The Community Food Movement: The social precursors
The community food movement: a series about the emerging social movement around food…
The organic gardening and farming organisations and the social movements of the recent past laid the basis of today’s social movement around food…
THE PLACE was Moonah, a suburb on the main road out of Hobart, and I was standing in the backyard of some friends. In front of me was a large and productive vegetable garden, a mix of plants in season that summer. It was one of many other gardens then starting to appear in suburban backyards, repurposing them as productive places rather than monocultures of lawn. The year was 1976, or close to that, and my friends were among the early adopters of home grown organic food.
Were you to describe organic gardening as an incipient social movement at the time you would be correct, and the more avid organic food growers might have been members of the Tasmanian Organic Gardening and Farming Society, an organisation that had been set up only a few years earlier. Even though organic home gardening was a practice being adopted by more people, it was a movement as yet without any substantial sense of the politics around food other that some rather generalised beliefs about the health and environmental benefits of growing organically.
In comparison to my friends large backyard garden, the tomatoes and capsicums that spilled out of repurposed cans and other containers down the front steps of my West Hobart flat, and the modest patch of corn and other vegetables along the rear fence, were unremarkable.
A community food movement?
Those early adopters of organic home gardening, and there were an increasing number on the Australian mainland as well as in Tasmania, were the forerunners of what would later become a socially mainstream practice that would give birth to an entire industry around organic gardening and farming and organic food generally. They were also the forerunners of a broader social movement around food whose genesis then lay over 20 years in the future.
Now is a good time to define what we’re discussing, this concept of a social movement around food. Perhaps we can think of this community food movement as being:
…a social movement or people, businesses and organisations focuced on the supply of, and education and advocacy around, the availability of nutritious food and the freedom of people to choose the foods they prefer.
That a community food movement exists was confirmed by researchers working on a NSW government investigation into future funding for community food systems for which I was a member of the advisory board through the first half of 2015. Because of government policy the researchers’ focus was on the voluntary community sector of the movement, however the movement is broader and includes a range of what we call ‘community food systems’ — the enterprises and initiatives that, together, make up this alternative food system and which form the components of the community food movement. They consist of:
- community educational organisations focused on food production, food security and food sovereignty
- social businesses — the not-for-profit social enterprises and food co-ops
- the for-profit, small, organic food retail shops and organic home delivery services
- voluntary community initiatives like community gardens and food swaps
- home gardeners.
We can think of food security, mentioned in the list above, as being year-round access to sufficient food to sustain an active life. Food sovereignty, also mentioned in the list above, is about peoples’ control over their food system and their free choice of the foods they prefer. Freedom of choice to buy foods produced and distributed by ways the buyer prefers to support through their purchases, a core component of food sovereignty, is also part of any open, authentic market system.
…The community food movement is made up of these systems plus the movement’s educational and advocacy components underpinned by the assumptions, attitudes and practices that motivate and characterise participants in the movement…
You can see that we are describing an alternative food supply chain. It is a supply chain of smaller organisations and businesses and is markedly different to the mainstream food supply chain dominated by Australia’s two main supermarket corporations, otherwise known as the ‘duopoly’.
The enterprises forming the community food system produce, process and distribute food. The community food movement is made up of these systems plus the movement’s educational and advocacy components underpinned by the assumptions, attitudes and practices that motivate and characterise participants in the movement.
Supermarkets are clearly outside the community food movement because of their corporate structure and dominant market position, but what about smaller, for-profit enterprise? There is discussion around whether greengrocers are part of the community food movement. Those including them say that are small businesses offering fresh foods, much of which is Australian-grown, plus delicatessen lines many of which are imported. They offer an alternative to the industrial shopping experience of the supermarkets that control around 70 to 80 percent of the Australian grocery market and have been implicated in exploiting farmers and suppliers and misrepresenting products. For some, greengrocers offer an ethical alternative. Others say that greengrocers offer no alternative business model nor any stated committment to support Australian farmers and food processors. The question is unresolved.
The same arguments could be extended to the small organic food retailers who sell both packaged and fresh foods.
