Millions of tonnes of food are wasted each year in Australia, and yet many struggle to afford to eat. Meet those seeking to change the ways we think about feeding our communities.
When I ask Patrick Lawrence what he did before becoming the Director of Humanitarian Services at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), his answer floors me: ‘Classical piano.’ I was expecting ‘Masters in International Development’ or ‘Engineers Without Borders’.
Ten years ago Patrick returned to Melbourne after completing a masters degree in classical piano at the University of Cincinnati.
‘I still wanted to make music but I found out about this place in St Kilda that was detoxing people off heroin on mattresses on the floor and they needed volunteers. I thought, “Well, if I don’t go today, I’ll never go.”’
He still works one day a week at First Step in St Kilda and plays organ in church on Sundays. At this point it occurs to me that I am lunching with a saint.
Australia’s largest asylum seeker organisation was established by then-social-work lecturer Kon Karapanagiotidis in 2001 and is now based out of a massive building in Footscray, Melbourne. What was once a call centre is now chickpeas and benevolence. The Community Meals Program is cranking, the lunch queue winds around the outside of the members’ area and people are shopping in the Foodbank.
The 1500 members of the ASRC can visit the Foodbank once a week and choose what they want from tall rows of shelves stacked with tinned tomatoes, grains, tuna, pasta and toiletries, and an adjoining room full of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Patrick explains where the food comes from. ‘About a third we purchase ourselves. About a third comes from what we call our Food Action Network, which is an unofficial affiliation of schools, places of worship, individuals, families, work places who collect food. And the other piece of the pie is the food rescue organisations that have been supporting us for a very long time: FareShare, SecondBite, Foodbank Victoria and more recently, OzHarvest.’
A local fishmonger donates about thirty kilograms a week and I meet a volunteer who donates chestnuts from his farm every season.
According to the Department of Border Protection, as of March 2015 there were 27,216 asylum seekers holding a Bridging Visa E (BVE). People on BVEs are not eligible for welfare payments and a large number are denied the right to work. Almost half of the members of the Foodbank receive no welfare payments and those that do, receive just over $200 a week. With no income, or no work, or both, the majority of asylum seekers find it impossible to survive.
With no income, or no work, or both, the majority of asylum seekers find it impossible to survive.
When I approached Patrick with the idea of writing about the ASRC’s Food Justice truck I had a Post-it note scrawled with THIS IS AN ISSUE OF FOOD SECURITY stuck in my notebook. But finding myself about to eat at the same table as asylum seekers I can’t sum it up that easily.
In the queue for lunch at the ASRC, Patrick explains the genesis of The Food Justice Truck.
[There are] about 10,000 asylum seekers in Victoria alone who don’t have access to the Foodbank. We prioritise those who aren’t being supported by one of the federally-funded case working agencies. We focus on people with no income. We focus on people with particularly great mental health needs or other serious welfare needs. So we’re left with these other people. Kon asked me the question, ‘What about the others?’ I said to him, ‘Well look, give me two weeks to cogitate and not sleep properly and I’ll come back to you with a proposal to have a serious impact on the nutritional landscape of 2000 asylum seekers.
I ask about the numbers.
‘I just invented the figure of 2000’, he replies, ‘just ‘cause I thought, well, 10,000 is just crazy. There’s no way in the world I can get my head around that. I had to put some kind of scope around it.’
So how to feed an extra 2000 people? The ASRC wondered whether they could build a bigger Foodbank somewhere else.
‘And the answer to that, fundamentally, is no. The FairShares and SecondBites, we’re maxing them out already. So we thought, let’s buy stuff in bulk and charge cost price.’
But they quickly figured out the asylum seekers have hardly any money for food, let alone public transport to go and get it. So bulk pricing was out, as was a second location.
‘There are asylum seekers all over Melbourne. They’re in the Far North, the South East, the West, they’re everywhere. Where are we going to base this place?’ They came up with a mobile truck combined with a social enterprise model.
‘Selling to two groups of people. One is the general public and they will pay our standard rates, and the other group are asylum seekers and asylum seekers will get a seventy-five per cent discount. The general public will know that essentially for every apple they buy, someone else is going to get an apple, too.’
