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Last year, after completing a Food Hub Feasibility Study for the City of Greater Bendigo, followed by one for Wangaratta, and with one for Wyndham Council in our sites, it seemed that now may be the time to have a conference in Australia about food hubs – community food hubs in particular.
As our research had shown, there are over 300 Food Hubs in the US, plus multiple food hubs of a different kind, called Community Food Centres, in Canada. After visiting Canada I am a convert to the concept of combining programs and services under one roof, creating a one-stop-shop for all things to do with healthy eating, at the same time transforming the bandaid food bank charity model to one of empowerment and food literacy, with programs and services designed to improve people’s nutrition and prevent ill health, especially in communities that most need it. The best of preventive medicine.
Sustain. The Australian Food Network has led the conference process and along with a group of organisations, local government and academia, philanthropy, education providers, producers, emergency food relief and enterprise owners we have put together an Australian first. To inform our conversation about what is a Community Food Hub in Australia we have Kathryn Scharf from Community Food Centres Canada and Anthony Flaccavento from SCALE in Virginia, US, coming to add their vast experience to our discussions.
In addition we have a local food feast planned for the conference dinner and wonderful guest speaker in Bruce Pascoe, prize winning author of Dark Emu, who will speak about our Indigenous food heritage – an event not to be missed! even if you don’t attend the conference. Tickets are available here
Interest in the conference is building – and in addition Sustain has developed a national tour. Information about the full conference program (that will have a couple of small additions soon) can be found here. See you there!
Our changing climate is predicted to worsen the obesity crisis in Australia, with availability and cost of fresh produce predicted to increase.
Elsewhere, the connection between failed crops, food prices and civic unrest is now being told, where food security, linked to:
• Availability – a supply of fresh, healthy food,
• Access – whats close and affordable,
• Utilisation – knowing what to do with it and
• Stability of supply
is precarious for many.
Locally, the impact of food insecurity underpins the case for food growing to be supported in the home and in the community as a health promotion and disease prevention strategy. The new prevention requires a focus on the quadruple bottom line, where health, social, environmental and economic impacts are all part of the decision making process around programme design and funding for health promotion and disease prevention.
Its time for creative thinking about our cities, reviewing health and community infrastructure to make inroads into the ‘food desert’ phenomenon, where fresh produce is not easily available, underpinning postcodes of disadvantage when it comes to health outcomes.
Now’s the time to start growing some of our own fruit and vegetables. Support for this should be government funded and sit in all public health and disease prevention plans as a priority strategy to address the obesity crisis and the diabetes epidemic.
Community Food Hubs could be a popular way of repurposing infrastructure available in community health centres and community and neighbourhood houses to becomes community food centres and hubs of healthy eating and social connection. Community interest in community kitchens, markets, gardens, food swaps, seed exchanges, education programs and support for local food producers means that it is timely to integrate these features into community facilities. The time is now for ‘The New Prevention’.
As we move into 2016 our first local food initiative being discussed by the community is the likelihood of support for nature strip gardens from our local council here in Bendigo. Discussion has been underway in the community for at least the last four years. At a recent community forum discussing the review of Council’s environment strategy with guest Costa Georgiadis of Gardening Australia, there was much talk of food growing (his verge garden (pictured) developed on national television). When nature strips were mentioned there was furious agreement around the table that the imported word ‘verge’ not be used. Nature strip is more descriptive as it is a nod to the enhanced biodiversity values that can come with growing plants, edible or not, and they can be denoted easier with just some railway sleepers for sale on each corner as a marker.
Utilising all available space and seeing open and public spaces through a ‘food lens’ has been the driver for firstly Incredible Edible Todmorden in the UK , and in the past few years the emergence in Bendigo of Incredible Edible Bendigo. What’s not to like about getting enthused about growing food anywhere that’s possible?
My 2015 10 ideas for a more Edible Bendigo commenced with Vision – supporting the Bendigo Regional Food Alliance to assist with the development of local food and urban agriculture policies and also included Advocacy – for projects such as Council provision of citrus trees on nature strips and community orchards.