There is no universally accepted definition of either ‘community food systems’ of the ‘community food movement’, the definitions differing depending on the advocacy or educator making them.
An Australian tradition
Sometimes, organic gardeners and permaculture design system practitioners look to post-World War Two immigrants from Mediterranean countries as the first substantial body of home food growers in Australia. They certainly turned many a small, inner urban backyard to vegetable, herb, fruit and poultry production, however the belief that they were the first to do this is a misconception.
What makes those immigrants of the 1950s and the 1960s conspicuous is their practice of home gardening at a time when economic growth with its full employment, secure lifelong jobs and consumer society was bringing the increasing wealth that enabled people to buy rather than grow some of the food they ate, and when the first of the supermarkets appeared in Australia.
There is another popular misconception that the community food movement is something new. We have already learned that its origins can be traced back to the 1970s and, in fact, it can be traced back further as we will shortly explore. What is new is less the community food movement and more the appearance of advocacy and educational organisations intervening in the politics around our food systems. They started to appear around 2005 with the creation if Food Fairness Illawarra and the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance.
Socialising the tradition
Community gardening is a food system of the voluntary community sector that was viewed by some community workers as a means of increasing family food security. That was often a conceptual belief rather than one anchored in the nitty gritty of starting, managing and educating community gardeners.
Community gardening is the most populous food system within the broader community food movement. In 2015, the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, a national organisation, had a few less than 600 community gardens registered on its mapping system. This was regarded as a substantial underestimation. The practice arrived in Australia with the opening of Nunuwading Community Garden in 1977. Sydney didn’t get its first community food garden until 1985 when Glovers Community Garden made a start on state government health department land in the Inner West. The first community garden in Brisbane is believed to be Northey Street City Farm which started in 1994.
A productive practice
Home gardening has a longer tradition and has been practiced since the early days of European settlement. Home food production was common through the first part of the Twentieth Century and was given a boost during World War Two with the Dig For Victory campaign that aimed to increase food security through greater home growing. The Australian War Memorial describes it this way:
“Many Australians were already keen home vegetable gardeners, being self-sufficient, with fruit and vegetables and a “chook shed” down the back.
Others took to the idea afresh and turned over their whole front and back gardens to vegetable production, often selling excess produce to raise funds for the front.
Some people formed neighbourhood gardening groups as a means of feeding their families. Others formed gardening collectives, specifically to raise funds for the war effort. Legacy, the Red Cross, the YWCA, and the Salvation Army were some of the organisations that received funds raised through neighbourhood gardening.”
Home gardening went into decline after the war as the consumer society spread with the growing affluence of Australian society. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1960s that it was revived with the popularisation of organic gardening.
Neither food security nor food sovereignty were the motivators. What led to the revival were fears over the health impacts and environmental contamination coming from the use of synthetic agrochemicals. The notion of self-sufficiency, popular at the time and itself a reaction to the developing consumer society, also drove that revival. Those fears had their origin in Rachael Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring.
Movement with a history
Organic gardening and farming’s long association with the community food movement can be traced to the launching of the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society in 1944. According to the report in Wikipedia, the Society predates the UK’s Soil Association by two years. It was the first organisation in the world to describe itself as ‘organic’ and to publish an ‘organic’ growing journal, the Organic Farming Digest. It was soon followed by the Living Soil Association of Tasmania in 1946.
The Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society closed in 1955 and it wasn’t until 1970 that the Henry Doubleday Research Association, a local iteration of the UK organisation, attracted organic gardeners, smallholders and farmers. The Association played an educational and networking role in the development of organic gardening and farming in Australia but became less prominent as the organic gardening milieu became more diffuse later in the 1990s.
It was in 1972 that the Tasmanian Organic Gardening and Farming Society made its start. The Society organised Australia’s first Organic Festival in 1975, and others followed. This was held on a farm and I recall it being a popular event, which I attended with Charmaine Gibson, now a Tasmanian criminal lawyer. The Society is important in the development of Australia’s community food movement because associated with it were Peter Cundall, later host of the ABC’s popular Gardening Australia television program, and Bill Mollison, co-inventor of the permaculture design system. They would prove influential motivators of organic growing and permaculture design, two practices instrumental in creating today’s social movement around food.