Next came the idea to crowd fund the truck.
‘We’ve never done a crowd funding campaign. It is a very physical, obvious, sexy idea, bit hip and a bit fun, and it took off. I won’t say we raised $150,000 easily but we raised it with a few days to spare.’
The project secured 970 backers.
‘Basically every time Kon wrote something on Facebook thirty people would go and donate. Kon is fiercely intelligent. He started the ASRC when he was teaching social work at Footscray Uni. Since then he’s got a law degree. He’s almost completed a Senior Executive Masters of Business Administration and he has run most of the programs in the ASRC at one point in time. He is a pretty amazing guy.’
[Note to self: Marry Kon.]
A Monash University Department of Nutrition and Dietetics study into food security found that the average asylum seeker has just $20 to spend on food for a week and that it costs $130 a week to eat well in Australia. The Food Justice Truck hopes to make up some of the difference.
‘So that $20, if you’re getting a seventy-five per cent discount, becomes $80 worth of food.’
I ask if anyone else is doing similar things.
‘There are social enterprises all over the place. The soup van idea has been around for ages. The food charity sector is strong and well established but the size of the discount is a game-changer for asylum seekers.’
They are sourcing most of the fruit and veg for the truck from Spade and Barrow.
‘They buy the whole crop from a farmer, unlike the supermarkets that will only buy stuff that meets the guidelines – carrots that are straight and this length and perfectly orange and everything else – Spade and Barrow buys the whole crop. They use the term “nature’s grade”, so it might not look perfect but it is quite possibly even better in terms of flavour.’
‘So it cuts out the middle man?’
‘Massively. They’ve saved a few farmers from going under. We’re going to be buying from them for the Justice Truck but we’re also open to buying from everywhere.’
We have reached the front of the line. We load up our plates with food and Patrick hits the dessert bar. ‘Ooh I love crumble.’
The food truck has a pragmatic approach.
‘Somebody used this term at one of our planning days: Post Organic. My interpretation of Post Organic is it is not all about organic. It is about local, low fuel miles, no greenhousing. You might be better off using something that was shipped from Queensland than using something that was grown in a greenhouse in Melbourne.’
Commercial greenhouse operations consume a great deal of energy because they are heated and run grow lights. Inspired by Friends of the Earth, the truck will sell grain in bulk.
‘Red lentils, green lentils, plain flour, atta flour, wholemeal flour, long grain rice, basmati rice, maybe jasmine rice… That is a bring your own container situation.’
The truck is going to be as close to zero waste as possible. ‘People that support the ASRC also care about the environment and care about healthy eating. I took advice from various different people. Taking advice is a very important thing.’
One of the people Patrick took advice from was eco- restaurateur Joost Bakker.
‘He’s one of our main pro bono supporters around truck design.’
The Food Justice Truck is going to be a petrol–electric hybrid and there won’t be any cardboard in sight. ‘Part of the zero waste idea is most of the food is going to be in these plastic crates that we give to our suppliers. Joost refuses to use any suppliers that can’t give him the produce in a returnable, re-useable container.’
The chickpea curry is the best thing I have eaten in four and a half years but I am pissed off. ‘Do you ever feel angry that the government isn’t doing what it should be doing?’
Patrick pauses. ‘There is a wonderful quote that I love,’ he says. ‘Martin Luther King. Admittedly he had something to be angry about and I don’t really because my life is great. I’m angry on behalf of other people so it is a different kind of anger. But I first saw the quote painted on the wall downstairs. Someone was painting a wall but before they did it they painted this quote on it so it is painted into the wall. And it is, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”’
The following sentence should give you the pip: In the same year four million tonnes of food was thrown in the bin, 1.2 million Australians ran out of food.
Russell Shields has seen both sides of the food sector: corporate and community. Prior to being awarded the Churchill Fellowship to study international models of food rescue and community initiatives, Russell owned cafes and lectured in hospitality. He was a founding member of the Australian Food Hub Network and before he started work as the Food Justice Truck Manager he started the Community Grocer, a pop-up market that provides people living in high- rise commission flats with access to good fruit and vegies, and features a cranking weekly barbecue cooked by a seventy- five-year-old Turkish fellow called Mustafa.
