Lucy Clark is the Programme Director (and a Food and Wellbeing Grower) at MindFood, an Ealing-based food-growing charity that helps people who are struggling with stress, depression or anxiety.
We spoke to Lucy to find out more about MindFood and how nature and gardening can help wellbeing.
Please could you tell us a bit about MindFood?
MindFood is a tiny mental health charity with two sites in Ealing. We teach people food growing, alongside tips and techniques to improve wellbeing – so things like mindfulness and self-care. We run sessions six days a week.
Absolutely everyone starts by doing ‘Growing Wellbeing’, it’s sort of like a foundation course, so everyone starts from the same point. In fact, our entire team started as MindFood participants! You take home the food you’ve helped grow – If we have surplus food, we’ll try and share with organisations like the local food club.
And then you get a free trip to Kew Gardens to really cement your relationship with nature. If, after those six weeks, people find that it’s working for them, we offer gardening sessions that are just about growing and recovering. We also have Grow + Create, which is for 18 to 24 year olds in particular.
People can recover in their own time with us, which we think is incredibly important. And we are very keen to tell people that recovery isn’t a linear thing. You may have your ups and downs.
You may even find you don’t need MindFood for a while – but it’s good to know we’re here, and that if you have a blip there’ll be someone who knows what it’s like not to be able to get out of bed for a month and still feel tired or to just be resistant to everything. People know that they’ll always get a welcome.
MindFood seems very accessible – I read on your website about not having to pick up the phone to an unknown number, for example…
Yes! Because we all started at MindFood, we’ve necessarily co-produced everything. We know that if you’re not feeling good… I mean, I STILL don’t race to pick up the phone to an unknown number!
Often people find that everything about them is telling them to beware of people they don’t know. So we build trust at an early stage – I’ll tell people a bit about myself and my own experience of mental ill-health. They can say nothing about themselves if they like, but it helps them to know they’re not the only one. And when people come to the plot, they realise they’re not alone.
So how did you get involved with MindFood?
I got involved with MindFood when I was completely frazzled, burnt out, and struggling with depression. I just happened to come across MindFood and I wasn’t sure what it was all about.
I think when you’re struggling with your mental health you often feel hypervigilant, and resistant to most things… so I didn’t necessarily think it was going to change my life. But within three weeks I decided I never wanted to work indoors ever again! And then I retrained in horticulture and horticultural therapy.
That’s amazing! What’s horticultural therapy?
At MindFood we just call ourselves Food and Wellbeing Growers because it sounds less fancy. It’s basically just about helping people through gardening!
I’m definitely not the best gardener and I’m surrounded by people who’ve got tons and tons more experience. So I’m not going to say I’m an expert, but I love learning, and nature does a pretty good job of surviving in spite of humans anyway!
I trained in social and therapeutic horticulture with an organisation called Thrive. You choose a specialist group to support – I chose people struggling with their mental health – and you work through a load of research on it and present a calendar of events for those people! I was very lucky because the MindFood role became available just as I got my award so I got to put it all straight into practice.
Why are there so many links between gardening and wellbeing? How does nature make a difference?
So nature offers things that help settle a busy a busy brain:
Escape, because as soon as you’re in nature, you’re a world away from all the pressures of everyday life.
Extent, which means that it’s an endless subject, so you can never run out of things to learn.
And soft fascination. When you look around in nature, you can usually see small movements and small changes that draw your eye in. They kind of coax your attention as opposed to making you focus in an urgent way, and that’s very settling.
If you think nature’s going to work for you, then it definitely will. And if you get to the end of six weeks and think ‘I just really hate nature’? It can happen! Then you need to find something else that’s going to give you escape, extent, and soft fascination. They can be had in music and literature, for example!
Because nature is already doing this amazing thing, helping people slow down, we find that they’re then in the right frame of mind to start thinking about messages about self-care that they’ve probably known about but haven’t felt able to get on with.
I’m guessing you had to adapt a lot when the pandemic hit. Could you tell us what you did?
We’re about reconnecting people with nature and building a sense of community… so we had to figure out how to deliver that without the plot.
So we started delivering food growing kits to people and having pep talks online. We also developed MindFood at Homeso people could do a refresher of their mental health self-care. It’s still there for people who can’t get to our sites.
When people’s seedlings grew, they quickly realised that they didn’t have room for all their tomato plants! When were able to get back onto the plot (we were outside and we had a two metre rule – literally a ruler that we brandished), we potted them up and gave them away to about 10 schools. Last year we gave plants to 19 schools and alternative provisions.
This year, we’re aiming for 20 schools. As part of that, we’re running a Grow Some Share Some event on the 23 April.
What’s happening at Grow Some Share Some? What can people expect?
It’s going to be a fairly organic event. We’re just saying that if you’ve sown a whole packet of seeds and don’t need them all, bring the seedlings – as they are – and we’ll pot them up.
We don’t usually run sessions for children, but we’ll have a little growing station for families. And we’re hoping to give away a little plant to everyone who brings some seedlings!
So people will have a chance to look around, pick up a leaflet, and have a little chat about stuff and how rubbish things can be sometimes. It also means that people know where to find us if they ever need us.