Neighbourhood Farm: Where minds, hearts and communities are grown

Justin Bonello’s latest project, encouraging children to get involved in how food is grown and break the cycle of forgetting is gaining traction.

Justin Bonello’s latest project, encouraging children to get involved in how food is grown and break the cycle of forgetting is gaining traction.

Published May 26, 2018


CAPE TOWN - Justin Bonello’s like a Jack Russell: he never stops, never slows down, and brings his A-game to the table, whether it’s learning about cooking, teaching others, or latterly inspiring city dwellers to grow their own food.

The avowed “bush cook”, television star and author of seven recipe books including “Cooked in Africa” and “Karoo, Land of Thirst” is currently filming a documentary on the last remaining 350 leopards in the Cape Fold Mountains, working on a “throwback” to his early days of cooking titled “Hooked and Cooked”, and has just celebrated the first harvest at a school in Kommetjie linked to his Neighbourhood Farm project, through which he hopes to “grow food, minds and communities”.

It’s all connected, of course: “While filming the leopard documentary, I kept coming across conflict between wild animals and domestic livestock farmers protecting their livelihood with gin traps and the like. The deeper I delved into the why, the more I realised that if I wanted to try to save the leopards from a regional extinction, my focus would have to be on that human-created biome – the city and her inhabitants – for solutions.”

Justin Bonello’s latest project, encouraging children to get involved in how food is grown and break the cycle of forgetting is gaining traction.

The urban food garden project has been in development for four years. It’s a non-profit, aimed at getting communities involved in their own food production, utilising unused land, creating local employment, giving teachers educational resources, and allowing children to connect with the Earth.

To do this, outdoor classrooms are installed at every school. These become spaces where children can learn in a tactile environment: where geography, science, biology and economics can be brought to life in a biologically diverse environment, he explains.

“Around the classroom, we design and grow a permaculture garden, complete with fruit-bearing trees, butterfly and perennial gardens, and, where possible, a natural pond to invite life back to the school.”

Securing each garden’s sustainability, the various sites will host a market garden. 

“All produce from the market garden is sold to the community, providing nutritious food, local employment, a small revenue stream and an environment that is uplifting for our children,” he says.

“In Maputo, you can eat better organic produce than in Cape Town. Rural people come into the city daily, bringing fresh, wholesome foods to market, yet in Cape Town we only have weekly fad markets. Our intention is to re-create a daily market mentality by harvesting and selling our produce daily but also creating a sales platform that other food based entrepreneurs can plug into without the overheads. The big dream is that if you have 20 surplus lemons in your garden, are a cheesemaker or bake bread, you should be able to sell it in your community and re-create the interconnectedness of the village of our collective memory. ”

Generating a small income through the daily sale of organic produce into neighbourhoods will allow for permanent employment of people from previously disadvantaged communities and the management of the project in perpetuity. 

The project currently extends to 11 schools in the Southern Peninsula and the False Bay Hospital. 

Justin Bonello’s latest project, encouraging children to get involved in how food is grown and break the cycle of forgetting is gaining traction.

“The idea behind Neighbourhood Farm is to socially re-engineer and influence the urban mindset when it comes to food and the way we live and work in cities,” he says. 

“Most of us have lost touch with our natural environments and don’t understand our true impact on the Earth or even how fix this problem. Children are growing up thinking their food comes from supermarkets, already cleaned and shrink-wrapped. They have no understanding about how their food got there or how it was grown. They have become the ‘forgetting generation’. We need to help them to remember.

“We live in cities, but don’t know how to live in them. We can no longer feed ourselves nor know to maintain our environment or how to regenerate it.” 

He believes it’s a crisis that needs to be addressed at school level, enabling children to drive the change within their communities.

“I realised that whatever I did to help us remember would have to be managed, be financially sustainable, expandable, replicate-able, focus on children (and in turn their families and the broader community), create biologically diverse environments, regenerate the fringes of the urban landscape and most importantly, do good for all of us.”

Using permaculture to design a productive and regenerative plan for the entire school property, rainwater is harvested, managed and “planted” for the project. 

“Our first focus is water security. This is especially relevant to Cape Town as it’s become a food desert in the middle of the worst drought in living memory. It’s important to remember that wherever you grow food, there is a water cost, but only where you grow food, is there food security.”

The spin-offs are all positive: in an outdoor classroom housed in a biologically rich environment, maths, science, biology, economics and geography are brought to life. And the primary focus is on the wellbeing of communities. 

“Urban farming increases social engagement, reduces crime, makes nutrient-dense produce available with a tiny carbon footprint, educates kids… the list continues.” 

At home, Bonello is proud of his chaotic organic permaculture garden, which he created “because you can’t eat grass”. 

“A series of fortunate events have led me here. We’re hoping to connect urban farmers and neighbours – re-creating an economy focussed on wellbeing rather than one driven by profit.”


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