Trendy ‘whole foods’ take over Australian shelves
These days, the average grocery shop involves a plethora of confusing food labels, from free range eggs to organic cereals and pesticide-free fruit. Savvy supermarket chains are harnessing the growing popularity of these ethical foods, their stocks of would-be healthy and eco-friendly options growing in range and shelf space. Woolworth’s purchase of independent organic food chain Macro Wholefoods is testament to this trend, but there remains a hazy gap between the consumer demand for and the credibility of such virtuous food products.
These prolific ‘whole foods’ provided by supermarkets are problematic on two levels; they’re unusually expensive, and their hefty price tags don’t typically reflect any financial benefit to the producer.
Closing the gap: an alternative for fair farming
Former organic farmer Julian Lee recognised this divide whilst running his own commercial market garden in the Hunter Region of New South Wales. “The system in Australia is extremely unfair,” he says. “It’s close to impossible to be viable on a small and sustainable scale.
Frustrated by the inequitable distribution of profit for harvested goods – Lee states farmers pocket as little as five cents from every consumer dollar spent on produce – he became involved with community supported agriculture initiative Food Connect.
The business is based on the centralised packaging of fruit and vegetable boxes, which are then distributed to a number of suburban pick-up points. Company representatives, or ‘City Cousins’ as Food Connect calls them, volunteer to manage the weekly collection of orders from church halls, community centres and private homes.
Originally founded in Brisbane six years ago, Lee has spearheaded the Sydney chapter to great success, with over 30 City Cousins currently operational. All produce sold is certified organic, fair trade, and locally sourced within 250 kilometres of the CBD.
Boxed benefits: eco-friendly objectives meet business brains
The spillover benefits of this type of operation are numerous – lower transportation costs and thus reduced fossil fuel usage, increased community awareness of sustainability and a closer connection between consumer and producer, to name a few.
The contents of boxes vary from week to week as determined by the seasons, which Lee says some people might find off-putting compared to the mainstream supermarket set-up. “They’re not seeing that convenience and choice means that values around fair, local, sustainable and the community are compromised – it’s a juggling act.”
This is the exact balance struck by Food Connect, a self-proclaimed ‘social enterprise’ whereby the values of a not-for-profit organization – in this case, social and environmental motivations – are blended with business acumen to create a self-funded, profitable yet ethical venture. Lee cites making organic, local produce more accessible, sourcing the healthiest foods possible and giving farmers a much fairer deal as key components of the Food Connect ethos. Indeed, his operation returns 40% of profits to its growers.
Room for improvement: the new food distribution system
Queensland’s natural disasters of 2010 and 2011 reinforced the need for increased food security tactics in Australia; the robust Food Connect model could offer one facet of the way forward. “After the floods, mainstream networks broke down and big trucks couldn’t get close to the city, whereas Brisbane Food Connect’s small scale operations were able to continue,” Lee explains. “You need different distribution networks on different scales… what we want is a diversity of ways of delivering food.”
Lee also notes the benefit of having customers gather in one location, rather than have their boxes delivered directly to their doors. “There, they’re able to meet other like-minded people who are also really passionate about healthy, sustainable foods.”
City cousins often go one step further, hosting special events during pick-up times for customers to socialise – Lance Lieber at Bondi Beach arranges a dinner each Wednesday night, while Michael Mobbs at Chippendale organises holiday drinks. “It’s a great way of building a community,” Lee explains.