Alternatives and organics
The late-1970s would bring a further boost that would popularise organic growing and lay the basis for today’s community food movement. That was the coming of the permaculture design system, however it had been preceded by the emergence of a social movement, one of mainly young people, a decade earlier. It was this earlier movement that brought organics and home food production before thousands of people.
The movement started after the 1960s had passed its midway point and it bloomed in 1967. It called itself the ‘counterculture‘ and it was a melange of new music, new styles of dress and hair, recreational drugs and new attitudes to life that were counter those of the dominant mainstream culture. It brought an anti-consumerist slant and looked to the East for spiritual guidance and to the New Left (and here) for its politics, where it expressed any at all. Those politics had emerged from the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam.
In its more self-indulgent manifestation it gave birth to what became known as the ‘hippies‘, a term imported from the parallel movement in the USA. Come the 1970s, some of the movement morphed into what became known as the ‘alternatives’ although these were terms that were often used interchangeably. It was this socially innovative element that took guidance from people like Buckminster Fuller and English economist, EF Schumacher, whose ideas on economics-as-if-people-mattered and ‘intermediate’, later ‘appropriate’ technology led to the alternatives experimenting with renewable energy systems, self-build affordable housing and the intentional communities that were the forerunner of today’s ecovillages. At its peak it attracted what researcher, Peter Cock, found were tens of thousands. In 1979 Cock published what was perhaps the most insightful study of the movement in his book, Alternative Australia (Quartet Books, Melbourne).
In both city and country, organic gardening and farming were a core part of alternative culture. As the seventies were drawing to a close, some of those alternatives and many of their ideas and practices were to become the first practitioners of a new movement. That was the permaculture design system.
Permaculture — a timely arrival
The attractive notion with permaculture was that it was proactive — it got people thinking about how they could create those things they wanted to see rather than simply opposing those they didn’t want. It offered the possibility of developing alternatives.
…Bill Mollison would later describe ‘permaculture gardening’ as organic gardening plus design…
Launched by a University of Tasmania lecturer in environmental psychology, who became very critical of academia and universities, Bill Mollison, and environmental design student David Holmgren, permaculture was unleashed in the book Permaculture One in 1978. Permaculture Two was a further development of the idea released a year later.
Permaculture was a design system that incorporated self-building and energy efficient building design, the development of intentional communities in city and countryside, the use of appropriate technologies, landscape and farm design and a lot more. It also included food production using organic farming and gardening. Bill Mollison would later describe ‘permaculture gardening’ as organic gardening plus design, the design being about the location of plant types, water supply and irrigation, compost production for fertiliser and other food production inputs.
Although a comprehensive design system for resilient human settlement, permaculture came to focus primarily on food production, primarily in home gardens. In part, this was because the garden was the easiest, most accessible and cheapest place to start practicing permaculture and, the starting conditions of any new movement being very influential on its evolution, it took permaculture far along the home food production path.
Home gardening — and around the turn of the century — community gardening came to dominate popular involvement in permaculture. Individual permaculture practitioners had been among the crew that started the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network in 1995 but it wasn’t until some years later that community food production became more of a focus for permaculture.
…It was these — the organic farming and gardening societies of the late forties to the seventies, the alternative culture of the 1970s, the loose movement around organic gardening of the 1960s and the 1970s and the later permaculture design system… and home and, later, community gardening… that lay the basis of the contemporary social movement around food…
The design system was to play a large part in laying the foundations of the community food movement, especially as television and print media discovered it and started to report on it. Permaculture built on the work of the earlier alternative culture and the organic growing societies, popularised — and sometimes forget or was unaware of — what they had started and developed its own approaches.
It is probably because it is a geographically distributed network that lacks a central hub that permaculture never politicised food and didn’t originate the social movement around food security and, later, around food sovereignty although a small number of individuals with a permaculture background were involved. The network structure worked against the development of a cohesive and unified social movement.
