The community food movement: communications and cooperation needed

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Story by Russ Grayson, February 2016

The community food movement: the emerging social movement around food…

Preamble

I wrote the original piece this article is based on in 2015, after the advisory panel mentioned had completed its work and before the report was finalised and sent to the minister's office. I did not publish it then and have not changed it substantially with this edition.

Recently, the research document that went to the minister has been published on the Department's website (link at end of story). I have not had opportunity to read the final version and see if it varies from earlier draft versions. Were I writing this article now, it could be somewhat different in light of the content of the published research.

Government documents are careful in their use of language, and I base that on my own experience of working in government organisations. The way things are stated in documents released to the public is sometimes milder than that during discussion around those topics and from draft versions. That is sometimes done so as not to offend groups or because emphasis needs be changed so as to fit departmental agenda.

My own use of language in this article, including some of the terms that appear below, was based on what was said during the life of the advisory panel and so may differ to what appears in the final document. Saying that in no way breaches confidentiality and the sources of some terms used remain anonymous (and in some cases I don't actually remember). I want to clarify this so that readers understand that a report can differ in its use of terms and intepretations to what appears in a publicly-released document.

On the advice of my partner I changed the title of the article as she thought it might sound a little alarmist and might discourage some in the community food movement. That, of course, is not my intention and I view the research document as corrective (also known as 'negative') feedback to assist the social movement around food become more effective. Those changes flow through the document.

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OVER THE FIRST HALF of 2015 I participated on a NSW government advisory panel that investigated future support for community food systems. The panel consisted of people from the Office of Environment and Heritage, local government, the Royal Botanic Gardens and people with a track record of involvement in citizen organisations working in community gardening, food security and food sovereignty. Those representing community gardening were drawn from the national organisation, the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network. They saw involvement as a means of enacting the Network's role in education and advocacy.

As president, Jane Mowbray represented the Network. Although I was asked onto the panel on my own behalf and to bring a national perspective to community gardening, I also represented the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (although I am no longer working with the group).

To gain an overview of community food systems in NSW and elsewhere in Australia, consultants were engaged to carry our research and to produce a proposal. A project brief was approved by the panel. The consultant's research was thorough and included personal and group interviews, focus groups and literature research.

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Some of the lessons from the research findings

Some of the lessons from the research findings

Yes, there is such a thing

It was not surpriing that the research verified what those in the community food movement have known for some years — that a community food movement exists and is made up of a diversity of voluntary, community initiatives and organisations. Having it independently verified was good as we could then be certain that it was not something imaginary generated by our close involvement in the movement or by some echo chamber effect of communciating only with others involved.

Point 1 of the lessons (above table) states that this diversity of organisations and foci is a good thing. I agree. There is a diversity because there are a range of priorities in food security and productive urban landuse that those organisations rose in response to. I also agree with point 6 and see this diversity as a barrier to the sharing of knowledge across a de facto social movement when it stays within its own individual milieu. In this I am reminded of something that Nick Rose, I think it was — he was then national coordinator of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (and now heads the Melbourne-based food sovereignty organisation, Sustain) said — that local stays local unless its experience, learnings and know-how are linked into a broad network whose members can learn from and make use of it (apologies to Nick if he was not the source of that statement).

The question of business

It was that voluntary, community-based component that was the focus of the advisory panel. There were questions about whether the social enterprise and small, for-profit businesses operating within the community food milieu were truly community food systems or whether they are part of the business, rather than the community, sector. For me, they are both because they straddle those two sectors, especially where they are 'social businesses' that use business models to achieve social goals.

Were grants through the Office's existing granting system to eventually be made available as a result of the enquiry, business and social enterprise would be ineligible as only community initiatives are presently approved.

A few of us argued in favour of social enterprise being eligible too, however enquiries by the state government staff on the panel found that they could not be accommodated. My opinion was that this was unfortunate and that distinguishing between for-profit and not-fo-profit enterprises would be a key to growing the community food sector.

It seems that it is how an organisation is structured that is the determining factor — whether it is managed by volunteers or operates as a not-for-profit small business, engaging in monetary transactions and with paid staff.

