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Plains To Plate signals arrival of food as sustainability issue

…by Russ Grayson, who presented on food policy at Plains To Plate.

THE PLAINS TO PLATE FOOD CONVERGENCE is over but its effects linger in the minds of those inspired by it and by the people it attracted. Those effects hang there in the mind to spur discussion, collaboration and the creation of new ideas and initiatives.

So, what were my main observations about Plains To Plate? Here’s the trends I discern:

  1. There is an incipient move towards developing food policy at the local government level, stimulated now by the fervour evident at Plains To Plate and, late last year, by the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance’s Hungry For Change Food Summit. This has the potential to link to the idea of a national food policy recently promoted by Queensland horticulture industry body Growcom and the Public Health Association of Australia, however the formulation of a food policy cannot be left to an industry body or to a health association alone. There must be a significant role for popular organisations. A recent development has been the Tasmanian government’s move towards developing a food policy although what we can expect from such government-led development remains to be seen.
  2. Some local governments in South Australia are active, or plan to become so soon, in the development of policy around community food gardening, itself just one part of the broader community food system. This parallels the development of local government enabling policy for community gardening in NSW, particular in Sydney, in which I have not been an innocent bystander. A concern expressed was that the interest in community gardens by professional health and community workers may place unrealistic expectations on community gardening which is a voluntary, minimally funded activity.
  3. Just as animals and plants increase in number and adapt to different situations by diversifying and speciating, so has there been an acceleration in the rate of community food system start-ups and in their number of species these past few years. This can be expected to continue.
  4. There is now sufficient commonality of interest and compatibility of agendas between community organisations, academics and some local governments to create a nexus of shared ideas that could form the basis for creative partnerships and the furthering of the search for solutions to our food issues.
  5. It is quite evident that there is now a national, social movement around food that is rapidly evolving. It involves a mixed milieu of academics, local government and community organisations. It is not as yet a cohesive movement but the foci and agendas of the food-focused organisations that are interested are probably compatible enough for a broad agreement about what to do to ensure food security, affordable, viable regional food systems and ready access to fresh food and to coalesce around.
The forum to discuss the food declaration was an exercise in deliberative democracy.
The forum to discuss the food declaration was an exercise in deliberative democracy.

That people are thinking this way was evident in the informal conversation at the Food Convergence. Some raised the idea that the time may be approaching when the local and state-based food issues organisations might gain a louder and more influential voice through a representative national organisation. This would be stimulated if proposals for a national food policy by industry and the health sector were to gain traction in Canberra. The time for a national approach might not be now, however it may be soon. What would be necessary would be to ensure that citizen groups and community-based NGOs were well represented on a national body, otherwise it may come to be dominated by professional farming or health interests and so be seen as elitist by community food organisations.

What I think was significant was how Plains To Plate brought together, in an open and collegial conversation space, social innovators working in community food systems, academics and staff from state and local government

The number and quality of orgnisations addressing what is a broad range of topics to do with our food system was evident among the 750 or so attendees of Plains To Plate over its four days. And this in only a single state of the Commonwealth; a similar coalition of the willing around food could be anticipated in most other states. With some local governments active in this social and cultural melange, at least in South Australia and NSW, there exists the potential for constructive, collaborative and positive arrangements to evolve.

This is the second food forum on this scale to include a strong citizen group component and to bring together otherwise divergent organisations around the common theme of food security, access, affordability, quality and regional food systems. In many ways Plains To Plate was the natural complement to the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance’s Hungry For Change Food Summit of October last year, although the buzz at the events was quite different. I anticipate more such gatherings and find them valuable for defining commonalities of interest, the potential for collaboration and, perhaps, alliance building. Such things will be necessary to building an influential presence on the metropolitan, state and national levels.

Trio of speakers enlivens opening night

Food Connect Foundation's Robert Pekin and South Australian Farmers' Federation chief executive, Carol Vincent, spoke at the Food Summit.
Food Connect Foundation’s Robert Pekin and South Australian Farmers’ Federation chief executive, Carol Vincent, spoke at the Food Summit.

Like bacteria in a petrie dish, ideas and inspiration quickly propagated to fill the four days of the event. Inspiration was born on the first evening at the opening forum in the Hawke Centre of the University of South Australia where chef and author, Gay Bilson, Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network South Australia (ACFCGN) co-ordinator and community garden researcher, claire nettle, Grahame Brookman from the Food Forest — a mixed, commercial farm in the drier country north of Adelaide, designed and managed according to the principles of Permaculture design — addressed a hall of almost 400 people.

Gay, a woman in middle age with close-cropped hair and plastic-rimmed glasses, described how she has been influenced by the writings of Wendel Berry and went on to relate three short stories about food from her recent visit to Kerala, India. She also invited people to help themselves to the box of apples and grapes she had brought with her.

claire nettle (lower case is her preference), a young, neat-looking woman who sits on the national executive team of the ACFCGN, addressed the theme of grassroots initiatives for food justice, a topic derived no doubt from her doctoral research. She took us through the plethora of community food initiatives from farmers’ markets to food swaps.

