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Something new, something edible this way comes

SOMETHING NEW… SOMETHING EDIBLE is happening along that length of coastline that joins Brisbane to Sydney. And it has to do with something that is common to all of us—food.

It is this. As a pumpkin drops a seed that springs to life when the time is right, or perhaps in the manner of rabbits, Food Connect is reproducing itself, virally. The contagion spread first to the greater metropolis of Sydney, then to the lesser metropolis of Coffs Harbour, which Sydneysiders would know is located somewhere between Newcastle and Byron Bay.

Brisbane Food Connect's Robert Pekin, ex-farmer and uirban food systems specialist
Brisbane Food Connect’s Robert Pekin, ex-farmer and urban food systems specialist

In Sydney, the contagion found a fertile environment for its reproduction in the minds of Julian Lee and Tsung Zu, two young guys with the type of innovative mindset we need in the new century. These two are not strangers to community food systems. Julian started the Sydney Organic Buyers group that one participant described as being her way of obtaining “affordable organic food”. That scheme quickly spread from its base in Kirribilli to infect people in the Inner West and the Eastern Suburbs.

Julian is also a biodynamic market gardener (and a graduate of PacificEdge’s one-time Permaculture Design Course in urban systems) who has supplied people in Singleton with boxes of fresh, seasonal produce straight from his fertile soils. Tsung, an economics graduate, helped organise the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance’s Food Forum in Custom House, Circular Quay in mid-2009.

Now, the two have got together to create something new in the city — Sydney Food Connect. This they have researched, with Julian spending time with Food Connect Brisbane to participate in its work and learn from its experience.

The Sydney initiative

Based on the successful Brisbane Food Connect , Food Connect Sydney is an adaptation of the community supporting agriculture model that links rural farmers to city eaters. It will source predominantly organic produce (chemical free as a minimum) from regional family farms. Subscribers receive a weekly box of fruit and vegetables which is picked up from a City Cousin collection point in their area.

Weekly boxes of fresh food are available in different sizes and types

City Cousins are the city-based eaters of the food produced by Food Connect’s Country Cousin farmers. A collection point might be a private house, community centre or school. On a particular day of the week, all the boxes for that City Cousin group will be dropped off and be available for pickup. Collection can become a social occasion, a chance to meet people with similar interests.

Weekly boxes of fresh food are available in different sizes and types and range from $35 to $70. Extra are items such as milk, eggs, bread, dry goods and so on that can be ordered in addition to the box. Subscriptions are from one month minimum up to 12 months. If the minimum one month subscription is a challenge, Food Connect have a direct debit arrangement that will allow you to participate as, they say, their aim is to make fresh, healthy food affordable to all. If you will be away or want to change your weekly food box size, you can easily put your subscription on hold or change sizes.

According to the Sydney Food Connect people, their mission is:

  1. Distribution of fresh, healthy and affordable produce via community groups that supports local production and regional family-owned farms.
  2. Be the best place anyone has ever worked.
  3. Create a consistent surplus.

Point of difference

Traditional CSA’s form direct links between farmers and groups of city eaters, however a report to the Victorian Rural Industry Research and Development Corporation found that a lack of farmer skill in communication and marketing to be a barrier to the further development of the CSA model as a new income source for rural producers.

In Sydney, Food Connect will be the third attempt to establish a CSA

Food Connect gets around this by performing those function, relieving farmers of having to so so. They also provide a central facility which eases communication and can pass to farmers information about changes in market conditions, in eater needs and other factors that could influence their practice.

In Sydney, Food Connect will be the third attempt to establish a CSA service. The first, that started in the 1990s, eventually failed because the farm was too far from the city. it was located at Bega on the south coast, a good 200km or so distant and too far for people to go to collect the produce.

The second CSA attempt was based at a farm  closer to the city, at Mangrove Creek, not far north. The farmer delivered weekly to a group of city-based eaters. This ended when the farmer figured that life could be better in another state.

What this experience demonstrates is that there is vulnerability in relying on only one organic producer. This suggests that Food Connect might be a more stable initiative as it draws produce fro a number of farmers.

A new food system in SE Queensland

There was once a tradition, in Brisbane, of paper bags being accidentally left behind in the offices of influential people. Rumour had it that it was only coincidence that, as the result of the forgetfulness in not taking their paper bags home with them, something inside those bags enabled certain things to be done… let us say… just a little bit easier.

It was all a mystery how this came about, but cynics might (mistakenly) wonder whether this fine old Sunshine State tradition had been revived when a minor cascade of awards unexpectedly fell upon Food Connect Brisbane.

Now, being an environmenttally responsible enterprise that seeks to recycle and minimise its waste, Food Connect just might make use of paper bags. But there the coincidence surely ends because theirs’ are full of Queensland bananas, not the leafy, papery Queensland greens of those paper bags of old.

I’m not slagging off Queenslanders (wouldn’t do that), being one myself though from a little up the coast from Brisbane, a place where the sugar cane grows and the sandhills rise high. What I am getting at is the coincidence and apparent good fortune of Food Connect being the recipient of two — that’s right — two awards all within a couple months of each other. Hmmm….

Awards flow like irrigation water

First, in winning the 2009 Queensland Sustainable Industries Award, Food Connect demonstrated the reality that food issues have ascended to a high rung on the public ladder of social issues.