Inspired by previous experience with City of Yarra its clear that there is no need to reinvent a wheel when it comes to devising guidelines for neighbourhood gardening. In fact, there’s activity in most states of Australia at local government level that provide insight to how to make food production a focus of your nature strip. Many times community gardening of all sorts can be romanticised, however the reality is that is takes quite some effort and ongoing commitment to produce lush and picture book lovely gardens, of any type. Our local environment sees us contend with harsh heats, poor soil, lack of water and various potential pests. Not the be deterred, there are ways of managing these and getting stuck in, creating a focal point for your neighbourhood and an attractor for conversation in the same way that flowers attract bees. It’s not just the community gardens that need to be protected from pests. If you are an avid gardener and you are always planting new flowers in your garden, it may be good to know how you can get rid of pests in the correct way. Most people decide to get in touch with some Terminix pest controle experts in their area so that it can be done properly and efficiently. Doing it yourself sometimes may not get rid of them altogether so that is why it could be best for your plants to bring in an expert.
Once guidelines are established that address issues such as: securing a suitable and safe site, thinking of storage options like the best metal sheds for storing any tools used, securing neighbourhood support and gaining a permit, you can start to consider the following: making sure you know what infrastructure exists near the site (such as underground sewer and power lines); potential for contaminated soil, necessitating bringing in compost and soil; height of plantings and building of custom sheds so as not to obstruct site lines for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists; and to inform yourself about potential hazardous materials such as garden stakes, avoidance of chemical use that may get into storm water drains and of course how you will water it and shade it from harsh heat. Yet none of these should be a deterrent. I don’t share people’s concerns about kangaroos eating nature strip produce as we have roos in our veggie garden frequently and it seems they prefer the grass.
The leadership role available to local governments is to provide a staff member specifically dedicated to the community development and horticulture role of a community garden facilitator, as City of Yarra have done. This enables successful endeavours and avoids issues and waste of time and money getting things right on your own.
In the recent media article about Canberra’s proposed street garden policy an accompanying survey showed 80% of residents in favour. The trend to food growing for personal use echoes the 1940s where in Australia 50% of the population grew some of their own food. Recent surveys show a similar number doing so in this country nowadays, of course on varying scales. Research also showed that 13% were growing food on nature strips! of course this is boosted by the number of fruit trees planted decades ago as street trees, particularly around metropolitan areas. There is no reason why this couldn’t be a starting point while budgets are set in place, priorities of Council reorganised and funding made available to support food growing and affordable and accessible food for everyone interested.
The trend to infill development with small or non existent backyards is further impetus for food growing in public spaces. Lets start with nature strips. Now.
This winter’s extreme cold would seem to be ushering in a summer that may break heat records in the planet’s hottest year on record to date. One of the benefits of mid 30 degree temperatures in September was an early start to tomato growing. Having successfully hot-housed tomatoes to avoid frosts and achieved early crops of Roma tomatoes last year, this year a new way to boost their pre-planting growth was their placement on a ledge of our double glazed north facing living room window. The results were spectacular with plants growing rapidly and two more varieties were added, plus pots of basil. With late frosts over, their planting out a few weeks ago has seen them establish in their new garden beds and fruiting already. One can never have too many tomatoes.
Our WWOOFer Vicki spent some spare time helping the major weeding and veggie bed refurbishing that preceded recent planting of multiple seeds and home grown lettuce seedlings in the warm soil. The benefit of growing large amount of seedlings is that thinning can allow for gifts and exchange with other gardeners – how many kale, mizuna, rocket, fenugreek and giant red mustard can you use?
Another part of the seasonal preparations was removal of the huge amount of nettles that were flourishing in the chookyard. Currently romanticised, the edible and highly nutritious nettle is undergoing a renaissance, mainstream acceptance being indicated by their presence on the menu at our local pub. I say romanticised as the bucket full I processed for eating, stripping leaves and blanching and steaming prior to making a hearty nettle pie ( see recipe), took quite a while and despite best efforts left my arms covered in nettle stings. Luckily we have dock growing and it provides a remedy. The remainder of the nettles removed were put in a barrel and topped with water and have broken down into a marvellous smelly nettle tea that is providing beneficial minerals to the veggie garden. Nettles have a long history as a herbal remedy for varied application from treatment of rheumatism to a traditional hair tonic. They are also high in protein, iron, beta carotene and Vitamin C. Once I’d removed them all, I was able to call on the help of the lawn care specialists I’d found at https://www.lawncare.net/service-areas/massachusetts/ to come and give the grass a new lease of life. I’m determined to find ways in which I can use this too.