What complicates this is that organisations that start as voluntary, community-based initiatives can grow to an extent that voluntarism is no longer sufficient to maintain the scale of operations. It is then that some kind of bridging grant could assist the transition to financial independence. As well, seeking to fulfil social goals, like supplying good quality foods from a region, can often be best accomplished as a social enterprise. While the state government has statutary provisions that exclude grant support to such organisations in this situation, whether social enterprise should be eligible depends on your view of their small business structure versus their focus on a social goal.

Encapsulated in silos

Just as farmers store their wheat harvest in silos, so too does the community food movement store its initiatives in silos of practice and in silos of the mind. Point 6 in the table above says as much.

When the researchers confirmed that a community food movement actually exists, they were stating what was known by those who have been in the community food movement for some time. In going on to say that the fair food or community food movement is not a unitary body, they were again saying something that has been said by community food movement practitioners —  that the movement is fragmented.

This is likely an outcome of the diversity of a movement that encompasses initiatives as varied as chefs using local foods to people making unauthorised, spontaneous food gardens on public land. It shows up clearly on Facebook where you find myriad community/local/fair food initiatives and where you can learn about their activities. What is missing is some kind of knowledge base where those initiatives and organisations share their experience and know-how.

Use of the term 'silos' describes how people in this nascent community or fair food movement — the terms are interchangeable in use, with the latter carrying some political baggage — confine themselves to their particular interest, be it community gardening, home growing of food, food co-operatives, food rescue and so on.

Siloing is remedied by cross-group communication and cooperation. It is also about perception. What I mean by perception is that when people take an exclusive focus on their own particular initiative in the community food sector they can fail to perceive that it is part of a larger social movement. Someone engaged in advocacy for community gardening explained this when she said that many community gardeners just want to garden and not engage with broader networks of gardeners in their city or nationally. It is when their garden is threatened in some way that they find their attitude to have been limited, as support from other gardeners and national or regional community garden organisations is unavailable. They might not understand that cooperation with others would both defend and increase what they do.

The challenge, the consultant's findings seem to suggest, is in bringing the various community food silos, like community gardening, food swaps, food co-operatives, community-supported agriculture schemes and so on to an understanding that their individual focus is really part of something bigger, and that by engaging with that bigger milieu around fair food makes them and what do all that much stronger.

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Fresh vegetables produced by Laotian immigrant farmers on sale at Harvest Market, Launceston, Tasmania.

What of leadership?

I wrote earlier that it was their roles and experience in community food systems, local government and state government instrumentalities that led those on the advisory panel to agree that the community food movement is fragmented into specialist practices. As well as the aforementioned communication, cooperation and perception, fragmentation has to do with leadership. Or lack of a comprehensive, broad leadership.

There is no single organisation providing national coordination, education or advocacy around community food systems at the moment. Community gardening has a degree of national leadership through the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network and the organisation plays an advocacy as well as an educational and networking role. Lacking, though, are links to the others involved in building this diverse social movement around food.

This can partly be explained by the Network being managed by volunteers in the time they have available. That is true of other voluntary organisations as well. But it can also be explained by those links between the different elements making up the community food movment — the gardeners, the food swappers, the community educators, the advocates — not being substantial enough. And it is also about perception — the perception, or lack of it, that these myriad, local initiatives are all part of something bigger.

The closest organisation to filling a national leadership role has been the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, yet it seems to be focusing more, though not exclusively, on farming now — it has a farmer branch, FFFU, Fair Food Farmers' United. The Alliance was established in 2013 to lobby on the federal government's proposed National Food Plan, however the plan was scrapped by a later government.

At the time I was a member there was an undertanding that the community food movement would benefit from a more unitary approach and, at the time, the membership we built following the 2013 launch included a wide range of organisations, individuals and institutions. This demonstrates the possibility of building a broad membership that would represent Australia's community, social enterprise and small business food interests. The development of the crowdsourced Peoples' Food Plan, an alternative to the then-proposed federal government food plan, provided an accessible reference for what the Alliance stood for and a way of answering the question of what the organisation was about. It was something of a manifesto and having it proved of great value.