‘I was appalled by the level of food waste. We were literally throwing out just hundreds and hundreds of meals every day.’
The clock struck epiphany for Russell when he worked for the 2006 Commonwealth Games organising committee.
‘I was appalled by the level of food waste. We were literally throwing out just hundreds and hundreds of meals every day.’
He saw a job going at a new food rescue operation called SecondBite.
‘They didn’t have an office. They didn’t have an asset. They didn’t have a van! They just had this great idea and a handful of volunteers to rescue good food that would otherwise go to waste and distribute it to people in need.’
SecondBite was founded by Ian and Simone Carson in 2005. It has grown from a few risk-taking visionaries huddled around a laptop in Ian’s accounting office to a national non- profit, rescuing and redistributing nearly six million kilograms of produce every year. Russell worked at SecondBite – what he calls ‘the corporate gleaners’ – for seven years.
Russell feels like the community food system runs parallel with the Melbourne foodie universe. ‘You have Melbourne which is the foodie capital of Australia, if not the world. Everyone talks about it as this amazing food destination, yet we have this undercurrent of need; this undercurrent of disadvantaged community members accessing food programs that runs alongside that.’
It is tough to estimate how many people don’t have enough food. Across Australia there are about 3500 community food programs and charitable organisations providing food relief. Russell says that the Global Financial Collapse in 2008 was a turning point for SecondBite and describes what sounds like a not-for-profit-flavoured existential crisis.
‘We went: Are we really addressing the problem? Are we really just part of the system?’ Russell pauses and looks around the packed ARSC lunchroom. ‘SecondBite shouldn’t exist. Ultimately we shouldn’t have a charitable food sector, we shouldn’t have 300 people lining up at the community soup van every night at Flinders Street asking for a hand out of food. We can’t continue to invest millions of dollars of philanthropic money in to propping up a broken food system.’
SecondBite invested in research in an attempt to get to the root cause of the problem. What the research showed was just over five per cent of the population in Australia are food insecure. A recent public health report, ‘Still serving hot soup?’, cites evidence showing one in four Indigenous people don’t have enough to eat and posits that neo-liberalism characterised by privatisation has added pressure to the charitable food sector.
Russell says, ‘We know if you’re an Indigenous Australian, if you’re older, if you’re unemployed, if you’re homeless, you’re more likely to be food insecure as well.’
And the demographic that has it the worst?
‘The evidence is seventy per cent of asylum seekers run out of food.’
The ASRC was one of the first recipient agencies of SecondBite, which is how Russell met Patrick Lawrence.
‘I remember driving down a little back lane with the van and he literally lifted up this little roller door in what was like a domestic shed. We threw in some potatoes and onions and some of the fruit and vegies that we had. I said, “This looks amazing. What are you doing in here?” and he talked me through the Foodbank and then he said, “Do ya wanna stay for lunch?”’
Russell ate a lunch cooked by an asylum seeker that was rich in flavour and community spirit – exactly what happened to me the first time I went to the ASRC.
The paradox is this: Australia, with a population of twenty-two million, produces enough food to feed sixty million people. Eight billion dollars worth of food gets thrown out every year in this country.
‘About 4.5 million tonnes,’ Russell explains. ‘Of that the majority is commercial and industrial food waste matched with a significant household food waste problem.’
Over the last twenty years there has been a power shift in the food sector from farmers to retailers. Tristram Stuart, author of the cracking good read Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Waste Scandal (2009) points out that, ‘Farmers throw away a third or even more of their harvest because of cosmetic standards.’
In 2011, Australian researchers looked at the impact fresh food specifications had on food waste on North Queensland banana farms. The results showed in one year 37,000 tonnes of fruit were wasted. It is sobering to think that at the exact same moment those bananas were rejected by clipboard- toting supermarket idiots because they weren’t the right shade of yellow, thousands of people queued up for some soup.
Spade and Barrow is aiming to tackle the issue of food waste on farms head on. The brainchild of Katy Barfield, former CEO of SecondBite, Spade and Barrow not only purchase the whole crop, they let farmers set the price of their produce.
