Growing food from different cultures to support wellbeing

Refugees in the northeast have been helping tower block residents to set up a new allotment to grow food and share gardening practices from around the world

Comfrey Project community gardeners with Bensham Court resident John Freeman

Arts and crafts wellbeing session for Bensham Court residents, run by Dingy Butterflies

Bensham Court is a 16-storey block of flats in Gateshead, northeast England. Bensham has some of the highest levels of health deprivation in the area, and the average income is 18% lower than the national average.

Local residents have been working with the RHS to grow their allotment space and, as a result, boost their wellbeing. Working in partnership with the residents’ association, the council and local communities, this project aims to improve wellbeing through food growing, address biodiversity needs and support those on low income through social prescribing.

“I have seen a very positive change in the residents since the allotment group started. There is always a buzz in the lounge while the group are planning, planting and sharing lunch together after the workshops. It’s like a new friendship group.”

Councillor Eileen McMaster, Mayor of Gateshead

As well as growing and sharing food and celebrating stories together, the RHS-led workshops have encompassed a whole range of seasonal activities including seed saving, plant swapping, winter crafts and creating pollinator patches.

Hear from the residents

“I hadn’t really done any gardening before the workshops started, but I knew it was supposed to be good for your mental health, and that having some things to do outside would be good for me,” said Graeme, one of the residents at Bensham Court.

After taking part in several workshops over the summer months, Graeme said, “It was nice to be able to work at the pace of my hands, instead of my mind racing ahead”. He is looking forward to next year, in particular growing vegetables and seeing wildflowers.

Plants growing in pots decorated by residents

Bensham Court residents including Graeme Stewart (right) plant seeds

“The fact that we can do it in an urban area shows other people what they might be able to do as well.”

Tony Pears, Bensham Court Community Gardening Group

John Freeman from the residents’ association wanted the garden to encourage people to come out of their flats. “There are a lot of isolated people who are really scared to come out, but they might just come out and sit quietly if they can see a nice garden,” said John.

John has lived in Bensham his whole life and has seen many changes, but said that the best thing about the area today is the diverse community – they are welcoming people from all around the world.

“You can see the difference in everyone in the group, to the refugees and to other people in Bensham Court.”

Karen Hunt, Bensham Court volunteer

Supporting refugees and people who are seeking asylum

One of the local partners our team worked with is the Comfrey Project, a charity that provides a safe, welcoming place for people who have fled conflict and persecution to improve their physical and mental wellbeing, develop new skills and establish roots in their new community.

Bensham Court residents take part in activities such as colouring pots

Families get involved with RHS-led workshops

“It gives me work to do, hard work with digging spades but it’s good. Good for my soul.”

Amadu, Comfrey Project attendee

The charity ran a ‘Brighten the Day’ scheme during the summer school holidays, funded by Gateshead Council, where refugees and families seeking asylum could get a healthy, nutritious meal while also taking part in gardening workshops run by the RHS.

Activities included tea-making, scavenger hunting, plant pot painting and more. During the sessions, the group shared stories about which herbs they grow in their home countries. For example, they learned about the different medicinal uses for za'atar in Turkey and Iraq, and that rosemary can be used as a preservative, particularly for dairy products such as yoghurt.

Volunteers from the Comfrey Project are planning to grow crops on the new allotment at Bensham Court, such as amaranth and turmeric. UK-born residents in the block are encouraged to share food that might be unusual to the refugees, such as parsnips and swede.

“Being able to include the refugees from Comfrey Project Community Gardeners reflects the collaborative nature of Gateshead residents. We’ve worked with people from Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Ukraine, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Hong Kong and the UK.”

Christine Wright, RHS Community Outreach Advisor

Plans for the future

One of the most recent parts of this project is a food harvest and storage project, in collaboration with the Comfrey Project, Bensham Court, The Chev Gateshead (a charity that works with young people from the Jewish community in Bensham) and Dingy Butterflies (a social enterprise developing creative community projects).

Participants will learn about food preservation techniques from different cultures and understand which dried foods are traditionally important to each group. This will help groups to plan which crops they will grow next season, and how they can share excess produce with residents of Gateshead in the form of vegetable mixes and dried produce, ready for putting into soups and stews. This is particularly important with the cost of living crisis and can reduce the use of freezers and ovens as it means people can use their kettles to make a nutritious meal.

“We are looking forward to the future when the allotment is finished and we can connect with the local school and have social prescribing activities delivered by the nearby NHS GP practice.”

Christine Wright, RHS Community Outreach Advisor

Visit our community outreach web page to find out more about our projects.

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