WHEN vandals were discovered wrecking communal gardens, the organisers didn't call the police - they asked the teenagers if they wanted to help them grow food. Amazingly, they did. That enlightened, constructive approach has been adopted in North America where the community gardens movement is growing in strength. Now community gardens - which has been a success in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Ottowa - may be tried out in the North-East as part of a pioneering approach to improving our diet.

It is hoped that entire communities can be won over to support a healthy eating scheme which could help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease by as much as 40 per cent.

On the face of it, Erika O'Hara, a serious, highly-motivated Canadian academic with a winning smile, appears to be the perfect, if slightly exotic, choice to be the North-East's first Food Access Worker. With hands-on experience of similar project in Ontario and a masters degree in geography - with a special interest in food supplies - she couldn't be a better suited for the job.

Moving to the North-East from Ottowa when her husband Charles, 29, started a course at Durham University, Erika could hardly believe it when she saw the job ad. "I saw it and I thought that sounds like me. I guess you could say it is a pretty good fit," laughs Erika.

Bosses at County Durham and Darlington Health Authority agreed and appointed the 27-year-old as one of only two food access workers in England.

The post is part of an ambitious project called the Five-A-Day Community Development Initiative which is trying to encourage ordinary people to eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables as part of their daily diet.

Funded by the Department of Health, County Durham and Darlington Health Authority has appointed a small team to work in Darlington and the Durham Dales.

The food access project is part of the wide-ranging programme of events, which have included backing farmers' markets, fruit and vegetable promotions in supermarkets and a big push in schools, colleges and businesses.

Erika's job is to work with specific communities within Darlington and the Dales where access to fruit and vegetables is difficult for a number of reasons, including unemployment, low-incomes and a lack of good quality local food shops. After a process of sifting through different areas, the scheme is focusing on the Skerne Park estate in Darlington and the village communities in and around Evenwood in Teesdale and Willington in the Wear Valley. "We need to find out what shops are available, how close they are to people's homes, what are the transport options available and what is the range of groceries which is sold locally," says Erika, who started a community garden in her home area in Canada before following her husband to the UK.

"I was involved in developing a food policy for Ottowa. The approach there was not to target deprived groups but to look at working with low-income groups as part of an inclusive attitude. We were trying to develop initiatives which would integrate all members of society, it was a really exciting time," says Erika.

One of the most important lessons was to ensure good communications between the professionals and the people on the ground.

"I had great fun and my experience was that community gardens were a great place where people from different backgrounds could get together to talk about gardening, food and recipes," recalls Erika. While culture shock would be putting it to strong, Erika is also coming to terms with the subtle differences between Canada and England. "There are a lot of similarities with Canada but I think there might be less of an understanding in England among higher income groups about the problems that lower income groups face," she says. Canadians don't tend to eat as much fried food as the British and Erika suspects that class divisions are more permanent over here. "The class system in England seems to be more rigid, there seems to be less mobility than in Canada," she says.

If she is successful in the North-East and it can be shown that the diet of the target communities has improved, the scheme could be rolled out to other parts of the UK where access to healthy food is not ideal.

Despite her formidable qualifications and her practical experience back in Canada, Erika is adamant that the ideas have got to come from local people.

"What we do has got to be sustainable and has to last for a long time. I am beginning to go into these areas and meet people. I take a very humble approach, I don't like to go into an area and say I am the expert on food access," says Erika. "I am not there to tell them what to do, I am there to serve them. Anything they think is a priority in terms of food and nutrition I am there to help them with."

Her approach is to build partnerships in each community and gather information on similar projects in the UK. While she has a number of ideas, she is keeping her options open. "I want the communities to decide themselves what they want to do." Some of the ideas include a community caf, a breakfast or luncheon club, an after-school club, growing food or joining a community garden. Other ideas include the possibility of setting up a food co-operative, a price discounting scheme involving local retailers, a way of distributing food to people's homes and improved transport. Cookery classes, recipe books and nutrition workshops are also being looked at.

Initially, Erika is out and about trying to assess what the problems are in each area. While Skerne Park is a sprawling urban housing estate, rural communities such as Evenwood and Willington present different problems and opportunies. "At Skerne Park they already have a community caf, a luncheon club and soon there is gong to be a breakfast club. The area also has a small allotment area," she says. While she acknowledges community gardens tend to work better where people don't have access to private gardens - a reason why they are thriving in big American cities - it is still an area she is very interested in.

"It has really taken off in the States. In Philadelphia they now have thousands of community gardens where they are growing their own vegetables," she says.

Erika is still getting to know people in the North-East, but she is impressed at the friendly reception she has had, and she is hoping that her ideas will bear fruit.