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Public narrative the approach at food system talk

TRANSITION BONDI, an Sydney Eastern Suburbs manifestation of the Transition Towns movement that originated in the UK and has since spread internationally, has a nice little scene just a short block back from Bondi Beach. There, every Wednesday, they cook a shared meal and show a video with a sustainability theme.

It was my turn to show a video and lead a discussion afterwards in September and I chose Urban Orchard, a production of colleagues in Adelaide about the community food swap of the same name and other food swaps in their city. This was followed by a structured conversation about food swaps and was preceded by the shared meal which is cooked in the kitchen of the Chapel by the Sea, the premises in a commercial building made available to Transition Bondi but with which the organisation has no religious affiliation.

I came close to my culinary limits by chopping vegetables for the meal under the supervision of competent cooks Beatrice and Kim, both on the Transition Bondi team. The food itself comes from the Sydney Food Connect weekly collection that precedes the shared meal and video. Transition Bondi operates the weekly City Cousin at the Chapel by the Sea, the distribution of the weekly boxes of Sydney region organic food to members. Attendees make a small contribution to cover the cost of the food.

A structured discussion

I had earlier worked out a number of key messages about food swaps that I wanted to get across during the event:

  • food swaps are a proven and viable structure to swap your excess food with others to contribute to a nutritionally diverse diet (I provided evidence by naming examples and by referring to the video)
  • food swaps are relatively easy to set up and run
  • food swaps are community self-help initiatives
  • food swaps are part of a wider system of community-based trading and exchange that goes under the name of the ‘collaborative economy’
  • food swaps, because of the social interaction they involve, are convivial events that contribute to a sense of belonging in an area.

The option with these key messages is to start the conversation by writing them on the whiteboard, then going through them with examples and ideas,. Alternative, leave them unstated and addressing them within the structure of the guided conversation.

At 35 minutes, Urban Orchard is a good length to follow with a structured conversation about food share initiatives. Some feature length videos doing the rounds of the sustainability video circuit are too long for a follow-up conversation with the audience.

How to stimulate imaginations?

The question for me was how to use the ideas in the video to stimulate imaginations in the discussion.

I decided to make use of the structured conversation format known as Public Narrative. There are a number of ways to conduct conversations that lead somewhere, such as ORID, which leads participants through a sequence of objective, reflective, interpretive and decisional questions. There’s also Fran Peavey’s Strategic Questioning, Appreciative Enquiry and more.

The Public Narrative process begins with the ‘story of me’, leads into the ‘story of you’ and links to the theme of the conversation. It starts, for example, with an anecdotal structure about how the presenter got into whatever it is they do that is related to the theme of the conversation.

Following this structure, I told a brief story of how my interest in food and the issues around it started when I did Robyn Francis’ first ever Permaculture Design Course in the mid-1980s. Then, permaculture was largely  focused on food production in the home garden but I was inspired by the statement of one of permaculture’s founders, Bill Mollison, that you didn’t have to garden and grow your own food to practice permaculture. What you should do is buy your food from someone who has produced it ethically, in the environmental and social justice sense of the word.

My interest in food issues, I explained, grew with my association with the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network from the time it started in the late 1990s and while working in project management and development education with an international development NGO, APACE, that was engaged in food security, small scale farming training and rural livelihood development in the Solomon Islands.

I went on to describe how circumstance and accident led to my becoming a consultant on local government policy development for community gardens and associated ventures.

The story of us

That was the ‘story of me’ component in the Public Narrative framework. Next came the ‘story of us’ in which the story of me segues into the story of the audience.

This is done by eliciting their reasons for attendance and, from that, their interest in food issues. You can use questions and answers and mini-conversations based on some of the responses. These are necessarily brief. It’s a process of following-up responses that address the theme of the video and the discussion as entry points into the community initiatives in food theme.

Strategic questions

By briefly exploring how the audience understands food issues through their responses to questions about what brought them to a video and discussion about food, by having a few respondents to the questions tell their own mini-story, the issue or theme—in this case about community intervention in their own food supply through food swaps and other mean is explored.

One of my questions was whether anyone knew of food swaps other than those in the video—the Urban Orchard swaps in Adelaide and Melbourne. Fortunately, there was someone in a leadership position with a community garden in south west Sydney who works mainly with social housing tenants and who has established a food swap. Having him tell the story of the swap reinforced some of my own key messages. I explained that there are food swaps at the North Wollongong Community Garden, in the Blue Mountains and that one was being planned for Collaroy on Sydney’s northern beaches.

Some of the strategic questions I asked were:

  • what in the video stood out as a good idea… what did you find interesting?
  • have you heard about or been to food swaps like Adelaide’s Urban Orchard or the others in the video?
  • do you think food swaps are useful initiatives in the city?
  • how would you summarise the main messages in the video?
  • what would it take to set up an Urban Orchard food swap in this part of Sydney?

The purpose of this last question was to stimulate any interest there might have been in setting up a food swap and to provide the opportunity for anyone who specifically came to the evening with the intention of starting a swap to put forward their ideas.

To explore this question I used the whiteboard and led brainstorming around a series of linked questions based on a simple systems thinking approach:

  • what would be the needs or inputs to set up a food swap?
  • what would be the functions or processes needed to run a swap, including those regular tasks that would be needed to make it happen?
  • what would the yield or outputs of the food swap be and how would we use them?

I used two sets of terms in these questions—those familiar in systems thinking—inputs, processes, outputs—and those that might have been familiar to people who had a backgroubd in the permaculture design system which I knew some of those present had—needs, functions, yields. These are different terms for the same things and, as you usually do, you would choose those most understandable to your audience.

Here’s some of the responses to those questions that the audience brainstormed and that I wrote on the whiteboard as they were offered:

  • inputs/needs—food to swap; a venue; organisers; publicity to attract swappers; tables to display food for swapping; a structure and process to facilitate the swap
  • processes/functions—set-up and take-down; cleaning up after the swap; doing something with leftovers; communication to attract participants to the swaps
  • outputs/yields—access to a diversity of swapped food; a sense of belonging to an interest group; social interaction.

The collaborative economy

Food swaps, like the clothing swaps happening nationwide, the second hand Saturdays and the other initiatives that make up community-based goods redistribution initiatives, are part of what is becoming more widely known as the ‘collaborative economy’. It’s all about peer-to-peer exchange.

As it turned out, no proposal emerged to set up a food swap in Bondi. The reason that came out of the evening’s proceedings was that there would be too few growers of food in the area, a reflection of the medium density nature of this part of the Eastern Suburbs which has a high proportion of its population living in shanghai apartments. There are a couple community food gardens in the area including that which was wrapped around a Bondi Road apartment block by Transition Bondi and which is open to public.

The evidence from the Sydney Food Connect weekly food box collection earlier in the evening is that community-based food distribution stytems, like Sydney Food Connect CSA (community supported agriculture), may be a more viable means of participating in community food systems. For permaculture design practitioners, this gets back to Bill Mollison’s statement about it not being necessary to grow your own food to participate in permaculture, but to buy it from someone who has produced it ethically.

By bringing people together in an informal setting around food for a focused conversation or video, Transition Bondi’s Wednesday events are one of those initiatives that have an important place in making our cities stimulating and good places to live.

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