On a bright spring day at the Bendigo Pony Club, Thanisa Adams is packing away her leftover produce after a busy morning at the local farmers’ market. Beneath a blue marquee there is a trestle table half-filled with leftover bunches of green radicchio and parsley. She’ll try to sell what she can to the Melbourne Food Hub and what she cannot sell she’ll donate to a local food relief centre.
She picks up a bunch of green radicchio, its outer leaves beginning to wilt in the sun.
“One of the biggest problems I have is distribution,” Adams says.
“There are a whole lot of growers producing good food and there’s a whole lot of people who need food, but there is a big gap in the middle that doesn’t link up.”
After graduating with a Masters in Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems in 2018, Adams started her farm on a quarter–acre block on the outskirts of Melbourne in 2019. The farm produces organic cut flowers and seasonal vegetables that are grown responsibly and help reduce food miles — the distance produce has to travel to reach consumers.
“I started farming because I wanted to do my bit,” she says.
“When I was younger, I read a lot about food security and food sovereignty and that’s how it all started.”
Her first years of farming haven’t been easy, alongside distribution her other biggest challenge has been the climate.
“The weather has been problematic,” Adams says. “Last year it was a really wet winter and then we had thunderstorms. That brought in a whole lot of pests and ducks that destroyed a lot of my crops.”
“And then over summer it was quite humid so I didn’t have any capsicums and hardly any eggplants or tomatoes.”
Adams pauses for a moment. “This winter has been a lot better,” she says.
While Australia is considered food secure at the national level, according to Foodbank Hunger Report 2020, food poverty and food insecurity have sharply increased in the past 12 months. In 2019, 15 per cent of Australians experiencing food insecurity were seeking food relief at least once a week. In 2020, this had doubled to 31 per cent. It is largely due to COVID–19 but food insecurity was already a significant problem in Australia before the pandemic began. Recent weather events, such as bushfires and floods, have highlighted the effects climate change could potentially have on food networks and future food supplies.
WHAT TO DO WITH LEFTOVERS?
The Bendigo Farmers’ Market has begun to thin out. The blue marquees that form a horseshoe around the edge of the grassy field are slowly disappearing. There are just half a dozen people circling the stalls as producers pack away their trestle tables and produce.
Adams is grateful to be given a spot at the market each month.
“Some farmers’ markets can be difficult to get into, many of them already have long–term stallholders and don’t want too much of the same thing,” she says.
The leftover produce from today’s market will travel back up the highway with her, and what she cannot sell, she will donate to people in need.
“I’d like to work more closely with food hubs in the future and maybe even grow the kinds of things people want to eat,” Adams says.
“When people get a food relief box they are often getting food they would not choose to eat or food that is not culturally appropriate.”
SORTING OUT THE LUCKY DIPS
On a Wednesday morning at Bendigo Foodshare, volunteers are throwing items into black milk crates in the centre of the room. The small warehouse is situated in an industrial enclave in Long Gully, one of Bendigo’s lower socio-economic areas. Foodshare marketing manager, Jess Elevely, calls the milk crates “lucky dips”.
“We fill the crates with whatever we have on the day and send them to local charities to give out,” Elevely says. “Each week it’s different depending on what we have.”
Today the crates contain pizza crackers, cans of coke, sachets of sugar donated from a local café, packets of McKenzie’s cornflour and tins of vanilla Sustagen. Each crate also contains large amounts of chocolate.
A volunteer holds up a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. “We’ve got a lot of these this week,” she says.
“It’s the fancy stuff too.”
Behind her, there is a wooden pallet loaded with cardboard boxes. Lindt Chocolate is printed on the sides of each one. Elevely is quick to point out this is not a normal day at Bendigo Foodshare.
“We don’t usually have this amount of chocolate,” she says.
“These have been sent to us from Melbourne Foodbank.”
Another volunteer tosses a bag of rolled oats across the room and it lands in the first black crate.
“We better put something healthy in there,’ she laughs.
The volunteers work fast. They have been here since 7am. More than 200 volunteers work across seven days a week to keep this small warehouse in operation. But it’s not all pre-packaged food that they are sorting, there are two walk-in cool rooms that house frozen goods and fresh produce.
“On Wednesday afternoons we usually put together the fruit and vegetable packs. The volunteers will start working on those after the lucky dips,” Elevely says.
The volunteers will also fill orders for local food charities, such as the Salvation Army, which will put in a request for specific items. When Bendigo Foodshare first started in 2013, it was supplying 15 emergency relief agencies and five schools. According to its latest annual report, in 2020 the group provided food to 93 organisations and 43 schools. It is estimated that it is feeding more than 13,000 people every week in Central Victoria.
