The ultimate guide to sustainable food in the city

Finding or even thinking about sustainable food in the rush of the city is hard, so here’s our ultimate guide to help you connect to good food.

LogoThis 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.

Eating out

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.

Farmers’ markets

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

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

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.

Community gardens

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.

Food markets

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?

Urban foraging

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.

Sign up to or follow Wicked Leeks (forgive the plug) as the leading specialist magazine for sustainable food and ethical business at www.wickedleeks.com/#join and @wickedleeksmag.

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.

9 Comments

Leave a Reply

  1. You guys forgot one very awesome sustainable food project called Street Cube, in Wandsworth, which is where I have lived for 20yrs. We have never had such a fantastic project as this in all the years I’ve been here. The chefs use locally grown, organic ingredients to cook street food. Opened by Raymond Blanc, I understand they won the global award for sustainability ! It’s a fabulous project and you really should have included them in your summary! It’s right outside Southside shopping centre in wandsworth high street. In fact, I even signed up for Riverford while you were set up at Street Cube market! So you should know about these guys.! It’s a fabulous project

    0
    1. Hi we love the idea your spreading the word about sustainable foods. However you have also forgetting the zero waste shops up and down the country. I’m the owner of one in Bournemouth called Just1swap in Boscombe. And I work so hard to make sure my goods and food are all from sustainable wholesalers and also use fair trade only. There are so many of us little independents that work so so hard to ensure the customer gets the very best quality and ethics across the board. So please do give us a nod as I think we deserve a mention too. Many thanks.

      0
    2. Hi Ellen, for this guide we hoped to do a rough overview of each sector. But thanks for your message, we’re always happy to receive ideas and we’ve now included zero waste shops in the greengrocer section.

      0
    3. Yes I know Street Cube and Pascal who runs it, he’s a character isn’t he! Definitely will get in contact for our feature on eating out on a budget – seems like a good fit.

      Do you know what their sourcing policy is like?

      0
  2. I used to forage; I used to have an allotment; I gave up the car. No public transport will take me near enough to any source of elderberries, bilberries, sloes etc. I miss the exercise and the open air. I am fearful of foraging alone for bilberries at the edge of a wood where they grow round here. I do have some soft fruit bushes in pots in the back yard. Any suggestions anyone for a senior citizen (aka ‘old lady’)?

    0
    1. I know, how cool – I was so intrigued when I was researching the piece that I signed up for a box. I’ve got sea purslane coming this month. Apparently, it’s a crunchy salty leaf that is foraged in coastal areas – great in pasta or raw. Anyway I’m pretty excited to get stuck in and will definitely push me to cook some new things, especially nice to have some inspiration during these drab winter months.

      0
  3. What I hope is a useful reply for Blackbird is ‘sprouting’ I do this on the windowsill in my kitchen. Many seeds and beans will easily sprout. You can find how from the internet or a book.. One of my granddaughter’s favourites is lentils, green, grown, both do well, chick peas, alfalfa, buckwheat. All good. What about small fruit trees in pots, would that work?

    I’ve also started growing ‘micro greens’ Where you soak and grow the seeds in compost, again on the windowsill. For about 2 weeks then cut and eat the seedlings

    Just buy bags from any health food shop. Seeds from a nursery. Yummy Hope this is helpful. From one senior citizen to another.

    0

In case you missed it

Community highlight

'I started what I thought would be a simple barbecue pop-up last year and thought it would be easy to source everything from close by. I quickly found that it wasn't...'

Slothy Chef on “Can sustainable food feed Britain?