Local government: linking community garden to urban food policy

Story by Russ Grayson, April 2012

IT WAS something that puzzled me after I started work at the City — how could we create a good food future in the City of Sydney?

It was over a couple years ago now that I was working as the City's community gardens/Landcare coordinator and it was my job to act something like what social entrepreneur educator, Ernesto Sirrolli, told me was was a ’civic entrepreneur’ (that's how he explained it to me at his talk to City staff; the role should be different to the usual council staff, public service position, he said, because it worked directly with the public) and assist groups establish community gardens on City land.

This I did thanks to the City's Community Garden Policy that had been drawn up by Annie Walker, who was the previous community garden coordinator. I had been pleased to have some input into the policy thanks to my work with the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network.

That policy is a good one. It's clear on a process to start community gardens, but it doesn't stop there. It goes on to include the development of community food systems. Here's what it says:

[quote author=""]Community gardens are just one type of urban agriculture; the City will continue to support a range of local food projects to accommodate the different needs of residents living and working in Sydney.

The City will provide information, advice, grants and support to local food initiatives such as community supported agriculture schemes, food cooperatives, farmers markets, school kitchen gardens, City Farms, food aid and rescue programs and Green Roofs. The City will also continue to run workshops and education programs for residents in organic gardening, resource recovery and sustainable living.[/quote]

That's a comprehensive policy because it situates community gardening within its wider context or urban agriculture (non-commercial, community food growing practices are sometimes described as 'civic agriculture' to distinguish them from commercial, urban market gardening) and links to that broader context through offering support.

I've been informed, unofficially, that the policy comes up for review next year, and I've yet to confirm this. If so — and let me be clear that I'm speculating here — then I hope the community food system/civic agriculture component is retained. My concern is that the compartmentalised structure of local government, where things are stuffed into silos with little cross-talk or or cooperation between them, could lead to those big picture contexts being dropped.

Whether that happens depends on the person tasked with reviewing the policy in the City's parks section and to others with influence there. It was my belief when I worked there that the whole community gardens portfolio belonged in community development, not parks, as community gardens are essentially about people in communities.

That community garden policy... it links to a woman who visited me when I worked at the City. She explained that she was from the City of Melbourne and that she was writing a food plan for her City.

This immediately piqued my interest because I had been thinking around ways to start a conversation among some of the potentially-receptive staff and, later perhaps, assist to develop a policy proposal around the idea of a food policy for the City of Sydney. I had been reading about local government food plans and policies and was wondering what one would look like in the City of Sydney. That was before my temporary role came to an end.

Ideas

Why I hope the City's community garden policy retains its community food system flavour is because it could serve as the basis of a food plan or policy. The civic agriculture component could be expanded to include support for commercial food production and processing of food produced in the Greater Sydney region and, where not available from sources in that region, from Australia as a whole.

Establishing a role for the City in Sydney's regional food economy would, I think, be a suitable overall aim for a food policy. Why? Because sourcing what food a city eats from the urban fringe market gardens, orchards, mushroom growers and chicken farms, and from further afield, makes for a more secure food supply. Community and home gardens supplement this with smaller quantities of commonly-eaten foods although much motivation for joining community gardens is social rather than food-related.

A policy would necessarily look to changes to planning and zoning to create opportunity for civic and commercial food production, processing and distribution. It would not focus on benefits to the supermarket duopoly as that requires no government support because it is wealthy enough to look after itself, and because its presence can suppress opportunity from small to medium food enterprise through asymmetric competition. A policy would also look for ways to reinforce those organisations serving lower-income people presently struggling to supply their families a continuous supply of good food.

Processes

It's the wealth of the City and its socially progressive identity that gives it the potential to support regional food systems and the type of civic food enterprises the City mentions in its community garden policy. That capacity could include small to medium scale food businesses that the City could support through economic and cultural as well as policy/regulatory initiatives that could be incorporated in a future food policy.

Economically, a low cost means of assisting civic and the smaller, commercial food sector supplying fresh produce and processed food products from the Greater Sydney region would be to make premises available at low-to-no-cost. This would enact the 'local' in local government and favour local business.

Something worth considering would be a food hub, accessible by public transport, that would serve as a base for community-based food distribution systems like community supported agriculture and food co-op enterprises, as well as food processing (such as a community kitchen) and sales. This would have the potential to draw people from a considerable distance were a diversity of food to be offered for sale and food and cooking education included in the development. A food hub might go a little distance to helping Sydney catch up to Melbourne's reputation for food and liveability.

A cultural component of a food policy could be to build on the existing food festivals the City hosts in Hyde Park and elsewhere. What's needed here is greater focus on using the food productivity of the Greater Sydney region and for the City and festival organisers to promote that.

Reforming the regulations around home food production to make it easy for people to cook in their kitchen and sell would have the potential for innovators to start their own food microenterprise and to market new foods. As reported in Forbes business magazine, California recently liberalised its cooking-for-sale-from-home laws and "... created over a thousand local businesses" (http://www.forbes.com/sites/instituteforjustice/2014/01/29/california-legalized-selling-food-made-at-home-and-created-over-a-thousand-local-businesses/).

Community kitchens, hired on a time share basis and perhaps located within a food hub, could serve those without suitable home premises to cook for the market as well as for cooking education entrepreneurs offering courses and workshops in soft cheese making, food preserving and simple, affordable cooking.

Procuring its own food

But what about the City of Sydney itself... the types of food the council supplies? The principle of regional development could be applied here, too, and foods could be sourced from the region, where available. It's all about sustaining a regional, viable, food-based economy.

The City already has a food procurement policy but when I worked there little regard was paid to it. When it was circulated I recall a staff member loudly exclaiming that no policy was going to tell her what food to supply or to eat. This sort of reaction is natural enough when people feel they are being dictated to. The policy mentions using regional food and organic food where available and brings up the question of the 'food miles' that foods travel from producer to processor to eater, however this is a smaller component of food system sustainability.

Were the city to develop a food plan, I think revisiting its food procurement policy and incorporating it within the plan would be worthwhile.

Hire the right people

How would the City go about producing its own food policy?

An unfortunate trend I have noticed in local government is the practice of putting inexperienced people, people who do not have knowledge of an area and who do not participate in the relevant networks outside of their employment, into roles. This might be existing staff or it could be new staff. The result can be good if it's the right person, however the result is often mediocracy and a lack of innovative thinking and risk-taking. This would not be the way to produce a food policy.

If local government — and here I'm talking about any council at all — wants to hire someone to write its food policy then it could do no better than to bring in people from food education and advocacy groups as advisers to participate in the hiring process or, better yet, hire them to do the job either as staff or, preferably, as consultants.

As for the City of Sydney, developing a food policy would be the means to economic and cultural stimulation for small business and civic agriculture and would restart the council as a social innovator hot, hopefully, on the tail of Melbourne.

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