PLANS FOR A NEW FOOD HUB
Due to the current need for food relief, Bendigo Foodshare has just received an infrastructure grant from the Victorian state government and is one of five regional cities to receive the capital funding. Bendigo Foodshare manager, Bridget Bentley, says the funds will help in the development of a new food hub for Bendigo.
“We outgrew our premises a number of years ago and this funding will allow us to manage more food and our team of volunteers safely and comfortably,” Bentley says.
“At the moment we handle distribution and processing of food that is donated rather than delivering to individuals but that might change in the future.”
They have plans to build a new food hub that will include larger storage facilities, a café, community garden, commercial kitchen and a social supermarket. The introduction of a social supermarket into the model will give people an opportunity to purchase the food they want based on a points system.
“At the moment, if you give somebody a $20 Coles voucher, they will only be able to get milk, bread, some bananas and maybe carrots, but that’s about it,” Bentley says. “But you give them 20 points at a social supermarket and instead of $20 worth of value they’ll get like $110.”
The new food hub, which will be the largest in regional Victoria, is set to be built at the site of the Bendigo Pony Club; the current location of the Bendigo Farmers’ Market.
“There’s an opportunity to work with the Bendigo Farmers’ Market and producers, and potentially sell items or become a pickup point for their customers,” Bentley says.
“The council is committed to working with us, which is great. Our core business is to rescue food and share it out to the community and, with a new food hub, it will allow us to do that but also build food skills and knowledge.”
One of the initiatives Bendigo Foodshare introduced several years ago was ‘Grow a Row’, a program encouraging people to grow produce in their own gardens and return the harvest to Bendigo Foodshare.
“We’ve just done a garlic drive, giving out garlic bulbs to the community for people to grow for us,” Bentley says.
“This year we also had over a tonne of citrus donated from people’s gardens.”
GO ON, GROW YOUR OWN
Interest in local food growing has increased exponentially in the past few years. Not since the Second World War has Australia seen such enthusiasm for homegrown and locally sourced produce. According to a research paper prepared for the City of Greater Bendigo, it was considered a national duty to grow produce in the 1940s as lower crop yields were expected due to a deployed workforce. Concerns about the availability of fruits and vegetables encouraged people to grow and share produce with their neighbours and community.
The City of Greater Bendigo encourages people to grow fresh food through practical guides available on their website and local projects that encourage people to start their own backyard vegetable gardens. According to Bec Dalrymple, Food Systems Officer at the City of Greater Bendigo, it has become an important focus for the city through the development of the Food System Strategy 2020-2030.
“We went through a really big consultation process, internally and externally when we were developing the strategy and the action plan,” Dalrymple says.
“We touched base with every unit to sort of see what they could do in this space.”
In the summer of 2019, the parks and gardens staff transformed Bendigo’s central parks by replacing seasonal flower displays with vegetables. Over the duration of the summer, rows of beetroots, kale and fresh herbs filled the centre of Bendigo. It was part of their unit’s commitment to promoting the health and environmental benefits of a strong local food system. According to the Food System Strategy 2020-2030, the rate of food insecurity in Bendigo is 6.96 per cent, which is higher than the state’s average of 6.22 per cent. Darymple says that current linear food supply chains contribute to the problem.
“A linear food system means you basically grow food, transport food, eat food and then it sort of ends up in landfill,” Dalrymple says.
“It’s a very inefficient system. What we are trying to promote or create is a closed–loop food system where you are producing, growing, transporting and selling food locally.”
According to the CSIRO State of the Climate Report, reducing emissions associated with local food production, transportation, and waste has the potential to slow climate change. The City of Greater Bendigo plans to develop policy that will protect horticultural land and support farmers to use regenerative practices and grow food in a changing climate.
“We know that we need to work collaboratively with key stakeholders across the food system if we’re going to make a difference and actually create a healthy local food system,” Dalrymple says.
PACKING UP AT THE END OF THE DAY
In the future, producers such as Thanisa Adams might be able to sell their leftover produce at the new food hub and continue to “do her bit” by providing healthy locally-grown food to people in need.
As Adams packs the last of her produce into the back of her white ute she offers a bunch of green radicchio to a passer-by who gratefully accepts.
She tells the woman how to prepare it: “Just fry it in a little olive oil with lemon juice. It’s a bit bitter but really nice in pasta.”
The woman smiles and puts the radicchio in a calico bag slung over her shoulder. “I’ll be sure to drop by next month,” she says.
“I’ll be here,” Adams replies.