May Project Gardens is a grassroots organisation working from a permaculture-designed garden in Morden, London. Through facilitating food growing, exercise, meditation and cooking, and their youth programme, Hip Hop Garden, May Project Gardens supports community building and economic empowerment for young people in the area.
During the lockdown, with many other community services closed, May Project Gardens stepped up their operations. They sent supplies of food, laptops and musical instruments to the young people they were working with, in an effort to combat loneliness and mental health problems exacerbated by being confined indoors.
“May Project Gardens gives people who have had a tough existence a chance to be introduced to a much more nurturing, comforting, creative and community based way of life, through connecting to nature in an urban environment,” explains Mona Bani, one of the directors of May Project Gardens. Many of the young people the organisation has been working with recently are refugees and asylum seekers who have come to the UK alone—a project the organisation has been delivering in partnership with Help Refugees.
Throughout the pandemic, qualities that the small organisation previously saw as obstacles have become the foundations for its resilience. “By not operating in very mainstream ways and not relying heavily on a mainstream system, when that system crashed, there wasn’t much that changed for us,” Mona said. “We already didn’t have offices, we already did our work from our own homes, and had our team meetings online. What changed was that the demand of the young people increased. We couldn’t do all our usual activities, we had to find more ways to connect with them. Our capacity became quite stretched.”
Many of the young people that May Project Gardens work with are dealing with mental health issues and insecure housing situations. “A lot of them live in these impersonal, precarious shared housing units,” Mona said, “[It is] an environment that’s not very homely and pleasant. Many of them, before Covid, would have been staying out as much as they could, and now they are really confined to that space. These boys battle a real array of very serious mental health issues because of the things they’ve seen. On an average day they would be trying to stay busy, see their friends, and suddenly they’re in their thoughts all the time. A lot of them relied a lot on the services around South London, but of course all of these services closed.”
Mona spoke of the digital exclusion many people have been experiencing in the last few months, “A lot of them didn’t even have laptops. This idea that everything goes online and you access it there was a massive issue,” she said. In many cases, May Project Gardens sourced laptops for their young people, superseding slow and ineffective council and government initiatives to do so.
Given the complex needs of their young people, May Project Gardens decided to reopen their garden space in May, but Mona knew they had to strike a balance between ensuring physical safety and promoting mental wellbeing, a difficult task given the uncertainty at the time.
“These boys still need something, they still need some element of human company,” Mona explained. “I struggled with it, because these kids have survived things that we can’t imagine. That’s not to say that they should be put in danger now, but they are resilient, and they are sharp. If they want to spend time together because they’re going crazy, I don’t know how much I want to say no to that.”
Throughout the second half of the lockdown, the garden space was opened up on Sundays, to be used as a place for people to meet each other, find stillness and relaxation, or channel their energy into work. “We got some of them some gardening work and some clearance work,” Mona said, “and it meant they got to be outdoors, and they got to earn a bit of money.”
May Project Gardens’ skill for inviting a wide range of people into the space of gardening and food is exemplified by their youth programme, Hip Hop Garden. The six month long, AQA-accredited course gives young people employability skills, confidence and good mental and physical health using Hip Hop, “a culture that they know, recognise, respect and enjoy.”
At the core of the programme is the use of nature to foster young people’s creativity, something that is particularly important for people living in cities: “They’re not just going to go and live on a farm in Devon. It’s about finding the synergy between nature and urban environments,” Mona said.
Hip Hop Garden includes a food module, which covers cooking, food growing and food history. Students learn about food sovereignty and how to pursue a career in the food industry, crucial knowledge given the lack of racial and social diversity throughout the sector.
The programme also gives students skills which enable them to become economically empowered. Mona recounted the experience of running Hip Hop Garden with a group of 11-12 year old boys in Brixton, who for their final project ran a pop-up café. “You had your gentrified Brixton hipsters coming in, and they bought their food from these boys, [who] got to cook, serve, and manage money. And then the money they made from it, they got to split and they got to use it for their youth centre. That really opened their eyes to what was possible.”
Last year, the organisation Feedback contacted May Project Gardens, asking for advice on their new eco-talent internship scheme. The scheme aims to bring racially and economically diverse voices into the sustainable food sector by setting up living wage work placements.
May Project Gardens supported one of the members of their youth programme, a young refugee, to get hired onto a summer internship placement through the scheme. They assisted him through the interview process, getting him a bike so he could travel to work for free. “The more under-resourced you are, the harder everything is,”’ Mona said. “He needed the infrastructure around him to get him to that place. Once he got the job, he was great at it.”
From around April this year, May Project Gardens were overwhelmed with offers to volunteer at the garden, a mixed blessing given how busy their small team already was. Mona expressed cautious optimism about the growing interest in their work. “All this stuff we’ve been doing for all this time, [people] now recognise as important. We’re cautious, taking the positives as they come, very aware that it could be a fad or it could be a wave,” she said.
Going forward, May Project Gardens wants to take on more staff, so that they can offer more to their young people, including holistic therapy and a broader range of educational programmes. They are also currently running a crowd-funding campaign to buy their premises outright. Currently, the organisation is run from a council flat, but the team predict an increase in the privatisation of social housing in coming years, so ensuring they have full ownership of the property is a priority. This would allow them to become more self-sufficient in light of the coming recession and inevitable consequent increase in their young people’s needs.
“We’re just beginning to build a totally eco-built and designed, clay-based outdoor classroom on the site, to expand the capacity of the site, even in bad weather,” Mona said. “The young people are going to be involved in building it, and so they will get some building accreditations in the process… But more than ever we need to have autonomy over the space that we use.”
Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/