Where is your food from?
Not all research leads to a Eureka moment. Sometimes it’s a hard slog where the errors can reveal as much as the successes.
But then Kirsten Larsen isn’t looking for a Nobel Prize. She just wants you to know more about the carrot you’re eating.
Larsen, a research manager at the University of Melbourne, is trying to link urban communities with nearby farms. She has set up a Food Hub – she calls it an “action research project” – in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. And it turns out the value of the trial was just as much about what went wrong as what went right.
Larsen’s team chose Dandenong, on the city’s south-eastern fringe, for the Hub. The population is growing rapidly and while there’s productive farmland nearby, it’s difficult to buy the local produce.
“Really your only option is Coles or Woolworths in some of the new areas,” says Larsen, from the University’s Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL).
Using new software, VEIL set up an online system for farmers to log their produce – mostly fruit and vegetables – every week. Local people and businesses order online, then farmers bring their goods to a warehouse in Dandenong. Workers package up the orders which are delivered to businesses and to smaller hubs like community organisations for collection. Larsen says the Hub is “no middle-class organic marketplace,” and includes a focus on feeding vulnerable communities. The prices are usually lower than in supermarkets.
The Hub opened in early 2014 and is still running. The research part of it was funded by VicHealth.
“People are so excited about the possibilities to connect with their food and where it’s coming from,” says Larsen. “And the farmers are sticking with it, because it needs to work. We have so many farmers going broke and leaving the land.”
The project aims to supply high-quality, healthy, local fresh produce, to pay a fair price to farmers, to reduce food waste, and to build more resilient and sustainable food supply systems. Larsen says food security is increasingly an issue and people shouldn’t “just take for granted that there will always be an excess amount of everything”.
Larsen says Coles and Woolworths control about 80% per cent of Australia’s food retail market. Food is transported long distances through a complex supermarket supply chain, and the consumer often doesn’t know where good are from.
The prices are usually lower than in supermarkets.
The supermarket giants may have their critics, but running a Food Hub is no easy task. “It has been difficult,” Larsen notes wryly.
Matching supply and demand – and scaling up orders to be viable for farmers – was hard. Produce was limited in winter. Wholesale buyers were difficult to please. The people keenest to help often did not have business skills.
And yet it did work, and Larsen has written up these problems and how to manage them. “To put a research lens into this field of activity … can really bring value to the people who are trying to do it day in, day out,” says Larsen, referring to other food hubs, which are mostly smaller with limited IT support.
Larsen says the Open Food Network software trialled by the project makes food hubs more viable and replicable, and cuts administration time. “I see huge potential … we’re at the early days of an explosion of innovation in this field.”
VEIL, which works on emerging innovations which could form part of future sustainable systems, has also mapped Melbourne’s outer suburbs to show where food could be grown. And researchers have produced “food freight reports” for fruit and vegetables, showing how freight works (and could be improved).
Larsen is also part of VEIL’s Australian Research Council-funded project to model national scenarios of food security in the future, using the CSIRO’s Stocks and Flows Framework. This will show the implications of climate change, drought and degraded soils for food production, and investigate under what circumstances there might not be enough food to go around.
Take a look at the produce and prices at the Dandenong Food Hub here (search under ‘South East Food Hub’).
Policy Challenges Research Manager, Victorian Eco Innovation Lab (VEIL)
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD