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The Community Food Movement: The coming of the advocates

The Community Food Movement: The coming of the advocates

The community food movement: a series about the emerging social movement around food.

The organic gardening and food movement combined with the emergence of small food businesses, social change and new social movements over the past 50 years gave birth to a diffuse community food movement. That led to the need for this new movement to find a voice in civic affairs…

THE EARLY organic growers’s societies, the increasing popularity of home food production during the 1970s, the permaculture design system’s later focus on home food production and farming and the community gardening movement that continues to grow in numbers today form the basis of the community food movement. In the early years of this century, came a new element. It would take a close look not only at farming systems but at the economics of the dominant food system. It didn’t much like what it saw.

These new organisations would try to stimulate approaches to food production and distribution that were economically fairer to farmers and socially fairer to the people who eat what they produce. Doing this meant they needed to engage with both the economics and politics of food systems as well as educate the public about inequities and nutritional shortfalls in the system and the possible solutions to these issues. The time of the food advocacy organisations had arrived.

Inspired by food advocate, ex-dairy farmer and CEO of the CSA, Brisbane Food Connect, Robert Pekin, Sydney Food Connect provided weekly boxes of fresh foods from Sydney region farmers.
Inspired by food advocate, ex-dairy farmer and CEO of the CSA, Brisbane Food Connect, Robert Pekin, Sydney Food Connect provided weekly boxes of fresh foods from Sydney region farmers.

Down Illawarra way, the first of the new

In 2005, a meeting of health and community workers, local government and university staff and people active in the community around food got together on the Wollongong coast south of Sydney to create Food Fairness Illawarra.

Food Fairness Illawarra’s focus was food security — people having enough good food to support an active life — and this isn’t surprising given the professional make-up of those attending that first meeting. It also isn’t surprising that members of the organisation made the link between food security, nutritional health and poverty.

Attending that meeting were several people from Sydney. Most of them worked in health, nutrition and community areas and most of them were also well aware of the direct link between the quality of people’s diets and their income level. Later that same year they formed the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance (SFFA) with a similar focus to Food Fairness Illawarra.

The Alliance brought together a similar range of interests to the Illawarra organisation including lobbying for the retention of urban fringe land of agricultural value, the urban edge regions to the city’s north west and south west that were the location of the market gardens, orchards and poultry farms that fed a surprising volume of fresh food to Sydney’s eaters.

With productive farmland on the edge of Sydney threatened with urban development, the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance sought its retention for the food security of the city and for the thousands of jobs in the food system that it supported.
With productive farmland on the edge of Sydney threatened with urban development, the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance sought its retention for the food security of the city and for the thousands of jobs in the food system that it supported.

SFFA started a series of regular organisational meetings in Red Cross House in Sydney CBD and, later, at Parramatta Library. In September 2010 presented its case for a state level, integrated food policy at a special presentation at NSW Parliament House. Signifying that the Alliance’s ideas were sticky enough to attract political support was the hosting of the event by Macarthur region MPs Philip Costa, Geoff Corrigan, Andrew McDonald and Graham West. The keynote speaker was David Mason, an expert on urban agriculture who had worked with the state government.

The SFFA called for the formation of a NSW Food Policy Council at the event. Founding member, Jill Finnane, put it this way:

“The SFFA believes that an independent food council is the best way to engage people to deal with the challenges we face in ensuring a reliable long-term food supply — challenges that include the rising cost of obesity and related chronic diseases, the impact of climate change and the increasing cost of transporting food for long distances.”

A Food Policy Council would provide a forum for the analysis of food issues and for developing innovative responses; scenario planning for the future of food; stimulating leadership in addressing the dilemmas ahead; advocating policy changes; networking between different parts of the food system; education and building up a broad base of support for implementing changes to the food system.

Although the Labor government of the time and its successor were to show little interest in setting up a Food Policy Council, calling for it signified that food with its many issues ranging from diet and health, through urban fringe landuse and protecting the livelihoods of the farmers working it, and to the new social enterprise and voluntary community sector food initiatives then underway, had become an economic, social, environmental and, now, a political issue.

The SFFA’s popularising of the idea of a Food Policy Council was a precursor of the development of the Peoples’ Food Plan and the interest, as yet not firmly acted upon, for state level food policies by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA).

Significant that the Parliament House event might have been for popularising food issues in NSW, the SFFA’s ambitious Hungry For Change event was even more so. That took place in 2009 with the organisation of regional events around food security and other food issues in the Blue Mountains, Central Coast, Macarthur, Illawarra, Sydney central and Eastern Suburbs (the latter receiving support from the City of Sydney in the form of free use of Sydney Customs House at Circular Quay for the afternoon event and its repetition in the evening for people who worked during the day).

The regional events fed ideas into the main Hungry For Change Food Summit at the spacious Teachers’ Federation auditorium in the city with Jeanette Longfield MBE, spokesperson for the UK food advocacy and educational organisation, Sustain, as one of the keynote speakers. Others included Sydney fringe farmer, Ed Beale, one of a number of regional farmers had joined SFFA. Opening the Hungry For Change Food Summit, Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore (Independent), started by highlighting the importance of Sydney’s regional food economy:

“Eighty percent of NSW’s food comes form the Sydney Basin. The region is 30 percent more productive that farmland in the rest of NSW. The Sydney Basin has a more reliable water supply than regions west of the Great Dividing Range and it is accessible to the city, producing food that is local and seasonal”.

The Hungry For Change Food Summit attracted a full house of around 300 people. Out of it and the regional events, the SFFA crafted its Declaration on Food that was presented by Jeanette, the SFFA’s Liz Millen, myself and others to politicians in Parliament House.

The regional events leading to the Hungry For Change Food Summit were the first known incidence of the use of crowdsourcing to develop a food policy document.

Sydney’s Food Distribution Network was a service providing home deliveries of fresh food to people who, though disability, had difficulty shopping for themselves.
Sydney’s Food Distribution Network was a service providing home deliveries of fresh food to people who, though disability, had difficulty shopping for themselves.


By now, food was acceleration as an issue and had clearly moved from being the interest of groups on the social fringe into the social mainstream of politics, planning, health, small business and community enterprise. A national dialog around the future of our food supply was starting to emerge.

The year 2010 brought a further instance with February’s Plains To Plate Food Convergence in Adelaide, South Australia.

The event brought the launch of the ill-fated Adelaide Food Connect, an attempted replication of the successful Brisbane Food Connect, Australia’s longest-running community-supported agriculture scheme. Portending the future was informal conversation at the conference around the idea of local and state-based food organisations gaining a louder and more influential voice through a representative national organisation. The time for a national approach might not be immediate, it was suggested, 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.

From memory, the idea was one I had floated during an occasional email conversation between people spanning the coast between Brisbane and Adelaide. It had been stimulated by my experience in SFFA and by previous educational work around regional food systems as part of teaching an urban Permaculture Design Course and as a director of a food co-operative trading through a shopfront.

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.

Getting sticky: the idea of a better food system

Further evidence that the future of our food supply was now a social and political issue came with Blacktown Council’s Securing Our Food Future event in 2013.

A one-day event in the Western Sydney council building, it was attended by a broad cross-section of food interests spanning the SFFA, local government, the farmers’ market association, an urban planner or two and the agency, Regional Development Australia. The Northern Rivers representative of the agency, Claire McGarry, explained how local government has five main avenues of intervention in regional food systems:

  1. community education
  2. governance and leadership including initiatives such as sustainable catering in councils
  3. research
  4. fostering partnerships
  5. planning and infrastructure that includes reviewing planning and other policy to ease the work of increasing food security and food sovereignty.

In October of 2013 in Campbelltown in Sydney’s south west, the Macarthur Food Security Project that had been working to multiply local food initiatives in the region, held its completion celebration. ABC Gardening Australia host, Costs Georgiardis — a familiar face at such events — made his usual motivational speech then he and I launched the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliances’ Peoples’ Food Plan in the region. ACT farmer, Michael Croft, had earlier launched it in Sydney at an event in Sydney Town Hall.

It was good to hear self-described ‘community activist’, Peter Butler from East Campbelltown Community Garden, later tell the audience that: “We need a revolution and it starts at the grassroots, and part of that revolution is the Peoples’ Food Plan… and we can be part of it”.

2010 — and the promise of a policy

In late 2010 came the announcement by the then-agriculture minister in the lead-up to the federal election of November that year, of developing a national food plan if reelected. Those participating in the aforementioned email conversation around food realised that, were this to eventuate, we would end up with a neoliberal, export-oriented plan that would likely ignore the future of Australia’s small farmers, Australia’s food processing industry and the social enterprise, small business and community sector food initiatives increasingly appearing in our towns and cities.

We resolved to write a letter to the minister asking that these enterprises and sectors be included in any future national food plan. That I hastily drafted and we sent it to the minister. Job done. Or was it?

The government was not reelected and the incoming government decided to drop the idea of a national food plan and the grants to community food organisations that had been in organisation. This, the dropping of the grant scheme, disadvantaged community food organisations by depriving them of their promised funding.

We asked those who had signed the letter, there was over 110 of them, whether the group that had produced it should now shut down — or was there some other mission we could engage with?

That’s the story of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, and it follows.

The community food movement — a series:

What is the food system?

An alternative — the community food system

The community food movement — the social precursors

The coming of the advocates

The birth of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance

The community food movement — Seven big challenges


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