for 11 schools that contributed to our research and co-created the toolkit with us. Engagement with these schools is ongoing, and we are still learning about the best ways to support them as food growing is gradually expanded to every school in the borough.

What was the challenge

The challenge is to create a culture of food growing at schools, so school food gardens can act as an educational site, and a site for healing and connection to nature, at schools across the borough. Considering the shortage of time, space, and resources, we have to figure out the best way for the council to work with schools to support food growing.  

The type of diet the EAT-lancet report outlines as essential for Climate 2050 requires us to nurture a generation excited by seasonal fruit and vegetables. In Newham food growing is part of an approach to creating Food Literacy that the council considers essential action on climate. There is an opportunity to use local concerns about healthy weight and diet as a driver for activity that simultaneously meets the need for action on climate. 

What was the solution?

To conduct desk-based research and interview meetings to fully understand the existing ecosystem. To find out the main obstacles to food growing at schools – amongst schools that have started gardens, and schools that are considering doing so.  

Then, with a small group of schools able and willing to engage, we co-created a toolkit designed to help schools create flourishing food gardens. Through a mix of using the toolkit and in-person support, eleven pilot schools are being supported to improve existing gardens or create new gardens. Throughout the growing season, we will continue to improve the support process by evolving, updating and expanding the toolkit. 

What are your top three lessons learned?

The main lesson we learnt was to emphasise the holistic value of growing food at schools. There was much more energy and momentum behind food growing at schools as a health measure for the children and community, rather than a form of climate action. This is understandable for a community that is experiencing a health crisis, with poor mental health common, and high childhood obesity rates being prevalent on the minds of council and school staff. 

Another key lesson is successful school gardens have a leader drives things forward to ensure the success of their school garden. This involves making the case for it amongst their colleagues, and in most cases convincing the School Senior Leadership Teams to include garden care as part of their job description. We spoke to schools who had gardens started by a leader, who either burnt out or left their position, leaving the gardens to fall into disrepair. The schools that seemed resilient to this had built a cluster of social connections around their gardens – with parents or even elderly members of the community being involved with the garden. This meant more people took ownership. This helps with reoccurring challenges like watering the garden in summer months when no staff are at school. 

The final key lesson – which we have discovered in recent months – is despite our research emphasizing access to funding as a key barrier, funding alone is not enough for the gardens to emerge. There needs to be more information and hands on support for staff at schools to feel confident enough to launch a garden project. 

Project impact

1.a. What have the outcomes of the project been so far (e.g. development of a mapping tool to understand emissions per area)? 

  • 11 school food gardens have been funded 

  • Toolkit supporting schools to grow was created 

Building connections with local schools, revealing the desire for food growing amongst schools, and finding local success stories all helped create momentum and consensus at Newham Council to officially include food growing as part of the Conditions of Grant of free school meals. The successful research and piloting from this project paved the way for a policy change that will see every school in Newham grow some food. The methods of support we have developed will be expanded and built on to help every school in the borough start growing food. 

1.b. How will these outcomes be sustained? 

Newham Council provide universal free school meals for all children under the age of 12. This NZIP project helped lay the foundations for adding food growing as one of the conditions of grant conditions for this programme. This programme will ensure that food growing at schools remains a priority as all 66 primary schools develop their whole school approach to food. 

2. What is the anticipated longer-term impact on progress towards net zero (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions savings)? 

The GHG emissions savings associated with this project will be: 

  • Behavioural: as food-growing with children has been shown to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, and increase recognition of vegetables. 

  • Waste-related: By improving the need for and knowledge of composting from food waste 

  • Vegetation-related: Through any associated planting of new trees. 

3. How has this project evolved your approach to net zero (e.g. approach to stakeholders/ways of working)? 

This project has clarified the need to focus on the co-benefits of climate action, particularly by acting through a planetary health lens. Community activists we spoke to were not motivated by abstract concepts like ‘net zero’. Nor had they read of studies linking gardening and connecting to nature as mental health measures. In many cases they were acting intuitively to improve their community, and improve the learning environment for their children. 

4. Who will benefit from your project (please consider benefits to other parts of your organisations and your community) 

Pilot schools - By receiving direct support - both financial and knowledge-based. 

Other schools - By having a tailored resource package ready to support their food growing. 

School children -Through enjoying the presence of food growing and gardens at school in one of the most nature-deprived areas of the UK. 

Council officers at Newham from Food Strategy, Public Health, Parks & Green Spaces, and Education – by having increased ability to collaborate and coordinate on topics that cut across these topics. 

Partnership development

Describe how your partnership developed over the course of the project

Patrick has developed skills around engaging with and coordinating action with different parts of a council on complex topics that cut across different systems. He has also developed skills in communicating about climate action, and using whole-systems thinking to advocate for regenerative action – which advocates for the solutions that recognise the climate, health, wellbeing, and loneliness crises as intertwined. 

At stages of the work we have met as often as once per week to discuss progress, any obstacles, and best ways of collaborating and planning the rest of the work. We were having regular conversations with the community, and able to react quickly to requests with relevant work and information, building momentum in the project. 

One challenge to the work was changes in the team’s personal lives meaning we did not get as much done in the summer as initially planned, pushing back the timeline of the project. The key responsible party from Newham left to another role, while personal circumstances meant there was less availability from Patrick over the summer months. Things got back up and running properly in Autumn when extra Newham staff were available, and Patrick was able to return to full capacity. 

How will the partnership be sustained in the medium and longer term? 

We have enjoyed working together and have now collaborated on other bids related to working towards a regenerative local food system. For example, we have been using the connections and skills generated from this project to advocate for more wild food-growing spaces in Newham (such as food forests) tended to through social prescribing. We are planning for these projects will be examples of social and ecological healing going hand-in-hand. 

Further information

Email contacts from both partner organisations: 

Andy Gold – [email protected] 

Lau Prieto - [email protected]  

Patrick Vickers – [email protected]  

Relevant documents/tools produced in the project:  

As one of the first councils to introduce Eat for Free, and the first council to introduce food growing as a condition of grant for Eat for Free, this is a nationally leading policy. 

Toolkit is currently with Newham’s public health design team and will be published in early December 2022. You can also view the unpublished version.