The ultimate guide to sustainable food in the city
This article is part of a new series from Wicked Leeks, Sustainable Cities, exploring what sustainable food means to those who live in cities, where to find it, and how best to connect with where it comes from.
Eating sustainably is a big step towards act against climate change but it can be hard to find the time, especially in the hustle and bustle 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, then help spread the word.
Sustainable restaurants come in all shapes and sizes. Some put seasonality and provenance at the center of the plate, and some are zero waste. If you’re on a budget, consider community cafes or pay-per-view restaurants that serve vegetarian meals and use up surplus vegetables while tackling issues like food poverty and homelessness.
Point: Find over 7,000 sustainable restaurants across the UK here.
On weekends, thousands of small farmers and food producers brave the city to bring their seasonal dishes straight from the farm with no middlemen and fewer food miles. It’s a chance to connect with where food comes from and inspire creative cooking. It may seem expensive, but buying directly from the farmer supports rural livelihoods as they retain a higher percentage of the cost.
Point: It’s not often you meet a farmer in town, so why not ask him where he’s from, why things cost what he does, what his farm looks like and does he use pesticides? Find out where the nearest farmers market is here.
The vegetable merchants
Independent grocery stores are more permanent than a farmers market and you don’t have to limit your shopping to weekends. Good greengrocers are passionate about seasonality and are produce experts, so tap into that source of knowledge and ask them what’s good at this time of year.
Point: Don’t forget to bring a bag as products tend to come off.
Supermarkets don’t have a good reputation when it comes to sustainability. Their complex supply chains and enormous power mean farmers get a bad deal and favor intensive production methods. If this is the only option, and in town it may be, avoid single-use plastic by sticking to bulk and keep an eye out for fresh produce on offer to help reduce waste. Buying organic is always a guarantee that the food has been produced without harmful chemicals.
Point: A good sign that something is in season is when there are plenty of them, so keep an eye out for mass displays at the front of stores.
Urban farming exists in many forms, from high-tech vertical farming to urban farms that distribute boxes of vegetables from produce grown in the city. Most vertical farms primarily produce salads, herbs, and micro-vegetables available for purchase or high-end consumption. They’re grown under controlled conditions without chemicals – but look for our article on vertical farming and why it’s not a quick fix to sustainable food. Urban agriculture also includes a small but vibrant patchwork of farms growing sustainable produce in and around the city (known as peri-urban or urban farms), employing local people, and providing green spaces and access to nature, as well as the food culture.
Point: There are city farms in virtually every town in the UK – look for yours and go visit, there may be opportunities to volunteer or just realize that locally grown food might be closer than you think .
You might feel like you can’t grow your own food while living in a concrete jungle, but in reality, that’s far from the case. Helping out with a community garden or taking over a housing estate is a great way to create your own little patch of greenery in the city, full of insects and fresh, healthy food. Cities may look like a vast, solitary space, but these spaces bring together communities who want to connect with food and nature. They can also provide a home for topics that go beyond just growing food. Wolf Way Center and Rootz in growth challenge structural inequalities by growing culturally appropriate food and creating a network of black and minority producers across London.
Point: Discover thousands of community gardens across the UK here.
Ditch the meal offering and check out the many historic food markets throughout 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.
Point: Borough Market and Mercato Metropolitano in London have policies to reduce food waste and single-use plastic, but it doesn’t hurt to ask a few questions. For example, how do they ensure that compostable food and drink packaging actually gets composted or sent for incineration, and is it recycled in the UK or overseas?
Urban looking for food
What could be more sustainable than simply choosing what the natural environment has to offer? You might not make a full meal out of it, but whether it’s blackberry jam or wild garlic pesto, it’s a way to stay in tune with the seasons and see the city in a new way. If you’re not sure where to start, there are plenty of online guides and social media accounts to follow, or even book an organized foraging walk. When foraging, be sure to consult expert guides before eating and to taste in moderation.
Point: No time to feed yourself? Try Forage Box’s home-delivered wild and forage treats to bring something unusual to your daily cooking.
Turn your stream into a stream
Tired of scrolling through the usual trash? Curate your feed to connect with real food and farmers. Even if you miss the Farmers Market on the weekends, it’s a way to connect and stay informed. From cans of organic vegetables to British-grown pulses, from ethical dairy to grass-fed meat, there’s a whole world of low-impact, high-quality producers out there.
Point: Follow some of these accounts to get informed and inspired about sustainable food, farming, culture and politics.
Sign up or follow Wicked Leeks (pardon the cork) as the leading trade magazine for sustainable food and ethical business at www.wickedleeks.com/#join and @wickedleeksmag.
To subscribe to Vittlesa pioneering newsletter at the intersection of food and culture, giving a platform to those not included in mainstream food media.
pick it up Jellied eelLondon’s magazine for sustainable good food.
to listen Farmeramaa podcast that shares the voices of regenerative farmers and their stories.
Discover the emblematic of Radio 4 The food programwhich remains one of the best places to celebrate and discover good food.
Follow some of these leading food and farming communicators and explore the world of sustainable farming from the comfort of your phone: James Rebanks, author and Lake District farmer @herdyshepherd1; Scottish regenerative cattle farmer Nikki Yoxall @nikkiyoxall; hairdresser-turned-shepherdess Zoë Colville, @thechiefshepherdess; organic vegetable box company and Riverford farmers, @Riverford.
Choose fewer choices
Finding and eating sustainable foods can be as simple as changing your mindset. Put personal preferences second for a change and make choices about different aspects. For example, you might decide to buy what’s in season from the UK or Europe, instead of looking for expensive snap peas and green beans that fly in from Kenya just because they’re on on your recipe list. One of the reasons supermarkets have so much waste is the huge range of products they stock; getting used to having fewer choices is therefore an extremely valuable step towards sustainable eating. A box of vegetables is an easy way to do this as the contents change depending on what is in season and available. Once you choose to shop consciously, your shopping cart or dinner options may change, but new recipe ideas and the satisfaction of sustainable eating will pay off richly.