Food from somewhere
Authors | Royce Millar and Melissa Fyfe
The carrots are crisp, tasty and sometimes crooked. You wouldn’t find them on the shelves at Woolworths; and that’s the point.
”Vegies that aren’t supermarket pin-ups,” is how food activist and student Kat Lavers describes the boxed organic vegetables she distributes from her Northcote verandah each week. For $30, a handful of inner-Melbourne households get fresh-picked seasonal produce, currently including potatoes, leeks and kale, at a price that cuts out packaging, middle men, storage and long-haul transport.
”A friend came to dinner and said ‘this is the most pumpkiny pumpkin I’ve ever eaten’,” a proud Lavers says of the vegies fresh-picked from the rich soils of Daylesford and dropped off by grower Rod May each Saturday.
Lavers’ project is one of numerous such food box schemes operating in suburbs such as Northcote and Brunswick. Along with farmers’ markets, which have flourished in Victoria, community gardens, and the revival of the backyard vegie patch, they are part of a movement offering an alternative to the mainstream food industry and what critics regard as the anodyne offerings of supermarkets in particular.
In some regions, the movement is also an escape route, or lifeline, for small farmers overrun by the export-focused agri-industry that farming has increasingly become – and that federal and state governments have fostered – under the open market policies of post-1980s Australia.
But what chance do crooked carrots and slow food have in a country where the convenience of shopping malls and supermarkets make them the primary food source for most of the population?
Can alternatives be anything other than what one senior Victorian government figure described as the ”psychic rewards” for the middle class?
Australia is a prodigious food producer. It is a common boast that our farmers are as efficient as any, generating enough to feed 60 million people. More than half of what we produce is exported. Federal and state support tends to focus on export sectors like dairy, beef, lamb and wheat as farms scale up and rationalise to compete with other often subsidised players in the global marketplace. But there is mounting concern among health experts, in particular, that fruit and vegetable growing for the domestic market is fast becoming the poor cousin of Australian agriculture.
Smaller fruit and vegetable growers also struggle for survival in a food supply chain increasingly dominated by Coles and Woolworths, which now control more than 60 per cent of fresh food sales.
With the rise of supermarket-label foods – now 25 per cent of groceries – there’s a sense of what French farmer activist Jose Bove describes as ”food from nowhere”.
At odds with this wider industry trend is a growing consumer interest in ”natural” and ”local” food, an interest that underpins the growth of alternatives, including organic box schemes and farmers’ markets.
Agrifood consultant David McKinna says there is a latent consumer demand for people to be in touch with the provenance of food. ”The farmers’ markets offer someone an experience. You don’t go there to find cheap food. It’s not cheap. It’s not always good quality. But people go there to talk to the guy they think grew the potatoes.”
When Australian National University food sociologist Jane Dixon interviewed shoppers in western Sydney and around Shepparton in Victoria, she was repeatedly surprised at the depth of animosity to the supermarket behemoths.
”People hate them,” she says. She says interviewees often complained about feeling corralled into supermarkets because of lack of choice. ”Once in, there is too much choice but they can never find anything.”
In the Goulburn Valley, an ”extraordinary explosion” of farmers’ markets was sparked by locals angry that supermarkets were not stocking the region’s produce, Dixon says. ”They viewed their farmers’ markets as giving local producers an alternative income stream.”
In the last decade, thousands of Victorians have become more connected to fresh produce by choosing their fruit and vegetables from farmers’ markets. The first farmers’ market in Australia was held at Koonwarra in South Gippsland in 1999. Since then, they have sprouted across the country, doubling in number since the mid-2000s.
Victoria in particular has embraced the idea, with about 90 markets now operating and the Victorian Farmers’ Market Association claiming that more than half of the state’s households visit a market at least once each year.
While impressive, such figures are dwarfed by the fact that Coles and Woolworths alone take almost 80¢ of every dollar spent on groceries in Australia. Supermarkets are popular for good reasons. They are ubiquitous, in prime locations, offer one-stop shopping and are open long hours. It is an undeniable competitive edge in an increasingly hectic, 24-7 world. This is why – despite the remarkable growth of farmers’ markets in just 13 years – few food industry experts regard farmers’ markets as a practical option for feeding average Australian families.
Prominent food commentator and author Gabriel Gate is one of the doubters.
When Gate spoke to The Age he was at Brive-la-Gaillarde, a town of about 50,000 in his native France. He explained how three times a week, a market was held in the city’s heart, as it had been for probably hundreds of years.
