Where big food fails in the floods, Food Connect connects

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Emma-Kate Rose reports from Brisbane

As we all clean up after the floods, we're also now hearing about the difficult times ahead - rising costs, rising expenditure, infationary pressure, higher rates, etc. One of the major shortages ahead will be food. Not only have the farms been wiped out, but it's going to take them years to re-establish crops and plantations.

We've all heard about the problems at the Rocklea markets, but we haven't heard about how food supplier, Food Connect, has been faring.

Food Connect is a social business which aims as much as possible to put the face on farmers’ food, act as a facilitator between farmers and city folk, create drop off spots called City Cousins for city people to pick up fresh produce, get to know their farmer and get a connection with the land in their bioregion.

Brock (left) delivers Food Connect orders to a City Cousin.

Mainstream suppliers go under but Food Connect keeps its head above the floodwaters

The Rocklea Markets were taken out during the floods, and they are the major distribution point in SEQ. Food Connect were also on tender hooks on the Thursday night because they couldn’t deliver on Thursday. But by Friday, the Produce Coordinators Rueben and Luke gave the thumbs up. They were worried because most of the farmers are located within the flood-prone areas... the farmers were ready to supply and they’d worked out alternative transport arrangements for some badly affected farmers. Food Connect went through unabated and actually ended up with excess produce and, in the process, also managed to supply 3,000 meals over the weekend and delivered ice to all the areas with no power.

Over the course of the weekend, chefs and volunteers turned up to the warehouse, in non-flood affected Salisbury, to cook up all the excess produce. On the Friday many trucks turned up all through the night and it soon became clear that the humble Food Connect warehouse acted as THE transport hub, because Rocklea was completely under.

Robert Pekin, the founder of Food Connect, found that living without power at his home in West End was losing its attraction, so he, his family and a few staff took refuge at the warehouse to receive goods for many small businesses and restaurants who’d heard about them and used them as an interim pick up spot.

During the floods, Gympie’s supermarket shelves were empty but the little guys had plenty of stock. It surprised even Robert, and he’s been on about a local food system for 15 years now. He thought, “Here we go, this is the test”.

Pretty much all of SEQ was wiped out and Food Connect has about 120 farmers in that area. Astonishingly, only five farmers required help and working bees were organised to help them out with mending fences and other clean up jobs.

This shows the strength of local family farms having a direct network to their consumers and the advantages in by-passing the major supermarkets. The sheer power of the major logistics chains, owned by the big supermarkets, clearly didn’t cut it in times of emergency.

Food Connect's Brock delivers weekly, affordable organic fresh food boxes to a City Cousin.

Food Connect avoids anarchy with organisation and guerrilla food deliveries

Food Connect used Facebook as a vehicle to share the news and through word of mouth even got food across to Bellbowrie. The saying, “You’re only nine9 meals away from anarchy” resonated in that community at that time, with the authorities scrambling for solutions.

Meanwhile, at about 3.15am on Wednesday evening, a bunch of fit West End folk had filled two canoes and a dinghy, and under the cover of darkness avoided the police and delivered fresh produce into Bellbowrie! They kept doing that for the next couple of days, beating the Army in.

There’s a lot of things that have struck Robert about the flood. To him, it was plain to see that food wasn’t seen as a critical essential service. Robert reflects, “The authorities were mostly worried about getting power on, but if you don’t have a meal in your tummy.... It’s an essential thing. It’s a special thing, food. It shouldn’t be seen as a ‘commodity’.

As all of Queensland saw, everyone pitched in and helped. But we even got through the landslide on Mt

Nebo - Food Connect has little, nimble vans, drivers who know the local roads, and farmers have got contacts everywhere, and this helped us out. We were able to sneak around all the back roads, even our farmers were able to get out in the paddocks because they’re not reliant on big heavy machinery. They didn’t have bent up irrigation gear. So their losses, particularly the smaller ones, were minor. The resilience of this local food system: being small, nimble, armed with local knowledge - really showed itself up through this event.”

A small Food Connect weekly fresh food box.

One of Food Connect’s farmers who fared OK sent down a heap of meat to feed the volunteers. Only one farmer asked Food Connect for a price rise for a limited time because his aquaponics system suffered some damage. All other farmers were fine, mind you, Food Connect pays them pretty well - last year they paid 59 percent of the retail dollar back to their farmers, and that’s pretty incredible when we know what the supers are giving them - an average 15-20 percent - and they still haven’t had a price rise since 2009!

Food Connect's arrangement means a fair slab of the money or of money goes back to the farmers who sign up, so they’re not only helping city people get healthy, clean food, but they’re also creating healthy, economically viable farms.

“That’s the dual goal that sometimes gets us a bit caught out, and we’re a non-profit social enterprise here in Brisbane and we have replicated the model in Sydney and Adelaide,. The Sunshine Coast, Hobart, Newcastle, and Canberra not far off from starting up. It’s one of these innovative, open source systems that isn’t about money, it’s about just doing the right thing for a critical service.” says Robert.

It is a great flood story - the fact that the Food Connect system was able to get around the problems that the big suppliers weren’t, and get into the places that the authorities and those with all the technical gear couldn’t. And it was all due to local knowledge and local ability.

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