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PacificEdge | July 24, 2017

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Food Connect pioneer at TransitionSydney’s Cafe Conversations

Russ Grayson

Story & photos: Russ Grayson

IF YOU EVER WANTED EVIDENCE that community food systems are riding the wave of the future, you need look no further than Food Connect. Brisbane’s premier community food system, Food Connect now boasts  around 75 core and 30 peripheral farmers supplying fresh, regionally-grown food to something like 1000 city subscribers.

Bringing the good news to those at the first of the TransitionSydney Cafe Conversations at Glebe’s Fair Trade Cafe was Robert Pekin, coordinator of the ambitious social enterprise. He reported that, despite the recession, trading has increased by 86 percent this past year, yielding something like $50,000 turnover a week.

Approximately 80 percent of participating farmers from 12 geographical bioregions in the Brisbane hinterland  are organic, with around 65 percent of those certified organic. Others produce organically but have chosen to remain outside the certification scheme. Asked what will happen to them when the Australian Standard for organic products is introduced later this year — it could make difficult the use of the term ‘organic’ for uncertified products — Robert said that there is probably sufficient trust between farmers and city subscribers for them to have faith that what they are receiving in their boxes of produce has been ethically produced. According to Robert, produce comes from both mixed and specialist farms, such as those specialising in watermelon or pumpkin.

Robert pekin of Food Connect.

Robert Pekin of Food Connect.

Making connections

Food Connect does just that — it connects producers — ‘country cousins’ — with eaters in the city. Weekly boxes of fresh produce are delivered to 75 distribution points around Brisbane from which the ‘city cousins’, usually private households, collect their boxes of fresh, local foods. This type of community food system is known as a CSA — Community Supported Agriculture — and it is popular in Japan, the USA and the UK.

And who buys from Food Connect? According to Robert’s partner, Emma-Kate Rose, it has been the early adopters in society. Now, though, it has spread to new demographics such as those 25 to 45 years old. Food Connect members include a high number of females and younger professionals.

This reinforces the observation based on participants in the Randwick City Council Sustainable Gardening and Living Smart courses that it is people with young families who are the early joiners because they are concerned about their children’s health and the type of world they will inherit. Emma works as Food Connect’s Community Animator, stimulating and working with members and the larger community.

Pricy organics? Not from Food Connect

What about price? Organic food has a reputation for being expensive.

It’s need not be so, says Robert. He estimates the price of organic food through Food Connect averages 80 percent that of similar food sold in Coles. This, while at the same time Food Connect’s farmers receive around two to three times their usual rate. According to Robert, business decisions are made based on the Permaculture design principles.

So, what has Robert and Emma — and their Food Connect colleagues — learned about food systems?

First, the CSA model works in Australia

Second, the surprising lesson was that it is unwise to rely on volunteers. All of the 40 people that work at Food Connect are paid, both full and part-time staff. This — and paying staff well — makes for a more reliable operation, says Robert.

How to start a CSA

Robert recommends assessing the local food scene before venturing into the development of a CSA. Know what existing organisations are doing, he says.

Next step — get a core group together, perhaps six to ten people, and find funding.

Then it’s time to recruit members and find farmers in the region.

Robert recommends being ready for your first delivery within two to three months. From there, it’s a matter of scaling up.

Cafe Conversations

The TransitionSydney Cafe Conversation attracted a range of people with varying interests in food. Included among participants was Julian Lee, who is planning a Food Connect replication in the city, a peson from Sydney Organic Buyers, a community food buying group supplying what they call “affordable organic food” in Leichhardt, Kirribilli and Randwick.

Other participants of note include David Arnold from Violet Town in Victoria. David produces the annual permaculture calendar and diary. Others in attendance included Michele Margulis, who lives in Sydney’s Inner West and who is developing an edible home garden. She had just installed a large rainwater tank before coming to the TransitionSydney Cafe Conversation. Tanya, another of the young women at the Cafe Talk, assists at Thoughtful Foods, the UNSW food cooperative that is open to the general public. Others included TransitionSydney’s Peter Driscoll, two young US women, one researching the transition movement in Australia, and Randick Council’s Sustainability Education Office, Fiona Campbell.

There will be more TransitionSydney Cafe Conversations and they will be notified on the TransitionSydney website.

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