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Amid concerns about people going hungry, how to grow a more resilient food system

VicHealth is putting the spotlight on food security and healthy food systems this week as part of its Life and Health ReImagined initiative.

Join the webinar discussions from 2pm AEST on Thursday, asking ‘Good food for all, how do we get there?’

Panellists include: Dr Rachel Carey, Lecturer in Food Systems at the University of Melbourne, Dr Nic Rose, Executive Director of Sustain, Lisa Brassington from Cardinia Food Circles, Russell Schields, Founder and Chair of The Community Grocer, and another speaker yet to be identified.

Marie McInerney previews the discussions below for the Croakey Conference News Service, which is covering the #HealthReImagined discussions over five weeks of webinars.

To join the event, to be moderated by Virginia Trioli, register here, follow #HealthReImagined on Twitter and this Twitter list of participants, and see this Twitter tip sheet. Bookmark this link to follow Croakey’s coverage.


Marie McInerney writes:

Australians were not only panic buying toilet paper in the early weeks of the pandemic. We were also stripping supermarket shelves of rice, pasta, flour and other staples.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told us in no uncertain terms to stop it, while Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud sought to reassure us of supplies, declaring Australia has “the most secure food security in the world”.

On the surface our food system – “the complex web of supply chains that bring food from farm to fork” – appears to have performed well during the pandemic, says Dr Rachel Carey, Lecturer in Food Systems from the University of Melbourne.

However, Carey warns that the pandemic and its accompanying economic shutdown “is making visible the cracks in our food system”, for farmers and farming, as well as inequities in our access to good food and our reliance on charities to address these gaps.

Carey, Kirsten Larsen from the Open Food Network and Jodi Clarke from Ripe for Change have co-authored a paper for this week’s VicHealth Life and Health ReImagined series, which in Thursday’s webinar will focus on: Good food for all, how do we get there?

They say food relief for growing numbers of struggling Australians in the pandemic was hit by social distancing restrictions and a lack of volunteers, forcing some community providers to close their doors. Also, supermarkets made fewer donations to food banks because they were dealing with such strong consumer demand.

As well as massive queues of people outside Centrelink, many people who were denied access to Job Seeker or Job Keeper payments, including overseas students and asylum seekers and refugees living in the community on temporary visas, were forced to queue for food.

The paper also warns that COVID-19 has revealed vulnerabilities in complex global food supply chains, “with disruption to imports of some farm chemicals and food ingredients, a loss of markets for farmers who sell into the food service and hospitality sectors and rising food waste.”

Carey said food insecurity is largely the result of poverty and is therefore best addressed through policies that promote full employment and job security, and welfare support that ensures everyone can afford to eat and live.

But, with concerns that it will continue to rise as Job Keeper payments are wound back, she suggests Australia could also consider government safety nets focused on food security, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program in the US, which supports around 9.5 million families as well as the farmers that it buys directly from.

“We hear a lot about Australia being food secure,” Carey said.

“But surely one of the main functions of a successful food system should be to make sure that everyone in Australia has access to enough healthy food?” she asks.

“In that sense our system is currently failing.”

Remote costs

In April, a coalition of 13 Aboriginal organisations in the Northern Territory called on the National Cabinet to immediately guarantee the supply of affordable food and other basics in locked-down remote communities.

They said community stores were running out of fresh food three days after their weekly delivery and warned of exorbitant prices faced by many remote communities.

Melbourne’s Indigenous Data Network is currently crowd-sourcing data on those costs via social media. Its regular posts show prices for items like bread, orange juice, and chicken that are routinely double those of non-remote areas.

Meanwhile, submissions close at the end of this month for a Parliamentary inquiry into food pricing and food security in remote Indigenous communities, which was ordered by the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, and is due to report in October.

The need for policy change and systemic and structural reform to address food insecurity in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is by no means new, as Indigenous health academics Professors Bronwyn Fredericks and Professor Odette Best wrote recently.

The 2020 Close the Gap report also warns of the existential threat being posed to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, community and country from climate change, saying food insecurity is experienced by at least one-third of remote households.

The report highlights the impact on the Yuwaalaraay/Gamilaraay people in the New South Wales town of Walgett, where community members had to rely on packaged water donations distributed by the Aboriginal Medical Service after the Namoi and Barwon rivers dried up.

“The devastation to our rivers, no rain, the lack of water flow, loss of fishing for traditional foods and gathering of plant food is very significant to the deterioration of the social and emotional wellbeing of our community,” AMS CEO Christine Corby explained in a report from the Yuwaya Ngarra-li Walgett Food Forum. (See more about the Dharriwaa Elders Group’s work to address these issues in this earlier Croakey story).

Fredericks and Best say longstanding food insecurity issues in remote communities have been exacerbated in the pandemic by border and regional restrictions, community lockdowns that made people reliant on more expensive local stores and restricted their access to traditional foods, and shortages due to panic buying in other areas.

But, they say, while Indigenous Australians living in remote and discrete communities experience a greater risk of food insecurity than others, there are a range of reasons why people might experience food security, regardless of where they live.

According to the 2019 Food Bank Hunger Report, more than one in five – or around five people million Australians – were unable to afford food during the past year.