The market, he says, is a key outlet for local farmers and a major source of fresh food for the town’s residents. ”It’s a large market where you see real farmers,” he says. The Australian idea of a farmers’ market in one place, once a month, is a bit odd to Gate. ”If you were a farmer you can’t rely on that,” he says. ”We end up with people just growing a few things. They certainly won’t worry the big boys too much.” Indeed they don’t.
Coles celebrates the farmers’ market movement. ”I think there’s just an interest in having fresh product,” says Coles merchandise director John Durkan. ”Farmers’ markets being competitive for us is a great thing, our products we would regard as fresh as anyone’s. Our business is growing very healthily in the fresh areas.”
Critics are inclined to scoff at ideas such as Gate’s – that Australia could sustain a European-style farmers’ market network. They point to Europe’s jealously guarded farming and food traditions that have not translated to Australia’s suburbia.
Food market analyst Martin Kneebone regards the farmers’ market trend as driven by ”weekend greenies”, albeit well-meaning ones who want to ”do their bit”. ”Ask them if they’re going to the farmers’ market on Wednesday night at 5.30? Not a show. Wouldn’t matter if a market was open; they’re in too much of a hurry. In our view convenience and value are going to override that sort of stuff.”
Jane Dixon agrees and disagrees. She agrees convenience is now crucial. But she is confident shoppers would flock to well-located markets open for business at the right times. What is required, she says, is for local government across the country to find space for such markets in convenient locations, preferably, but not exclusively, accessible by public transport.
She says the models for Gate’s local markets are already here: the Queen Victoria, South Melbourne, Prahran, Dandenong, Footscray and Preston markets; the remaining markets from Melbourne of yore. ”They’re the way to go. Allow them to open three to four days a week with extended hours. In the inner city they can make use of old buildings. In outer suburbs they can build something new.”
Dixon calls on local councils to play a proactive role in providing space for such markets, and to ensure they are allowed the opening hours to maximise business. ”This is the most viable mass alternative to supermarkets,” she says.
In Victoria, the idea is gathering momentum. Kirsten Larsen, a Melbourne University food policy researcher and campaigner, is a champion of the European-style markets. While she supports organic food box schemes and farmers’ markets, she says the alternative food marketplace ”simply isn’t big enough”.
Larsen says the current model of monthly farmers’ markets doesn’t work for many farmers because to make a living ”they end up driving all over the state”. Regular local markets held in suburban and town centres across the state would draw more farmers to markets, and encourage more people to take up the farming challenge.
She is working with local government, including the City of Casey in Melbourne’s south-east, on the idea of a ”food hub” that allows farmers to bypass established food supply chains. ”I don’t believe we have all the answers. I don’t know this is going to work. But it’s about trying to give people real choices. The thing we need to do is grow the pie.”
The push for the resurrection of village-style fresh food markets comes as local, state and federal governments start to grapple with the vexed issue of food security.
The federal government is developing its first national food plan. The Victorian government is under pressure to consider food as part of its forthcoming metropolitan planning strategy for Melbourne.
This week the Melbourne City Council adopted its first food strategy.
Markets selling fresh, local food can only work if they have local farms to supply them. In Melbourne’s case, the obvious sources are the market garden precincts such as Werribee in the west and Clyde in the south-east, which currently face mounting pressure from urban sprawl.
If governments are to get serious about local food they will have to address thorny questions such as whether to set aside prime farmland around urban centres for food.
Government attention to such issues is overdue as far as Karen Bembridge is concerned. Two years ago, the mother-of-four from Wyndham Vale had a life-changing experience. She decided to grow her own food. Since that decision, Bembridge left her job in retail, lost several kilograms in weight, and now feeds her family from the abundant beans, cauliflower, cabbage, snow peas, lettuce, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes she nurtures in her backyard.
Bembridge now heads the local Shoestring community gardening project. Like Larsen, she is working with local councils, in this case Wyndham, about food policy for the outer west. She also recently showed some 15-year-olds from a local school through a community garden. ”When I pointed to a pumpkin and a cabbage some of the kids couldn’t name them. Either the supermarkets don’t sell them whole or they don’t get fed vegetables. Either way, something is wrong.”
Royce Millar and Melissa Fyfe are investigative journalists. This article first appeared in Fairfax media in June 2012 and is reproduced here with the permission of the authors.