I should point out that regional food advocacy organisations with a reasonably broad membership base exist and will mention just two in the form of the Illawarra and Sydney food fairness alliances. They would be necessary additions to any national representative organisation, which might enact its program through them.

It will be interesting to see what the new, national food issues advocacy organisation, the Right To Food Coalition does, as urban people are key to a better food system as they have the economic power of their purchases. The Coalition was established in early 2016.

The challenge: how to represent the diversity

Whether it is possible to provide some kind of unitary leadership that facilitates cooperation and collaboration across the diversity of the community or fair food movement is questionable. An organisation attempting this would presumably focus primarily on education and advocacy and seek to build a self-consciousness into the movement, the perception that people engaged in the different elements that make up community food systems have a lot in common, and that communicating and working together could bring benefit to all.

Working against this is the aforementioned siloing of the movement and the reality that people working at the grassroots of community gardens, home food gardening, food co-operatives, community supported agriculture and the other initiatives are sometimes disinterested in what is going on outside their particular silo or outide their particular city, part of the city or region.

There is also a disinterest in engaging with politics such as comes with any national advocacy organisation. This is unfortunate as it is through the politics of advocacy that community food and other intiatives are safeguarded and new opportunities opened. For volunteers with limited time, the need to get the organisation's work done and ensure its continuity is the driver, and doing that can leave little time for participating in bigger initiatives like education and lobbying.

Even were a representative organisation to emerge many would not identify with it. The precedent for this is the permaculture design movement. A national organisation, Permaculture Australia, exists and administers the nationally accredited permaculture curriculum, a tax-deductible donations and grants scheme and networking media, yet most permaculture groups and individuals are not members. Ironically, being the only national organisation of its kind gives it a de-facto leadership, education and advocacy role although that would not be recognised by all practicing permaculture. The same would likely eventuate were some organisation to take national leadership of the community/fair food movement.

How the movement would address this calls for the application of imagination. Any initiative would need to go beyond the old and established model of setting up an organisation. It would need to be structurally flat, edgy and attractive so as to connect with the imaginative initiatives evident in the fair food movement.

At the same time it would need not to appear too radical so as to avoid scaring off conservative farmers and other conservatives interested in Australia's food sovereignty, the food security of our people and community enterprise. The Austraian Food Sovereignty Alliance found that it had to be cautious here because some of the rural and dietary nationalist messages it propagated could well appeal to jingioistic, nationalist interests of the far right. It didn't want to be captured by that end of politics and emphasised food-related social justice as a barrier to cooption.

Another player, or potential player in creating the sense that the community food movement has common interests across its varied organisations are community educators. These include those providing permaculture education as food production is a focus of their courses. Where they do not already do so, were they to link the bigger issues and concepts around food sovereignty and food security with their teaching about growing food in home gardens then they would create a context for what they teach.

The same goes for local government sustainability education staff, some of whom already make the link.

The enquiry

The fact that the government established a panel, and subsequently engaged researchers, suggests strongly that some working in state government know that there is an incipient community food movement out there.

At the same time, the research findings that the movement is siloed and lacking unitary leadership is troubling at a time when food issues have such prominence. Without some kind of national leadership or representation that is accepted by the range of initiatives making up the community food movement, it will likely come out second best where government or industry policy acts against its interest.

That already happened when in 2014 the national, industry food lobby, AUSveg, accused community gardens and farmers' markets of being biosecurity hazards. The Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, Permaculture Australia and the Australian Food Soversignty Alliance — which took the lead in encouraging others to act when then-national coordinator, Nick Rose, learned of the AUSveg allegations — issued separate media releases to counter AusVEG. But, is there an organisation that would represent the whole community food sector were similar challenges to occur in future?

The research provides useful insight into the community food movement. It gives us the corrective feedback any agile, adaptive movement needs to navigate the issues and opportunities of an often confusing world.

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Disclosure: Russ Grayson participated as a panel member on the NSW government enquiry into future support for the community food movement. He was a founding member of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and works in communications with the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network.

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