By the 1990s, organic growing and organic food had become an established practice as well as a new industry. It contributed significantly to the popularity of home food production, initially as a reaction to health fears around the use of synthetic agrochemicals such as pesticides and herbicides and latterly as a solution to the environmental problems caused by conventional agriculture. The Australian Bureau of Statistics 1991 census disclosed the productivity of home food production at that time.
It was these — the organic farming and gardening societies of the late forties to the seventies, the alternative culture of the 1970s, the loose movement around organic gardening of the 1960s and the 1970s and the later permaculture design system that combined with long-running practices of home and, later, community gardening to lay the basis of the contemporary social movement around food. They were the creators of that, the community food movement. They were the progenitors.
There was more to this emerging community food movement than just growing your own food. Food co-operatives started to appear in Australia during the 1970s as people who were not interested in, or who lacked assess to land or time for food growing sought ways to buy the foods they preferred.
Co-ops are member-owned social businesses offering discounted foods, much of it organic, to members. Most trade as weekly collection venues where members package and take home their food orders. Adelaide’s Goodwood Goodfood Food Co-op, an early example from the 1970s, and Rhubarb Food Co-op in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs are of this type.
Others operate a shopfront, selling products to non-members at normal retail prices and to members at a discounted rate. Members can usually get a further discount by volunteering in the shop doing those things needed of a small business — customer service, stocking shelves, cleaning, ordering, accounts and so on. Some shopfront co-ops employ a manager to provide continuity in ordering and accounts while others like the long-established Blue Mountains Food Co-op in Katoomba, employ members at checkouts. Most sell products that are minimally packaged and packaged in recyclable materials. Grains, beans and other goods are supplied from bulk containers.
Organic buyers’ groups such as Organic Buyers Group Randwick say that they provide members with ‘affordable organics’ and operate similarly to weekly food co-ops. Today, food co-ops are found in town and city.
Community supported agriculture — CSA — schemes first appeared in the 1990s. The early CSAs were initiatives of individual farmers who made weekly food runs to urban collection centres. Some, like the Hunter Region’s Purple Pear Farm, continue to operate as single farm CSAs.
Newer iterations of the CSA model like Brisbane Food Connect, Sydney’s Ooooby and Melbourne’s CERES Fair Food source from a larger number of farmers and orchardists and some provide bakery and grocery lines. This avoids the fate of two of Sydney’s early food coops — one based on the IlLawarra coast and the other at Mangrove Mountain just north of the city — which ceased when one of the farmers found it difficult to continue and when the other moved away.
Food swaps have appeared over the past decade as ways for home or community garden growers to exchange excess produce for that which they want. These are non-monetary in operation, some being informal while others have developed a structure for fair exchange. Adelaide’s Urban Orchard and that at CERES in Melbourne are models.
Set up in collaboration with Goodwood Goodfood Co-op at the Clarence Park Community Centre in 2007, Urban Orchard enables the exchange of homegrown produce. It describes itself as a “network of households across the inner suburbs of Adelaide who meet monthly to swap and share the produce of their backyard (or frontyard!) gardens, and conduct workshops on gardening and preserving the harvest.”
The NSW government community food system funding investigation I earlier mentioned as being an advisory board member of confirmed the existence of food swaps as viable community initiatives. They are not great in number and, like other voluntary community initiatives, are likely to come and go.
Spanning time, spanning diversity
We have seen that the community food movement in Australia can trace its origin to the social movements of decades ago.
Those involved in the early manifestations of community food systems might not have always been aware that they were part of a larger practice around food and those early food co-ops, community gardeners, permaculture practitioners and what was a growing band of home gardeners were parts of a largely unselfconscious social movement.
Come the late 1990s and the opening years of the new century, however, what had been unconscious would become conscious and, in doing so, start to express ideas around a new, better, fairer food system.
The community food movement — a series:
An alternative — the community food system
The community food movement — the social precursors
The birth of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance
The community food movement — Seven big challenges