“This award is dedicated to those special farmers, committed subscribers and loyal Food Connect staff,” he said

As of that weren’t enough, in an award ceremony at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre later in 2009, Food Connect suddenly discovered that the public had voted it number one out of a total of nine finalists, all of which had leading environmental credentials. The winning was the Banksia Environmental Foundation’s People’s Choice Award in the Agriculture & Food category. The enterprise’s “CiEiO”, Rob Pekin, said that he was “chuffed” to have so much support from subscribers, who voted online in favour of Food Connect.

“It really makes us proud of all the hard work we’ve done to create a new food system in South East Queensland. This award is dedicated to those special farmers, committed subscribers and loyal Food Connect staff,” he said.

Eating local food good for environment

Food Connect provides food from small, local farmers to subscribers in Brisbane. This reduces the food miles of subscribers’ food choices and gives farmers an alternative market to the large, powerful retailers who cause a lot of wastage by only accepting produce on the basis of its good looks rather than its good eating.

food choices have a direct influence on a household’s water and energy consumption and their contribution to urban green waste

In doing this, Food Connect helps people make wise food choices. The importance of doing this was highlighted in last year’s University of Melbourne, Victorian Eco-Innovation Labs report, Sustainable and Secure Food Systems for Victoria.

The report disclosed that food choices have a direct influence on a household’s water and energy consumption and their contribution to urban green waste. By sourcing their food from local farmers — those within five hours drive of Brisbane — Food Connect offers a practical means of reducing the contribution of a family or household’s food choices to climate change through reducing the distance food is transported and its consequent emission of greenhouse gases. The distance from the point of consumption — Brisbane — also provides a large enough catchment for the sourcing of a wide variety of food types that retain much of their freshness.

“Farmers supplying Food Connect are encouraged to work in harmony with their environment, to use sustainable farming methods and to grow different varieties of fruit and vegetables to maintain the region’s bio-diversity”, said Food Connect’s marketing coordinator, Alison Ord.

Based on the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, subscribers to Food Connect learn where their food comes from through the weekly farmletter. They also share recipes to make delicious and nutritious meals from the seasonal and sometimes unusual produce.

Food Connect’s aim is to reconnect people with the land as their source of their food and to create a sense of community with fun activities such as food tastings and farm tours.

Contagion may quarantine Coffs from bad food

The Food Connect infection was spread into the mid-north coast region of NSW when Robert Pekin spoke at a workshop at Thora Hall. This was attended by over 50 people including more than 30 local farmers from Dorrigo, Bellingen and the Nambucca Valley. Robert was also the keynote speaker at the formal launch of the Local Food Futures Alliance in Coffs Harbour in the evening where he raised the issue of farm economics.

“In 1940, farmers received 40 cents for every dollar of produce. Now, they receive an average of 8 cents.

“One of the key strategic goals of Food Connect, as a community-shared agriculture enterprise, is to give the market back to farmers. Coles and Woolworths have 80 percent of the fresh food market in this country, and that means 80 percent of this market is potentially ours for the taking.”

Robert told the audience that the Food Connect model has achieved fairness and equity for participating farmers.

“Our farmers receive two to three times greater return on average through supplying us than they do in selling to wholesalers and supermarkets”.

This is achieved, he said, through measures such as consolidating freight and reduced sorting and packing time. As a consequence, subscribers pay 20 percent less than the supermarket price for the equivalent produce.

Now, things have started to happen in Coffs. Local business owner Kevin Doye and others plan to launch of a not-for-profit CSA on the mid-north coast early in 2010. It is to be called ‘Our Harvest’ and more than 70 people have already indicated that they would like to participate as subscribers when the new enterprise launches. More than a dozen local growers have said they would like to supply the CSA with local produce.

Indicating the fact that the CSA idea has captured to local imagination, Robert’s visit was supported by members the Local Food Futures Alliance that includes Bellinger Landcare, Bellingen Local Food Network, Coffs Regional Organic Producers Organisation, Coffs Harbour City Council, Kombu Wholefoods and Lilypily country home, which accommodated him.

Onward… southward

So, what are we to make of this Queensland food system contagion swiftly spreading south? And will it stop here or spread more, for there is much territory still to colonise in the Greater Food Connect empire of independent, mutually supportive, community food enterprises… the Illawarra… the Bega Valley… north east Victoria… Gippsland…… Melbourne…

the Food Connect virus definitely is spreading

Wherever it stops… if it ever stops… Food Connect virus definitely is spreading and it’s going to be interesting watching its evolution.

Comments (3)

  • admin
    August 27, 2009 at 6:59 am

    On 26/08/2009, at 6:11 PM, Robert Pekin wrote:

    Great article Russ.

    Only thing is the virus is pretty quick to catch.

    I was down in Tassy for 4 workshops and was trying my best to stall peoples attempts to get it going down there and wait till the Sydney, Adelaide and Coffs were up and running to see which of the start up models work best.

    We are advocating a regionally autonomous, nationally aligned roll out of the model and it is fascinating to see the differences emerging.

    Food Connect Australia is being assembled as we speak to be able to accommodate the replication so Food Conect Brisbane is not drained too much.

    I have asked Emma to write up something for you on Food Connect Aaustralia, the replication and the new Participatory Farmer Assessment scheme we are rolling out.



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