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Local Food Systems Thriving In A Crisis

A weekly veg box full of fresh locally grown food. Photo by Mindi Cooke

Local food networks have proven their ability to deliver the goods during recent waves of climate shocks and panic buying. With Australia’s food system failing to calibrate in time, to ensure everyone has equal access to the basics when they need it most, local food hubs, such as Food Connect in Brisbane, are ensuring noone misses out on household basics, including toilet paper!

With shorter distances to travel and strong relationships established with growers, a local food system can respond to crises with agility and certainty. Growers know the back roads and can often bypass highway lockdowns with their smaller trucks. The networks established between growers, small transport companies and distribution hubs means they can respond quickly to requests for assistance.

Local Food System Answers The Call

Food Connect – a small social enterprise in Brisbane – has been feeding customers for 15 years. At the same time, Food Connect pays growers their true value of production and has built a secure supply of locally sourced food from farmers who use organic and regenerative farming methods.

Started by ex-dairy farmer Robert Pekin, Food Connect’s business is built on the concept of community supported agriculture, where a relationship between the growers, makers and eaters goes beyond a simple online transaction. Customers are provided with information about the people who grow and make their food, and supply-chain pricing is transparent.

Growers are supported through a stable price – the last price increase was three years ago before the drought – and so they’re not subject to market fads. They grow just enough product to service Food Connect and their own direct markets, and have the ability to ramp supply up and down as needed.

How Food Connect Works

To the unknowing eye, Food Connect looks like any other online fruit and vegetable market. However, there are a few business rules that make it very different from your average online shop. As a social enterprise, Food Connect works to pay growers fairly, while providing affordable organic produce to the public by doing the following:

  1. Negotiating a stable price with each grower every season that respects their need to look after their soil, water catchments, animals and workers.
  2. Growers do not have to be certified organic but must go through a comprehensive process of ‘beyond organic’ principles.
  3. Once accepted into the scheme, growers bring in a pre-ordered amount of produce to the warehouse every week, where the team sorts it for wholesale and retail customers.
  4. Customers make their orders once a week, online, and have the option to create an ongoing subscription to a weekly, fortnightly or monthly delivery. This subscription enables a stable market for farmers, who like to plan how much to grow and harvest each week and reduce waste.

Box Orders To Drop-Off Points

Food Connect’s packing team fills a range of set box orders from each week’s harvest, which have been designed based on customer feedback. The cardboard boxes used to pack orders are re-used within the system between six to 10 times before being recycled.

Orders are delivered in small vans to a network of drop-off points or ‘city cousins’, who are customer-volunteers who act as the local community collection point for other customers in their immediate neighbourhoods. City cousins can also build community from their homes, with many forming longterm relationships with their local customers. Then the cycle repeats the following week.

Customers Choose A Set Box

Food Connect customers get to choose from a variety of set boxes, which all contain that week’s seasonal fruit and vegetables. They also have access to a large range of groceries, including dairy, breads, eggs and artisan products from local food makers. The online system is easy and they can choose to pick up from their nearest city cousin, or receive home delivery for an extra fee.

The following week’s harvest is updated on the website every Friday to help customers plan ahead, before the online ordering system closes at 10 pm on Sunday night. Many customers love the feeling of opening their box of fresh produce and reading the letter explaining that week’s harvest news. They feel more connected to the growers through the stories told in social media and emails, and farm tours are traditionally part of the Food Connect experience to enhance the connection between growers and eaters.

Photo by Alberto Monterego
Photo by Mindi Cooke

Clockwise from above left: Packing orders in the warehouse; Large veg box; One of the packing team at Food Connect; Farm fresh apples.

Photo by Mindi Cooke
Photo by Alberto Monterego

Paying Farmers The True Cost

In late 2019, Food Connect’s community helped buy the warehouse, rented for the previous 12 years, through an equity crowdfunding campaign. The Food Connect Shed is Australia’s first community-owned local food hub, providing a stable market for farmers and creating a home for many ethical food entrepreneurs.

To date, the following impacts have been achieved:

  • 50 percent of retail price returned to farmers (compared to the national average of 14 percent);
  • 1500 householders fed local, nutritious food weekly;
  • Reduced food miles: 140 km weekly average (national average 1200 km);
  • Closed loop food system – no food ever goes to waste;
  • 20 permanent jobs maintained, and this number is growing;
  • 15 food entrepreneurs incubated;
  • 45 buyers clubs, restaurants and cafes supplied;
  • $29 million generated in the local food economy.

Supporting Farmers Like Franco

Farmers love Food Connect because of the relationships built over the years, but also because it gives them another avenue to avoid the central market system. Take Franco Cencig, a thirdgeneration farmer in Redlands, a productive peri-urban area east of Brisbane. Franco was about to give up farming because he couldn’t attract good prices for his biodynamic produce and he wasn’t big enough to negotiate the price with agents.

When Rob Pekin saw him, looking frustrated, at the central market one day, he signed Franco up immediately to Food Connect. Between weekly farmers’ markets and Food Connect, Franco now makes enough money to stave off the property developers and support his children and grandchildren, who all want to make farming their profession.

From Farmer’ Markets To Buying Online

When the global pandemic forced us off the streets and onto our computers to hunt and gather online, Food Connect’s orders quadrupled in a matter of days. Similar stories are being told by local food initiatives all over the world. Farmers are quickly overcoming many obstacles as they attempt to redesign entire business models and improvise home deliveries. Farmers are even starting their own online deliveries using an innovative platform called Open Food Network.

How Open Food Network Operates

Initiated by fair food activists in Australia, Open Food Network is a non-profit that uses open source methods of software development to build a new food system that is fair, local and transparent. The open source platform enables new, ethical supply chains to develop.

Food producers can sell their product online, wholesaler buyers can manage buying groups and supply produce through networks of food hubs and shops. Communities can bring together producers to create a virtual farmers’ market, building a resilient local food economy.

It’s clear that a great deal of food will be purchased online for the foreseeable future. Like an underground insurgency, communities are finding ways to cooperatively grow, source and distribute good food.

Connecting Farmers To Consumers

Bringing food back to a relationship-based system is not just a feel-good exercise. It values all actors along the supply chain, and removes central control and access to good food. Not only that, it reduces the carbon footprint of the huge logistical operations of our current food system, and can encourage farming practices that build healthier soils and regenerate land and water systems.

This is important because we know that by engaging growers who care for their soil, through organic and regenerative farming methods, that carbon can be sequestered from the atmosphere. The solution to our global food and environmental crisis is literally under our feet. Many soil scientists are now saying that by increasing

the carbon content of just two percent of the planet’s soil types, we could offset 100 percent of greenhouse gas emissions being released into the atmosphere. Consumers are demanding more transparency from producers too. Many of us are now choosing to eat holistically-grown foods.

Local Food Systems For Local Resilience

The health of our food system requires a more regionally relevant solution to withstand future instabilities. There are a range of options to explore, but it starts with one question: What would it look like if there was a network of regional food initiatives like Food Connect located in communities all over Australia, providing an alternative supply chain during pandemics and climate shocks? It would include remote communities, like those north of Alice Springs, who are currently going without or receiving limited supplies of fresh food and other household staples. A regenerative and localised food system that is connected to strong networks of solidarity economies can give us that much-needed resilience.


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