WHILE the winners in the Carlsberg UK Northamptonshire Food and Drink Awards 2019/20 enjoyed their deserved moment in the spotlight at November's impressive dinner (see Page 42), one very important man was sadly missing from the proceedings.
Lee Henty co-ordinates Up The Field, a community allotment project in Little Irchester which supports those with complex mental health needs and, with his own autism leading him to feeling unable to attend such a large scale, public event, he therefore wasn't present to hear his project named as the competition's Weetabix Local Food Hero of the Year.
So it was that, last month, in an Awards first, Lee received a surprise visit from Anthony Bowdidge of category sponsor Weetabix and competition director Rachel Mallows MBE, who dropped in on one of the weekly allotment sessions to present him with the winner's trophy.
The project, which was established in May 2016 by the occupational health team of the local health trust, was born out of a walking group which had identified that being outdoors, active and interacting with others were all crucial to improving mental health and, despite no longer being NHS-led, continues unfunded, thanks in no small part to Lee's efforts.
Not only does he organise the weekly sessions, thereby enabling the project to continue but he and his family have also dug deep into their own pockets to provide vital equipment, including a shed and a toilet.
It was that crucial role in ensuring the group's survival that led Anthony to want to congratulate Lee, something which he announced at the small presentation ceremony attended by some of the group's users and volunteers.
"When we came to judge the project back in October as one of six finalists in the category, it was very clear that the group makes such an enormous difference to its users, not only in bringing them together to grow fruit and vegetables but also the inevitable physical effort that entails," said Anthony.
"But it was also obvious to myself and my fellow judges that, without your personal commitment, Lee, this project simply wouldn't have continued nor have such a promising future, and that's why it gives me great pleasure to return today and give you your much deserved pat on the back."
The surprise presentation was arranged with the help of a co-founder of the original group, former Occupational Therapy Technician, Mariann French, who, despite retiring in the summer, remains as a volunteer.
It was she who accosted Lee for the informal ceremony as he was about to lead a team in putting up some fencing around the allotment, an ambush which Lee later described as rather humbling.
"With mental health issues of my own, including having spent some time in hospital, I know only too well the value of non-medical intervention, which is why, having witnessed this project change the lives of its users over the last three years, I wanted to do everything I could to see it carry on," said Lee.
"So I'm absolutely thrilled and honoured to receive the trophy but, really, I do so on behalf of all our volunteers and indeed those who come every week as they are proof that Up The Field is invaluable and absolutely must continue."
Those were sentiments echoed by one of Up The Field's users, Duncan from Rushden, whose mental health issues mean he's currently unemployed
"I've been coming along for the last couple of years and because I struggle with some social circumstances, I love that I meet up regularly with friendly faces, can be myself and have the chance to take part in allotment tasks that give me real sense of purpose and make me feel valued," explained Duncan.
"My Mum died last year and I can't tell you how much this place was a lifeline through that awful time and, even now, every session is spiritually uplifting and massively beneficial to my physical and mental wellbeing. I really don't know what I would do without it."
Up The Field, which is currently unfunded, sees around ten users with a variety of mental health issues meet each week to take part in allotment tasks, with plans for the future to include selling its fruit and vegetables and teaching its users how to create nutritional meals using their own produce.
For more details, including to pledge your support as a volunteer or to make a donation, contact Rachel Mallows in the Carlsberg UK Northamptonshire Food and Drink Awards office on 01933 664437 or email firstname.lastname@example.org