Fortunately, Grahame Brookman’s Powerpoint presentation malfunctioned and this became the spur to an entertaining verbal address that laced serious messages with a buttering of humour. Clearly excited about his topic, a slim and fit-looking Grahame, trimmed grey beard matching his fringe of hair, spoke of population growth, telling the audience that the topic of Australia’s population should become a public conversation. A changing climate and an ailing Murray-Darling system, he said, may eventually make the Murray agricultural lands largely unavailable to agriculture other than for a pastoralism based on kangaroos and fat-tailed sheep.

Joel Catchlove of Friends of the Earth South Australia, was one of the organisers of Plains To Plate.
Joel Catchlove of Friends of the Earth South Australia, was one of the organisers of Plains To Plate.

On tour

Ridley Grove… Woodville High School… Common Ground… St Andrews… Fern Avenue… names probably unfamiliar to people who live beyond South Australia’s borders, but names that figure prominently among the 40 to 50 community food gardens and school kitchen gardens in Adelaide. It was some of these that the Plains To Plate tour visited in what turned out to be a full day on the road.

Alan Shepherd, who recently paid a visit to Sydney to look at community gardens, coordinates the Ridley Grove and two other Adelaide community gardens where he provides support and educational services. Common Ground is a community garden in containers on asphalt, not far from the city centre. Fern Avenue is a large, spacious and neat community garden with a rendered strawbale building housing its office, kitchenette, library and meeting space. Behind, two large, plastic rainwater tanks harvest the fall from the sloping roof to help the garden make it trough Adelaide’s parching summers.

Fern Avenue Community Garden in Fullarton, once the site of a jam factory that grew its fruit in orchards where surrounding houses now stand, offered an extra attraction. Adelaide is blessedly free of fruit fly, so its inhabitants can enjoy big, grub-free and tasty purple figs. So it was perhaps not surprising to find local Permaculture educator, Chris Day and Jennifer Alden, CEO of Melbourne agency Cultivating Community, lurking below the fig trees and reaching up into the foliage to extract the fruits to not-so-surrupticiously munch on them.

Speakers and workshops bring inspiration aplenty

Lolo Houbein signs copies of her book, One Magic Square, at Plains To Plate. Lolo's book metricises the 'square foot gardening' model and applies it to Australian conditions.
Lolo Houbein signs copies of her book, One Magic Square, at Plains To Plate. Lolo’s book metricises the ‘square foot gardening’ model and applies it to Australian conditions.

Speakers over the next two days were so inspirational and numerous it is impossible to name all of them. They covered a broad table of topics ranging through community food systems, government food initiatives and sustainability programs. What I think was significant was how Plains To Plate brought together, in an open and collegial conversation space, social innovators working in community food systems, academics and staff from state and local government. Interesting was the number of local government staff working on community garden policies and the one or two starting on food policies.

A highlight of the event was the launch of Food Connect Adelaide, an adaptation of the community supported agriculture model.

Plains To Plate will issue a declaration of food as did the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance’s Food Summit last year. The final official event was a forum where ideas about the declaration were raised and discussed. People had earlier listed their ideas on a wall poster. This mini-exercise in deliberative democracy brought a good feel to wind up Plains To Plate.

The day after the Plains To Plate Food Summit, the South Australian team of the ACFCGN launched Growing Community – starting and nurturing community gardens, their new book. That took place at Glandore Community Garden, a newish garden stimulted by ACFCGN local coordinator, Kate Hubmeyer, who works for the local government as well as at the Black Forest primary school kitchen garden, probably Australia’s oldest at 27 years.

One thought that occurred to me in speaking with the varied groups at the Food Convergence was the focus of sustainability, of the campaigns and organisations around it, is quickly shifting to food. Why this is so is hinted at in Melbourne University’s Victorian Eco Innovation Lab’s report, Sustainable and Secure Food Systems for Victoria, in which the researchers disclose the centrality of food choices to energy consumption and production, water use and to the generation of wastes.

Harvesting ideas for the food declaration via a wall poster. People added their suggestions to a list of topics.
Harvesting ideas for the food declaration via a wall poster. People added their suggestions to a list of topics.

In a way, this trend to a focus on the centrality of food as a means of achieving positive environmental and social outcomes to some extent marginalises those older environment groups whose sole focus has been the natural environment. I do not belittle them — they played a significant historic role through the development of environmentalism. Now, however, our better understanding of environment and society, the natural and the human, and the more recent realisation that these entities are part of the same complex adaptive system rather than the old and tired viewpoint that sees humanity as somehow separate from the environment of which it is a natural expression, has moved on the conversation about how we move to sustainability. The dialogue at Plains To Plate hinted at this.

If Plains To Plate truly is an indicator of a growing focus on food systems — those varied structures that bring us our sustenance via food supply chains — and I believe that Plains To plate is this — it builds on the momentum started by the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance’s Food Summit of late 2009.

Where these events lead remains unknown, however it is certain that they have stimulated an incipient movement that is at last seriously addressing food security, sustainable food production, accessible and affordable food and that has started to bring together those sectors in society that are all-too-often alien to each other — citizens and their organisations, local and to a limited extent state government and academics.

Plains To Plate was organised by the South Australian team of Friends of the Earth. It took place at the University of South Australia’s Hawke Centre in the city.

Plains To Plate social networking Ning

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