Hard to believe that only a few decades ago, London was the last otherwise-cosmopolitan place people would connect with good food. Now it boasts some of the best restaurants in the world, several superlative markets, and some really bloody interesting local-foods initiatives trumpeted forth by pioneering feminist, outspoken political powerhouse and enfant terrible Rosie Boycott.

Recently designated Chair of London Food, Mayor Boris Johnson’s new “food czar,” Boycott is a former journalist turned farmer (her very funny article on her experience as a new farmer is here) who has made it her personal mission to fill every possible empty space in London with a vegetable garden. The plan is to turn 2,012 derelict pieces of London land into food gardens by 2012, when the Olympics come to town. Some of the bits they’ve already started gardening include a housing estate in Brixton, a large private residential garden in Morden, and a resettlement prison in Richmond that will teach its inmates to grow food and serve it in the canteen (Cathrine Sneed’s model).

According to an article in the Guardian,

[Boycott] has a 'green grid plan' to create allotment gardens in hospitals, prisons, schools and vacant lots. There is, she says, 'an army already there, lots of incredibly interesting small projects - like What-if, who grow plants in builder's bags and install them in neglected spaces, or the Women's Environmental Network, who have created gardens on housing estates in Tower Hamlets so that ethnic minority women can grow their own food.
 Boycott envisions “food hubs,” local markets where smaller producers can connect with big customers: schools, caterers, food manufacturers, hospitals, and restaurants. The food hubs might have commercial kitchens that would allow some food processing, and a broker would facilitate the interactions between the producers and customers. She wants more school kids to visit farms and hopes to make food a more important part of the curriculum.

According to Boycott, there are more people in prison than there are farmers left to farm. “Not only do we need to re-skill people as gardeners,” she writes, “we also need to examine how we use the spaces in our cities to ensure that we have a chance of freeing ourselves from our current dependency on multinationals who have their shareholders’ interests at heart—not the most basic needs of a nation, and of a planet.”

With hopes for a genuinely progressive ag secretary dashed, could president-elect Obama name a food czar for the US?  Someone this cool?

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December, 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Rosie Boycott: London's "food czar"
Rosie Boycott's mission: Fill every possible empty space in London with a vegetable garden.