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By Jilly Dougan, Food for Thought Project Officer

The benefits of getting out into green spaces and closer to nature have been well researched and documented. It’s a huge benefit for physical and mental wellbeing, giving us a sense of belonging and connectedness. Belonging to a community garden or allotment association can elevate that ‘feel-good’ factor to a whole other level.

There is something elemental in growing food; to be able to produce something through your own efforts and the wonder of nature is empowering, bringing out the hunter/gatherer/farmer in all of us. It gives the grower a feeling of taking back some sort of control when other aspects of life can be chaotic and stressful. In her book ‘The Well Gardened Mind’, Sue Stuart-Smith tells us “When we go out to gather fruits, flowers and other garden produce our anticipation of reward stimulates an energising dopamine release much as it propelled our Palaeolithic ancestors out of their caves”!

Food is an area where people can choose to make changes which will result in not just physical and mental health benefits but sustainability and environmental benefits too.

Michael Kelly from the organisation GIY believes that when people grow food, the result is a phenomenon known as ‘food empathy’….

“A deeper understanding of food, where it comes from, how it is produced, and the time and effort required. An understanding of seasonality and the lifecycle of 'growth-decay-growth' which is so central to life on this planet.”

It can also waken our palate to a whole new world of flavour which is virtually unobtainable when we shop automatically with large retailers. These industry giants, by their nature, have to purchase for volume, long shelf life and supply chain efficiency. The flavour of something that’s just picked and grown organically is incomparable.

Food growing areas are not just about the produce that is grown though. Undoubtedly the excitement of harvesting something you have sown and nurtured over time is real. Being able to share that just-picked produce with family or friends and neighbours to make a delicious and nutritious meal is very satisfying. Environmentally these green productive spaces provide for biodiversity, are important wildlife habitats, absorb excessive water run-off quickly mitigating local flooding and act as carbon sinks especially where native tree planting and wildlife garden areas are encouraged.

Allotments and community gardens are spaces which also allow people to socialise in a non-confined environment. Sometimes they can be the focus for community events, cooking classes, educating local children about nature and wildlife and so much more. Gardeners belong to a community that more often than not is diverse in terms of age, sex, religion, race and socio-economic background. For people who feel isolated they can be an incredibly important link to the outside world.

So allotments, community gardens and productive green spaces, in urban or rural settings are so much more than they might appear at first glance. If I was the person in charge they would be pre-requisite for planning applications.