Story by Russ Grayson, June 2015
Citizen-initiated food systems could get a funding boost if recommendations coming from a NSW state government proposal get a favourable reception by the environment minister and departmental decision makers.
The proposal comes from the work of consultants, Roz Hopkins Muller Enterprise, who carried out research into community food systems for the NSW Environment Trust, a quasi-independent operation of the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH). The Trust administers an annual grant scheme open to community and educational organisations as well as local government, and has a focus on environmental improvement.
Community food systems the focus
The Trust launched the project to assess new funding opportunities for community food systems, and since its launch I have been a member of the advisory panel for the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA). Other advisory team members include Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network president, Jane Mowbray, the Royal Botanic Gardens Community Greening program assisting community food producers in social housing, local government, the UNSW Faculty of the Built Environment and others.
Any funding scheme eventually coming from the project will exclude food waste projects as that is already the focus of the state government’s Love Food Hate Waste program. It will also exclude assistance to food enterprises based on a business model, such as small, for-profit food businesses as well as not-for-profit social enterprises like community supported agriculture and food co-ops, as they are outside the terms of reference of community-based enterprises.
I tried to have social enterprise included as they are a distribution model with the social goal of access to good food, any operating excess going back into the enterprise rather than being distributed as profit, however my attempt was unsuccessful on account of their operating as businesses.
I accepted the invitation to participate on the panel as I believe this is where AFSA can do good work and influence outcomes. It might be behind-the-scenes type of work but that, rather than campaigning, is often where change can best be influenced because it allows us to focus less on what we would oppose and more on what we want to see happen.
The four community food systems likely to benefit include community gardening, food swaps, edible streetscaping and home gardening, which is growing food in home gardens for distribution via swapping or selling along the lines of the NSW Blue Mountain community enterprise, Crop & Swap.
The survey carried out by the consultants found that the main motivator for participation in community food gardens to be environmental improvement. Social interaction and access to good food also figured. Improving environments figured when I did research for a local government policy directions document some years ago, however the lead reason for participation I found to be access to good food followed by social interaction and learning.
Interestingly, the research found that participation in community gardening has increased the sharing of knowledge to a high degree among gardeners, significantly enlarged their social circles, dramatically increased the practice of composting food and green wastes (to produce garden fertiliser) and made many aware of the ‘food miles’ issue of transporting food over long distances.
Naming something ‘community’ does not automatically mean access, it was found. Access to community initiatives, like community food systems, is influenced by proximity, transportation and so on. It’s much like the realisation in the fair food movement with its criticism of Australia’s supermarket duopoly, that in some areas there is no alternative to the supermarket as a source of food, and what is needed are ideas on how to buy less-processed, more nutritious foods in the supermarkets.
In identifying the existence of a social movement around community-produced food the researchers found it to be fragmented, with participants restricted to their ‘silos’ of community gardening and other areas. There is little cross-communication between the silos. I think this fragmentation is real, having seen it myself.
There are many reasons spanning a lack of time to share and communicate outside of the particular community food circle, a focus only on community gardening especially where gardeners are new and learning, a monofocus on home gardening without connection to other home gardeners or gardening organisations, a focus on localism that ignores the larger community food picture and of the social and political contexts the practice exists within.
What has come from the project — the research was national in scope — is the realisation that there is a significant community food movement but it lacks cohesive leadership.
One of the few moves in that direction comes from the national educational, advocacy and networking organisation, the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network. The Network has engaged in advocacy to protect the practice of community agriculture and has represented it in the media and in government. It is sectoral, though, focusing only on community growing, school gardens and closely related activity.
The national, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance offers a broad representation to its diverse membership that includes farmers, food distributors, community gardeners and others, however it is not a leadership focusing specifically on the community food sector. There would likely be potential to assume such leadership were the Alliance to set up an initiative specifically to do that, much as it set up a farmers’ group — Fair Food Farmers United.
Any representative organisation that evolves to represent the nascent community food sector would necessarily include the commercial, social enterprise organisations that seek to fulfil social goals through a not-for-profit business model. Community supported agriculture schemes and food co-operatives are the dominant types of food social enterprise in Australia.
These are important parts of the broader community food system that focus on the distribution side of the urban food supply chain. They are important to those without time, inclination or opportunity to garden their food. Importantly, community supported agriculture enterprises like Brisbane Food Connect, Ooooby and CERES Fair Food in Melbourne link urban eaters directly to farmers in the region, developing through practical experience a regional food economy and giving practical expression to just what is local food.
It’s about volunteers
The community food sector, that around community gardening, food swaps, networked home gardeners distributing their produce beyond the back yard, and even the school food gardens that have become popular since first being developed and promoted in the 1990s by the permaculture design movement, is the work of volunteers.
These initiatives extend the great Australian tradition of voluntarism into food provisioning. While home gardening is an Australian tradition that was scaled up through the Gardens for Victory campaign during the Second World War, it is only since the first community garden was established in Melbourne in the late 1970s that food production has taken a sustained community focus.
The Environment Trust research disclosed what those involved in community organisations, especially those managing them, have known for years — voluntarism is a practice limited by volunteer time and skills. Researchers found that the number of good ideas offered by volunteers exceeds the capacity of voluntary organisations to implement them. Organisations relying on volunteers risk losing them when volunteers find their good ideas cannot be followed through because voluntary organisations don’t have the time, funds or capability to do so.
This raises the question of capacity, familiar to community organisations. It’s a well-worn word in the world of community organisations and NGOs and refers to the availability of time, skills, funds and inclination to get the job done. It’s accurate to say that it is the lack of capacity that limits the potential of voluntary organisations and even some NGOs with paid staff. The researchers have looked at ideas to extend the capacity of organisations, including that of educating members in running organisations.
There would be much to be done to improve to implement some of the ideas coming from the proposals. Local government approaches to edible streetscaping and planting edibles on public land is much in need of reform, including policy that covers regions larger than just local government areas. The idea of incentivising councils to develop more permissive and coherent policy came up.
Another topic raised was the undemocratic practice of councils in allowing vexatious individuals to block community initiatives even when more people support them than oppose. This, too, would require reform and democratising if community food initiatives are to be enabled. Although it wasn’t mentioned specifically, there is the associated potential for precinct committees, where they exist, to block community food initiatives. Critics say that precinct committees often devolve into cliques of NIMBYs — the conservative Not In My back Yard crew who seek to control what is done on public land and who can limit the opportunity for innovative new landuses.
In some ways food is a safe area for government to venture into, however it is also a conflicted area with its own politics. That politics reflects the makeup of the movement and touches upon food security and poverty, the market dominance of the supermarket duopoly, farming systems, urban landuse and local government, the GMO issue and government policy. Discussion among the advisory panel was about how the Environment Trust scheme, if it eventuates, would represent not the campaigning side of food politics but those organisations actively building the community-based food systems as the fair food future they want to see.
That a state government body has taken the initiative to commission research on, and bring together an advisory panel of community food systems signifies that the practice has moved from the innovative urban fringe into the social mainstream. Now, we wait to see what comes from the government and minister’s office.