At least once a week, around half of them were forced to skip a meal or cut down on the size of their meals to make their food go further. One-third had to go a whole day at least once a week without eating, it said.

The VicHealth report says about four percent of Victorians experience food insecurity, but the burden is increased for particular groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (19 percent), lone parent households (13 percent), and unemployed people (12 percent).

That means they often have to skip meals or eat low cost unhealthy foods, leading to poorer health outcomes and higher rates of overweight and obesity, it says.

Social enterprise

Foodbank Australia defines food insecurity “as individuals or households having limited or uncertain physical, social or economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious and culturally relevant food”.

That definition resonates loudly for Melbourne social enterprise leader Bec Scott, CEO of STREAT, which runs five cafes and catering businesses that provide hospitality training and work for dozens of young people dealing with chronic homelessness, drug and alcohol dependency, family violence, and mental health issues.

In the early days of the pandemic, she knew that closing these businesses across the city would be terrible for at risk groups, particularly asylum seekers and refugees living on temporary protection visas and others with no access to Job Seeker or Job Keeper.

At the same time, Scott was hearing that social distancing regulations were closing down more than 800 community garden plots tended by residents at public housing estates across Melbourne. (Croakey has previously reported on the importance of community gardens for mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic.)

“I couldn’t believe that a whole heap of food social enterprises were going to go under at a time when we were clearly going to be facing some of our greatest food insecurity needs,” she told Croakey.

Scott speed-dialled many of her peers and within weeks they had set up Moving Feast, a collaboration of nearly 20 organisations that are not only delivering food relief – to date more than 50,000 meals and 20,000 fresh food boxes – but are looking to longer-term risks by planting, tending and mapping community gardens across Victoria.

The aim is to have thriving backyard and community gardens, so families have their own food security, not just for this pandemic but for what climate change will bring.

Bec Scott

What also differentiates Moving Feast, Scott says, is the determination to put culture and quality at the core of food relief and resilience, to provide choice and dignity.

She and her partner Kate Barrelle said so much emergency food relief in Australia offers only highly processed foods and no cultural choices.

“Fine if you’re getting a cheese sandwich for school lunch as a one off, but if it’s every day and it’s the main meal you’re having, then that’s not fine,” Barrelle said.

“You can have access to white bread and rice and packs of Get Up and Go so you don’t go hungry, you don’t starve,” she said.

“But it is not nutritious, it’s certainly not healthy, and it’s the furtherest it should be from culturally appropriate”.

Food relief

Carey says initiatives like Moving Feast are providing food relief in new ways and in ways that strengthen the resilience of the food system. They are also testament to the strength of community groups that are dug deep in their communities and able to rapidly respond and scale up in a crisis, she says.

Larsen’s Open Food Network has done that internationally.

The open source online platform run from the Victorian town of Shepparton is now connecting networks of farmers, wholesalers and markets with consumers in 13 countries, including France and the UK.

The aim is to get a better “farmgate price” to farmers who want to embrace sustainable agriculture but struggle against commodity market prices and big retail monopolies.

Open Food Network’s business “skyrocketed” in the pandemic, with a 14-fold increase in revenue across the platform in April, Larsen said.

Demand has eased back now, but still turnover is four or five times what it was before COVID-19, and the network has forged new connections and innovations.

Larsen says people asked how she and co-founder and partner Serenity Hill knew the pandemic was coming.

“We didn’t,” she says. “But we knew that our food system was brittle and that we needed to diversify supply networks to be providing fair supply chains to farmers and to get healthy food to people.”

Growing resilience

In their paper, Carey, Larsen and Clarke say food system disruptions like Moving Feast and Open Food Network and changes in consumer behaviour – with more people buying locally, cooking at home, and planting their own vegetable gardens – have “sown the seeds” in the pandemic for a more resilient food system.

But they say Australia will also need to look at other issues and ways to address future shocks and stresses, whether from pandemics, economic crisis, climate change, or fuel supply disruptions.

That includes better ways to deal with food surpluses, amid reports that some farmers who lost markets ploughed crops back into the soil, and to manage reliance on critical imports such as fertilisers, fuel, farm machinery, animal feed, additives and some types of food packaging when global food supply chains are disrupted as they have been in the pandemic.

They say food and agricultural policy in Australia currently focuses primarily on increasing large-scale export-oriented agriculture and will need to foster more diversity, to support both local and global supply chains, small and large scale food production, community and commercial production, and more diverse crops, given we currently don’t produce enough fruit and vegetables to meet healthy eating guidelines for the population.

To do that, we will need to protect agricultural land around rapidly growing cities, secure water for food production in a drying climate, encourage regenerative agriculture, and look to Indigenous knowledge, such as efforts by author Bruce Pascoe to produce native grains for flour and bread using traditional Aboriginal techniques.

The paper concludes:

We will be food secure when all Australians have access to a healthy diet, when farmgate prices support farmer livelihoods, when we produce food in ways that regenerate rather than deplete natural ecosystems and when the food system is resilient enough to withstand the shocks and stresses that we know are likely in future, as well as those we haven’t yet anticipated.”


• Follow the #HealthRemimagined panellistsBookmark this link to follow our coverage of #HealthReImagined.

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