Community, commonality and creativity: social innovation and education

During a time when the national media seems full of reports of anger, fear and tectonic shifts in macro level discourse, it is timely to remember that ‘top down’ policy is not the only factor that determines our existence and experiences. Based in Leeds, I am fortunate to work with a range of social initiatives that seek to change the world from a grassroots, ‘bottom up’ perspective, and from my position I see optimism, impact and proactive passion. According to Leeds City Council, ‘Leeds is the UK’s fastest growing city with a £56 billion economy, a combined population of 3 million and a workforce of 1.5 million’, and they forecast that in the coming ten years the regional economy will ‘grow by 25%’.1 According to the Visit Leeds website, ‘Leeds is a delight to explore and ripe for discovery. A compact and vibrant city centre, attracting visitors for its world class live music, sport, cultural heritage, shopping and fabulous food and drink’.2 As a Leeds resident I do not dispute this, and I hope that the 26 million day visitors attracted to the ‘Knightsbridge of the North’3 find their expectations met. However, this glossy portrayal does little to illuminate the grit that underpins the grass roots, and jack boots, associated with the region. For that I now turn to four people in Leeds that are changing the not-so-palatable experiences that surround them. Adam Smith was so appalled at the amount of food wasted across the globe, he returned to his native Leeds to launch The Real Junk Food Project. Knowing that approximately one third of all food produced ends up in landfill, for the past four years, Adam has ensured he has done all he can to prevent edible food being wasted. In doing so he has put into practice an alternative economic model that centres on community, sustaining the environment and challenging the destructive nature of disposable consumerism. Initially Adam opened a pay-as-you-feel café in Armley, where food that would otherwise have been wasted was cooked and served by volunteers and offered to the local community. Those that ate paid in whatever way they could; some with money, others with their time and labour. Here the inclusive diners were not means-tested, as the mission to eradicate unnecessary waste can be championed by individuals from every facet of society, and in this community the ambassadors eat together. The success of this venture led to the organic development of an international network of 110 cafes. Agreements with a range of supermarkets means that unsold food can be collected and used if viable. The network has so far saved over 107,000 tons of food from waste, and has delivered more than 90,000 meals to over 60,000 people. Not content with one surplus-saving model, Adam has now opened a pay-as-you-feel supermarket. Although similar surplus-supermarket models are opening in other parts of the world, this is the first in England, and again it is pioneered in Leeds. From a warehouse in Pudsey, the take-what-you-want and pay-as-you-feel offer is made to those who are willing to use this service to help eliminate waste. Whilst eliminating waste is a priority for this organisation, there is no doubt that a secondary benefit is the increased availability of cheaper food for local low income residents who may be struggling in the current economic climate. But what happens if you live in an area of Leeds that has been designated a ‘food desert’, where there are no shops, no supermarkets and few local amenities? Despite the ‘over-all’ descriptions provided at the beginning of this piece, Leeds does contain communities that would struggle to see themselves reflected accurately in them. However, within some of the most challenging environments, social innovation, creative solutions and personal drive are empowering and inspiring change. Richmond Hill Primary School is based in the Hunslet area of Leeds, and its catchment is such that pupil premium funding is used to support the development of many of the children in its care. Recognising the ‘food desert’ surrounding the school and acknowledging that children were coming to school hungry, the Head Teacher, Nathan Atkinson, decided that the physical needs of his pupils required addressing before academic development could effectively take place. To combat this, he liaised with The Real Junk Food Project and sourced surplus food to continuously provide a no-cost breakfast for each of the 600 pupils at the school. This had a positive effect on children’s behaviour, concentration levels and ultimately has raised the educational attainment across the school. Mr Atkinson furthered this achievement through the creation of a community pay-as-you-feel café within the school grounds, and invited the local residents to use it as a recreational space. In doing so, he has created an inviting space where children, parents and families can communicate positively. The café can be accessed by anyone in the community, and is open throughout the year (for security reasons access to this facility does not provide access to the teaching spaces within the school). Despite providing breakfast for hundreds of pupils and running the community café, there is still more surplus food to be disposed of than these ventures can handle. One consequence is that Richmond Hill provides a daily ‘Market Stall’ at the front of the school, with an Honesty Box to collect the pay-as-you-feel contributions. The success of this venture, and a desire to educate others, resulted in Fuel for School being developed out of a partnership between The Real Junk Food Project and Richmond Hill Primary School. This initiative has three key objectives:

to remove hunger as a barrier to learning to highlight the importance of nutrition, well-being and the associated benefits to learning to highlight the vast amounts of edible wasted food across our local and wider communities.

Fuel for School is currently working with over 35 primary schools in the Leeds area, and twice a week delivers surplus food to them. The schools themselves determine the most productive way to use the food whether it be breakfast club activities, used as ingredients for cooking classes, or presented on a market stall within the school grounds. Service level agreements ensure that each school is visited by Fred the Fox (the official mascot of Fuel for School who embodies the values Feed, Recycle, Educate, Dine), and each school is provided with a range of educational resources designed to improve well-being. The demand for this has increased, and Fuel for School is about to begin exciting ventures with the secondary schools and universities in the area. Recently Kevin Mackay from the Fuel for School project was invited by Professor Damien Page Dean of the Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University, to meet with students studying on the BA Education Studies programme. The visit marked the beginning of a series of collaborations, where students and staff are involved in the design and delivery of a number of educational resources and activities to support the Fuel for School project. Kevin described the mission of each of the projects presented above, and extended an invitation for student involvement. The issues raised clearly resonated with the students, who were enthusiastic to participate in such ventures. As I observed at the beginning of this article, Leeds is a beautiful and vibrant city. It has a rich heritage and a relatively buoyant economy. However, the real wealth is in the people: their passion, their resilience, their creativity and their sheer determination. Some places will never be cited on the ‘must see’ lists of Leeds, but the value of these places and the people who occupy them contribute significantly to the culture and future of the city. As a Loiner I am proud to be part of a community that embraces difference, extends friendship and works together to enhance the well-being of all.

Anne Temple Clothier

1 Leeds City Council, 18 November 2016, 2 Visit Leeds, 18 November 2016, 3 Lonely Planet Guide, 18 November 2016,