Russell says, ‘It is so important that farmers become price setters not price takers.’
The Food Justice Truck chose Spade and Barrow as their supplier because they are honest. Russell says, ‘You look at their price list and it tells you the farmer, it tells you the size of the farm, tells you where the produce comes from.’
‘In a very murky industry, transparency is something we are fighting for.’
You can also see how much the farmer is paid.
‘In a very murky industry, transparency is something we are fighting for.’
In Supermarket Monsters (2015) Malcolm Knox writes: ‘Four crossbench federal parliamentarians, Nick Xenophon, John Madigan, Andrew Wilkie and Bob Katter, have designed a bill that would allow courts to order the break-up of companies that misuse their market power. It is directed squarely at Coles and Woolworths.’
Russell says, ‘Food corporations have incredible power and you don’t have to research far to see that power.’
You only have to read about how then-Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash’s chief of staff cut his teeth as a Cadbury rep and owned shares in a big food lobby group – and how the Minister pulled a healthy eating website the day it went live – to know that the big corporations have too much influence on policy around here. Small and medium farmers across Australia are leaving the land at the rate of 280 per month because they are being squeezed out by the food giants.
Russell’s thoughts are with the farmers. ‘They go to all the effort, and all the water and the inputs and the time and the land and the cost, for us to then just discard this produce. It’s abhorrent levels of food waste.’ Russell adds, ‘Farmers have 2.5 times higher suicide rates than any other profession in the country.’
I consider the environmental costs of food waste to be pretty much the worst thing that ever happened. When Russell says that a quarter of the world’s water is used to grow over one billion tonnes of food that nobody eats, it gives pause. The fruit that was wasted in one year on those banana farms created 16,300 tonnes of CO2 emissions and used 11.2 gigalitres of water.
Russell says, ‘Food waste emits methane: a toxic gas which is twenty-three times more potent than car exhaust fumes. So when we throw out food we’re not only throwing out all of the inputs that is has taken to grow that food, we’re then adding to environmental degradation.’
If the food waste, supermarket duopoly and piss-weak politicians have gotten you down, fear not. ‘We’re seeing a really strong community food sector that is growing significantly across Australia,’ says Russell. ‘We’ve got the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, farmers’ markets are on the increase, you’ve got diversified distribution models such as food hubs, open food networks, social wholesalers. People are really getting back to food.’
The Food Justice Truck starts trading at three o’clock on Friday 20 March 2015. By the time the photographer Graham and I arrive at the launch, Patrick Lawrence is beaming.
‘We sold out of artisanal sourdough,’ he says.
There are four ASRC volunteers manning the till and restocking the Spade and Barrow produce and someone just popped a champagne cork. As someone who rides a vintage Peugeot road bike and wears ironic koala-pumping- iron jumpers, I can say this: the truck has hipster appeal. Joost Bakker has donated a couple of grain grinders, there are portable stools made by a SecondBite volunteer and timber interior and tables donated by Urban Salvage, a recycled timber yard in Spotswood. Tea from Storm in A Teacup. There are apples from Summer Snow orchard. The foods such as rice, red lentils, okra and chillies are culturally appropriate: with asylum seekers coming from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, the truck has to cater for a broad mix of cuisines.
My favourite part about the truck (aside from the staff, volunteers, customers and the good men and women at CobaltNiche and VMS Geelong who designed and built the thing) are the labels on every food item telling you where it was grown.
After the end of the first day’s trade I watch the zero waste Food Justice Truck pack up and drive away. While Graham chases it down the street like a crazed paparazzo, I watch some kids kicking a soccer ball around the Footscray Primary School gates and it all just seems so right.
A report into refugee food security says, ‘for refugees and asylum seekers, focusing on community food security strategies could assist in building community capacity, facilitate the retention of cultural integrity, restore and maintain dignity, and will be instrumental in ensuring both short and long term health.’
Russell reckons, ‘We need to have a humane and just approach to the asylum seeker issue and policy and ultimately it is going to benefit all of the community. Food’s the same.’