Five varieties of rubarb will also provide for swapping and gifts throughout summer, as we await the tomatoes. It will provide for experiments in preserving and fermenting to add to the repertoire at Maison Bleue as plans develop for workshops on preserving the bounty of the summer garden in 2016.
Since my January blog of 10 ideas for a more Edible Bendigo in 2015 the interest in all activities food related continues locally: the community is embracing a local food coalition, the Bendigo Regional Food Alliance; a Food Hub is being scoped, with the intent of improving access and affordability to fresh food while supporting local producers; and people are warming to the idea of growing more of their own produce in more places.
Inspired by Incredible Edible Todmorden in the UK, a community initiative that enables the whole Todmorden township to be enthusiastic about growing and campaigning for local food, Bendigo has been formally endorsed as Incredible Edible Bendigo. The focus is on free availability of food mainly, but from the food growing and related activities local community food enterprises can establish and flourish.
Here is an updated version of my 10 ideas for a more Edible Bendigo – a reminder of what is possible when the community is viewed through a food lens:
Contribute to the new Bendigo Regional Food Alliance, supporting local food and urban agriculture policies as they are formulated to ensure your favourite food system ideas and expertise are included
Start a local community food market that champions very local produce – separate from a larger Farmers Market, involving small scale and niche producers and people from the Bendigo community with something edible and homegrown to sell or swap plus bargain boxes of seasonal fruit and veg, maybe with recipes for their use
Work with a community group to start a weekly community lunch using rescued, donated, homegrown and gleaned fresh produce. Check out the Castlemaine Community Lunch
Find out who else shares an idea you have around food production in Bendigo and advocate for change Eg. Why can’t our street trees be citrus trees? Wouldn’t it be great to have community orchards around the city? Have you heard of The Lemon Tree Project? or local ideas for a community food forest garden?
Think about what sort of new ventures could be established that will enhance the food system in our local community? a food hub or a community food centre? Check out the Bendigo Food Hub Feasibility Study and distribution of the Open Food Network and the brilliant Canadian Community Food Centres
Celebrate the diversity of food cultures in Bendigo with an annual event where we can learn food preparation ideas from our diverse citizens such as our Karen Community
Volunteer at the local primary or secondary school to grow fresh produce and share your experience with the students, such as the local Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation program at Eaglehawk Primary School
Invest funds in local community food initiatives and social enterprise startups, large and small, and where possible provide advice, mentoring and support. A new local social enterprise Growing Change has supported is Go and Grow Gardens
Find out about composting to reduce waste going to landfill to create greenhouse gas emissions – 2015 is the International Year of Soils. Let’s have a Composters’ Composium – an event similar to one in Melbourne a couple of years back that was a smash hit. Think about reducing waste in general.
Way out west community interest in food system transformation is powering along. Increasingly self reliant in energy from wind power generation, Albany, Western Australia, has a plethora of people and groups active in developing local community food initiatives, businesses and specialist produce to equally create a booming local food economy in the region.
Last week’s trip, along with Dr Nick Rose from Sustain. The Australian Food Network, included consultations with the Great Southern Food Hubs Committee plus Shires and other agencies within the Great Southern region. It highlighted the breadth of activity and desire to progress plans for a food hub in the region.
A visit to the local community farmers market on Saturday was an opportunity for a chat with local producers. Local asparagus and the variety of fresh and interesting veggies were of a high standard, the black radishes a new find, plus there were several types of tasty asparagus chutneys on sale.
The Rainbow Coast Neighbourhood Centre Community Garden and food swap were abuzz with activity following the market visit, with some interesting local plants and seeds and healthy looking produce changing hands at a rapid rate. There were even hessian covered kneeling pads made from shredded recycled paper for the taking.
Later that day many involved in the food hub discussions were also part of a local food network event where it was good to speak and join in a celebratory meal, prepared by Xavier, a Michelin starred French chef, fortuitously now a local business owner (and croissant maker par excellence).
The following day a festival, Food for Thought, focused on celebrating innovative food businesses, the benefits of foods grown and produced in a clean environment and community connection, was supported by a thousand people out and about on a bright and sunny day.
As a fly in fly out for my brief stay its clear that the food future of Albany, supported by so many local food champions, is very bright indeed.