This article is part of a new series by Wicked Leeks, Sustainable Cities, exploring what sustainable food means to those living in the city, where to find it and how to best connect with where it comes from.
Eating sustainably is a huge step towards taking action against climate change but it can be hard to find the time, especially in the rush and urgency of the city. Below is our guide to where to start – comment below or share your own ideas for where to find sustainable food in the city and then help spread the word.
Sustainable restaurants come in all shapes and sizes. Some put seasonality and provenance at the centre of the plate, and some are zero waste. If you’re on a budget, consider community cafés or pay as you feel restaurants that serve vegetarian meals and use up surplus veg while tackling issues like food poverty and homelessness.
Tip: Find over 7,000 sustainable restaurants all across the UK here.
On weekends, thousands of small-scale farmers and food producers brave the city to offer their seasonal fare straight from the farm with no middlemen and fewer food miles. It’s a chance to connect with the provenance of food and inspire some creative cooking. It may seem expensive, but buying direct from the farmer supports rural livelihoods as they keep a greater percentage of the cost.
Tip: It’s not often you come across a farmer in the city, so why not ask them where they’ve come from, why things cost what they do, what is their farm like and do they use any pesticides? Find out where your nearest farmers’ market is here.
Greengrocers and independents
Independent grocery stores and refill shops are more permanent than a farmers’ market and you don’t have to restrict your shopping to the weekend. Good greengrocers are passionate about seasonality and are experts on produce, so tap into this source of knowledge and ask them about what’s good at this time of year, while refill shops are the easiest to go plastic free.
Tip: Remember to bring a bag because the produce tends to come loose.
Supermarkets don’t have a good reputation when it comes to sustainability. Their complex supply chains and huge power means farmers get a bad deal, and it favours intensive methods of production. If it’s the only option, and in the city this can be the case, avoid single-use plastic by sticking to the loose produce and keep an eye out for fresh produce on offer to help reduce waste. Buying organic is always a guarantee that food has been produced without harmful chemicals.
Tip: A good sign that something is in season is when there’s plenty of it, so keep an eye out for mass displays at the front of stores.
Urban farming exists in different forms, from high tech vertical farming to city farms that distribute veg boxes from produce grown in the city. Most vertical farms produce mainly salads, herbs, and microgreens available to buy or eat in high-end. They are grown in controlled conditions with no chemicals – but look for our feature on vertical farming and why it isn’t a quick fix to sustainable food. Urban farming also includes a small but vibrant patchwork of farms growing sustainable produce in and around the city (known as peri urban, or city farms), employing local people and providing green space and access to nature, as well as food growing.
Tip: There are city farms in virtually every city across the UK – look yours up and go and visit, there may be opportunities to volunteer or just realise that locally-grown food might be closer than you think.
You might feel you’re cut off from growing your own food while living in a concrete jungle, but actually it’s far from it. Helping out at a community garden or taking on an allotment is a brilliant way to create your own little green corner in the city, full of insects and fresh, healthy food. Cities can feel like a vast lonely space, but these spaces bring communities together who want to connect to food and nature. They can also provide a home for topics that go beyond simply growing food. Wolves Lane Centre and Rootz into Growing are challenging structural inequality by growing culturally appropriate food and building a network of black and minoritised growers across London.
Tip: Discover thousands of community gardens all over the UK here.
Ditch the meal deal and discover the many historical food markets all over the city. One of the best things about cities has to be the mix of people and cultures, and food markets are a great way to explore these different culinary traditions while supporting independent traders.
Tip: Borough Market and Mercato Metropolitano in London have policies to reduce food waste and single-use plastic but there’s no harm in asking a few questions. For example, how do they ensure that compostable food and drink packaging is actually going to compost or sent for incineration, and is their recycling done in the UK or overseas?
What could be more sustainable than simply picking what the natural environment has to offer? So you might not be making a full meal out of this, but whether it’s making blackberry jam or wild garlic pesto, it’s way of staying in tune with the seasons and seeing the city in a new way. If you don’t know where to start, there are plenty of online guides and social media accounts to follow, or even book an organised foraging walk. When foraging, make sure you consult expert guides before eating and enjoy in moderation.
Tip: No time to self-forage? Try home delivered wild and foraged goodies from Forage Box to bring something unusual into your day-to-day cooking.
Turn your feed into a feed
Bored of doom-scrolling through the usual rubbish? Curate your feed to connect to real food and farmers. Even if you miss the farmers’ market at the weekend, it’s a way of connecting and staying informed. From organic veg boxes to British-grown pulses, ethical dairy to grass-fed meat, there is whole world of low impact, high quality producers out there.
Tip: Follow some of these accounts to become informed and inspired on sustainable food, farming, culture and politics.
Subscribe to Vittles, a pioneering newsletter at the intersection of food and culture, giving a platform to those not included in the traditional food media.
Pick up the Jellied Eel, London’s magazine for sustainable good food.
Listen to Farmerama, a podcast that shares the voices of regenerative farmers and their stories.
Explore Radio 4’s iconic The Food Programme, which remains one of the best places for celebrating and investigating good food.
Follow a few of these leading food and farming communicators and explore the world of sustainable farming from the comfort of your phone: James Rebanks, author and farmer from the Lake District @herdyshepherd1; Scottish regenerative livestock farmer Nikki Yoxall @nikkiyoxall; hairdresser turned shepherdess Zoë Colville, @thechiefshepherdess; organic veg box company and farmers Riverford, @Riverford.
Choose less choice
Finding and eating sustainable food can be as simple as a mindset change. Put personal preferences second for a change and make choices on different aspects. For example, you might decide to buy what is in season from the UK or Europe, in place of searching out expensive mange tout and green beans that are flown in from Kenya just because they’re on your recipe list. One reason supermarkets have so much waste is because of the vast range of products they stock; so getting used to having less choice is a hugely valuable step towards a sustainable diet. A veg box is an easy way to do this as the contents changes depending on what’s in season and available. Once you choose to shop consciously, your shopping basket or dinner options might change, but new recipe ideas and the satisfaction of sustainable eating will be a rich reward.