University of Wollongong Honours student, Anna Smith, recently completed a study on the role of alternative food networks in creating resilient food systems in the Illawarra. Here is a synopsis of her research findings:
The overarching aim of my thesis was to explore the ways in which organisations in the Illawarra region contributed to food security and resilience. Utilising semi-structured interviews, I was able to engage with the diverse objectives of organisations operating outside of a mainstream network of national retailers and suppliers.
Working with Food Fairness Illawarra (FFI), I interviewed participants from the following organisations: Hidden Harvest, Popes Produce, Thirroul Community Garden, Green Connect, Cook Chill Chat/Stir it Up!, Food Fairness Illawarra, A Garden for Life, Flame Tree Food Co-op, Unanderra Community Garden, The Source Bulk Food Wollongong, Warrawong Community Lunch, Oz Harvest, Fair Food Forager, Darcy House, and Farmer by Choice.
The key findings are as follows:
1. Organisations within the alternative food network are pivotal in shaping opportunities for hands-on and immersive experiences that unsettle and reshape entrenched relationships between people and food. This finding is in line with cultural geographical research (e.g., Beachem, 2018; Turner, 2018). For example, Kylie from Green Connect revealed that many of her customers were confronted by meeting the pigs that would become their pork. By promoting the farm’s ethical pork production, Kylie was able to reshape customers’ meat consumption habits (see Figure 1).
2. The nature of transformation provided by these organisations is incremental rather than systemic. As these organisations are situated within people’s everyday lives, they are therefore more meaningful, with the capacity to change long-term habitual behaviours. Although small scale, this transformation appears to be sustainable over the long term, in comparison to the dominant globalised food system. Whilst the Illawarra region alternative food network does not pose a radicalised, massive disruption to the system, these organisations are an effective alternative to the dominant globalized food system and are united with the goal of working to benefit the health of their immediate community. My study reveals that incremental transformation occurs via several avenues:
Although small scale, this transformation appears to be sustainable over the long term, in comparison to the dominant globalised food system.Anna Smith, University of Wollongong
- Reducing food packaging waste through alternative ‘slow’ bulk produce shops and through direct contact with producers using reusable packaging to sell produce (e.g., Popes Produce, Farmer by Choice, and Green Connect);
- Cooking classes (e.g., offered at Ozharvest and Cook, Chill, Chat) that allow individuals to learn new skills, eat healthier, and interact more with their food;
- Individuals engaging with seasonal vegetable boxes (e.g., available from Green Connect).
When asked to reflect on whether and how their organisation was opening up spaces for societal change, participants not only emphasised the slow, incremental nature of such change, but the importance of organisations maintaining their presence in the ‘space’ of the alternative food network for at least a few years in order for the community to see what they are doing, to benefit from their work, and to potentially alter behaviours. Berbel, organiser of Hidden Harvest, notes that “societal change is something that happens over time, it’s not something that happens very quickly, so I think the longer you can sustain and provide an environment where that happens, the longer the more people come through the better that societal change is.” This study indicates that such small-scale, incremental change should not be under-estimated in terms of its long-term transformative power.
3. The alternative food network and organisations’ generative capacities are inherently fragile. As the majority of these alternative food initiatives rely on volunteers, the alternative food system is in itself vulnerable as it hinges on individuals donating their time and energy. Organisations within the network are also heterogeneous in nature and further seek to address social justice issues beyond food security (such as employment and access to mental health services). Despite their inherent social capital, this important work is still marginalised.
The majority of these alternative food initiatives rely on volunteers, the alternative food system is in itself vulnerable as it hinges on individuals donating their time and energy.Anna Smith, University of Wollongong
4. These organisations are primarily limited by a lack of funding, time, and supportive government policy. The organisations providing key food aid to susceptible community members typically don’t receive nearly as much funding as they should from the government, considering the important services that they are providing to the community. As such, a lot of these organisations’ already limited time is spent trying to find and allocate funding so that they can continue to provide the services they do. Sandra from Unanderra Community Garden describes the tedious criteria and long applications for grants as “becoming more of a headache each year” and that each year they are growing “more and more competitive”. Donna, the main leader of the Warrawong Community Lunch service, notes that “we survived on small grants and donations and cut back hours” until budget cuts meant the service had to be run entirely by volunteers. This is a significant drawback, especially considering the fact that the need for the service is incredibly strong: “we have 60 to 80 people coming in here three days a week to eat lunch… so there’s obviously a need out there … some people are really, really hungry.”
The organisations providing key food aid to susceptible community members typically don’t receive nearly as much funding as they should from the government.Anna Smith, University of Wollongong
Overall, the study reveals that there is an emergent resilient food system already in place in the Illawarra. Mobilized individuals emerge as a particularly effective means of achieving resilience in a localised food network, suggesting that there is the possibility of almost exponential growth regarding individualist behavioural change in a localised food network. Therefore, it is important to initiate and sustain passion around food issues. In other words, the alternative food network inherently relies on social capital. Adger (2003) notes that a system that can demonstrate strong social capital is capable of overcoming adversity. Thus this study argues that strong social capital is necessary for an alternative food network to thrive. However, legislative changes to facilitate the redistribution of surplus food, and increased funding for these organisations is necessary to further leverage social capital to tackle food problems and navigate pathways to resilience that are equitable and socially just. These organisations are actively facilitating nuanced change and building systems for resilience. Therefore, my thesis recommends expanded scope for funding so that these organisations can continue making progress in the direction of more positive, incremental, knowledgeable, and resilient food futures.
If you have any questions for Anna regarding her work, you can contact her at email@example.com