A food policy for our common future
Growcom wants one. So does the Public Health Association of Australia and sustainable agriculture expert at the University of Sydney, Bill Billotti. A national food policy, it seems, is something of a catchy idea. But what kind of policy are we talking about?
Growcom’s proposal focuses mainly on big agribusiness and food exports and it is the likely form of any food policy that would come from our national capital-amid-the-sheep-farms. For small business and the rural smallholder, and for the growing number of community groups gathered around food, where would their voice be in a national policy on food?
Some might argue that a national policy should consider only macroeconomic issues and that consideration of food policy questions around urban food security, access to good, affordable food and the sustainable production of food are really matters for state and local government policy. A counter-argument says that national policy should set the broad agenda on these questions that would be implemented through state and local government policy.
The recent spate of proposals for a national food policies have seemingly come out of nowhere in a very short space of time. All of those mentioned appeared within a period of three months in 2010. Yet, it is to local – not state or national – government that we must look for the genesis of food policy in this country. That was 1997 and it was the work of South Sydney Council.
Still a good model
Passed by Council, the policy – called What’s Eating South Sydney – proposed support for greater access to local retail sources of fresh foods and to self-help, community food initiatives such as food co-operatives and community food gardens. In these gardens, it was thought, people could grow some of their own perishable foods, primarily the vegetables and herbs and perhaps some fruits, that supply the nutrients needed to maintain health.
In the few years between the formulation of the policy and South Sydney Council being absorbed into the City of Sydney, the policy encouraged no food co-ops but did enable Council support to flow to community gardens in the area including those on Housing NSW’s Waterloo Estate, the first of their kind. Seeking to tap into community-based expertise, the policy enabled Council to enlist the co-operation of the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network.
South Sydney was closely followed by a food policy adopted by Penrith Council, these being, as far as is known, the first in Australia and a sign that as far back as the late 1990s people were starting to think differently about Sydney’s continued access to fresh foods. Now, local government in other states, as well as in NSW, has decided not to await federal or state food polices and to initiate their own.
After the initial flurry of innovation in the late 1990s, the idea of food policy as a means of enacting local and state food security and food access initiatives went into hiatus until it was resurrected by the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance (SFFA) in 2009. The Alliance organised an ambitious event – a food summit – spanning the months between its launch in NSW Parliament House in May to the Food Summit – known as Hungry For Change – in October.
Lead-up events were held through the Greater Sydney region to identify regional food issues and to pass action items on to the Food Summit. The lead-up event in the Illawarra, south of Sydney, was organised by Food Fairness Illawarra, an organisation that came into existence around the same time as the SFFA. Lead-ups also took place in the Blue Mountains and in the Macarthur district south-west of the city. They were supplemented by those on the Central Coast to the north and the inner urban/city east area.
Well known nutritionist, chef and author, Rosemary Stanton, was a keynote speaker at the Illawarra lead-up and Michael Shuman, visiting US economist and attorney, working for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, was keynote speaker for the inner urban/city east event at Circular Quay. That event was organised by a team from organisations active in SFFA including Leichhardt, City of Sydney, Randwick and Waverley councils, Transition Sydney and the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network. Participating in the event were representatives from the Local Food Futures Alliance on the mid-north coast around Coffs Harbour/Bellingen.
Keynote speaker at the two-day Food Summit was Jeanette Longfield from UK food education and advocacy organisation, Sustain, an effective organisation seen as something of a model by the SFFA. Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, also appeared in her role of local food system advocate.
Food as a focus for sustainability
Just as the rise of the environment movement in the 1980s saw the blossoming of a multitude of community organisations, so is the blooming of food as a social, environmental and policy issue creating a forest of organisations to take action on it.
With food choices instrumental in a household’s energy and water footprint as well as contributing to the incredible volume of food waste produced by both households and industry, the growing social milieu around food is something the established environmental lobbies seem slow to recognise, though there are exceptions such as Friends of the Earth. These new food groups are in some ways starting to supplant the earlier focus on the natural environment.
The growing social food agenda takes two forms. One is made up of the educational and advocacy groups like SFFA. The other is formed of the organisations actually going out and creating an alternative food production and distribution chain in our cities. This includes a still-small but somewhat bewildering array of initiatives as diverse as food co-ops, community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes and community gardens. In terms of legal structure, these range through incorporated associations, co-operatives and social enterprise. The latter are essentially small businesses trading as not-for-profits as well as for-profit ‘social business’. Both have primarily social goals, any operating surplus (the non-profit equivalent of profit) being poured back into the organisation rather than being distributed to shareholders or owners.
Whereas the suspicion of business by environmentalists has in some cases held back the development of the social or ethical investment movement in Australia, the business model is being embraced and repurposed towards achieving social goals around food by the small, community food system start-ups such as some food co-ops and Food Connect, an adaptation of the CSA model that makes it more resilient and viable. Making its start in Brisbane’s warm and sticky subtropics, Food Connect replications are now underway in Sydney, Adelaide and at Melbourne’s CERES centre.
The value of policy
Policy enables government at all of its levels to act on something. It enables funds, resources and staff time to be allocated and for resources to be distributed to other organisatons. This is what makes developing food policies something that is worthwhile despite the possibility of their hijacking by government and industry to serve the agendas of those groups. In this regard it will be interesting to watch the Tasmanian Food Security Council, recently formed within the Social Inclusion Unit of the Department of Premier and Cabinet and chaired by Social Inclusion Commissioner, Professor David Adams, to see how it goes about developing a food security policy for the state.
There is a suspicion among community-based food advocates that policy would simply support existing food producers and distributors, leaving little or no room for communities to help themselves or for small business, social enterprise or the rural smallholder to find a niche. Nonetheless, if the emerging community and small business/social enterprise food formations are to truly influence policy, they will have to seek creative and positive avenues to do this. And if government chooses not to listen and to open space for their participation, then those groups can make this known in their advocacy.
Wait … or go it alone?
A current discussion among the community food milieu is whether to wait for government to decide to develop a policy and seek participation in it or, alternatively, to take the proactive approach and start the process themselves in conjunction with other community, small business/social enterprise, farming and professional bodies and ask government and industry to join them.
At least, if government and industry choose not to participate, the outcome might be the development of a citizen’s food charter that puts the community/small enterprise agenda before the public and that may provide balance to any future government policy. This could become a major collaborative effort for the community/small enterprise sector were it to take it on the road and elicit public input through various approaches from the deliberative democracy toolkit.
We already have the genesis of this in the form of the SFFA’s declaration on food stemming from the October 2009 Food Summit, which the organisation presented to state parliamentarians, and the declaration that emerged from Adelaide’s Plains To Plate food convergence.
Creating a role for community food interests in government policy will require collaboration between organisations and influential individuals, but that is something that can be done if there is the will to make it happen.
* Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network, http://communitygarden.org.au
* Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, http://sydneyfoodfairness.org.au
* Food Fairness Illawarra, http://www.healthycitiesill.org.au/foodfairness.htm
* Plains To Plate Food for the Future, http://futureoffoodsa.ning.com/
* Sustain UK, www.sustainweb.org