A shared vision for a fairer food future

13th July 2021 | Alison Turner

Consumers are hungry for connection. They want to know how and where their food is grown, and who produced it for them. But this yearning for connection goes both ways – farmers also value knowing who eats the food they work so hard to grow and produce, and who uses it to create the products we eat. More growers and eaters are beginning to recognise the value of local food systems that build and foster that link, and place the benefit of consumers, food producers and the environment over profits. This has led to the establishment and ongoing success of a growing number of community-focused food enterprises which provide sustainably-produced food that’s been purchased at a fair price.

A former rubbish tip, the CERES Environment Park is now a thriving community food hub.

A growing movement

CERES (pronounced “series”) is a Melbourne-based environmental education centre, community garden, urban farm and social enterprise hub that’s providing locals with the opportunity to reconnect with the earth and each other, as well as the food supply chain. CERES’ social enterprises – which include an online grocery store, market gardens and nurseries – are designed to move food production and consumption away from globalisation and towards localisation, and their ongoing success is a clear indication of how eager consumers are to feel a closer connection with where their food comes from.  

The organisation’s “mothership” – the CERES Environment Park – was born on the banks of the Merri Creek in East Brunswick. This former 10-acre rubbish tip site was transformed into a community garden and environmental education centre in the early 1980s.

“There was lots of community gardening, and people running their own chooks, cows and goats,” says Chris Ennis, General Manager of CERES Fair Food, the organisation’s online organic grocery service. “This slowly developed through the ’90s into a larger city farm where food was grown. Then there was a weekend organic grocery market, and that was before you get organics in many places. From there, it just grew and grew and grew.”

CERES Fair Food also provides employment for new migrants and people seeking asylum.

Let’s stick together

CERES Fair Food first began as a weekly staff vegie co-op at the CERES Environment Park. But word quickly spread, and soon CERES was supplying 10 neighbourhood co-ops around Melbourne’ inner-north. In 2009, this collection of co-ops was turned into an online store which now has 1500 weekly customers. Organic fruit and vegetables are sourced locally as much as possible, including CERES Joe’s Market Garden in Brunswick, but produce is also sourced from organic farmers across Victoria, as well as other states for specific produce such as bananas and mangoes. All profits are used to fund CERES’ educational programs.

“We now have roughly 150 growers, grocery makers and suppliers,” Ennis says. “Some of those relationships go back 20 years, since our early market days. We’ve always based the way that we go about this in terms of ongoing relationships – we stick with our growers, and if someone tells us we can something cheaper, we won’t just run towards the cheapest price. We appreciate the relationship more than saving a couple of bucks.”

This loyalty doesn’t just benefit farmers when prices drop. By remaining true to their growers and paying a reasonable price for their produce, come the end of the season when a food is scarce, CERES will be the business that the growers will choose to supply.

“During lockdown, Coles and Woolworths delivery services got swamped and basically crashed,” Ennis says. “Overnight, our customer numbers tripled. And thanks to our suppliers, because we’ve been sticking with them for all these years, we were the ones that got supply. They stood by us and made the extra effort to make sure that we had stock. And we got everything we needed, so we could make it through that crazy period.”

Since its inception, the CERES Fair Food customer base has expanded from eco-minded inner-north consumers of the early days of the co-ops to a much wider variety of people.

“We’ve gone from our heartland of like-minded, environmentally active people to this really broad range of customers right across Melbourne,” Ennis says. “We get people coming to us all sorts of reasons, whether it’s for their health, or there’s something going on in their family, or there’s just no organics available in their area.”

Rob Pekin: “I realised that people really wanted that connection with the farmer.”

From loss to learning

Up in Brisbane, social enterprise Food Connect is also connecting farmers and consumers. The organisation was founded by former dairy producer Rob Pekin, who was inspired to pursue a different way forward for farming after losing his family’s fourth-generation dairy farm. Pekin began exploring the concept of community supported agriculture (CSA) – a model of food production and distribution that directly connects farmers and eaters.

“I realised that people really wanted that connection with the farmer and where their food is grown,” he says. “For me, as a former commodity dairy producer, that was quite inspiring. It really resonated with me that there was this void – this was the very thing that made my life as a farmer not complete. Not knowing who drank my milk, not knowing what my milk was turned into. It really fired up my imagination.”

After learning all he could in both practice and theory, Pekin spent several years travelling the country and setting up CSA operations before he arrived to Brisbane. After giving a talk to a group of farmers about CSAs, several growers approached him to say they wanted to use these principles to set up their own local food operation that would provide their produce direct to consumers. A produce box trial was piloted in 2004, and it was an overwhelming success. In 2005, after going through the hard work of establishing a legal entity, an advisory board and an official business model, Food Connect was born.

From the grower to you: Food Connnect produce boxes offer fresh, local, seasonal food.

Fair food at a fair price

When Food Connect began its pilot trial, it was sourcing from a little over 20 farmers. Now, the operation has around 120 growers from across Brisbane, as well as about 40 makers who provide ethical products such as bread, cheese and nut butters. All produce sold is grown using regenerative farming practices, and as all fruit and veg is locally grown and seasonal, consumers are guaranteed the freshest, most nutritious food. Customers have the option of choosing home delivery or a pick-up from a Food Connect “city cousin” – a central location where produce boxes are delivered for customers to come and collect. Food Connect also supplies to bulk buyers’ clubs, food co-ops and restaurants and cafes.

Just like CERES, Food Connect farmers are paid a fair price for their produce – about four times as much as they would receive from the big retail chains. But the benefits of developing a fair local food system have offered growers more than just financial benefits.

“Price is important to them, but so is knowing that their produce is going to be sold as close as possible to where they picked it out of the ground,” Pekin says. “However, the biggest impact on the farmers has been the connection to the people who eat their food. We did some farm tours when we launched, and a lot of meetings with farmers and eaters, and the farmers were just so in love with the fact that these city folk were really interested, they really wanted to support them. And that was a novel experience for them.”

Food Connect’s growers also get to enjoy watching their produce being made into products at the Food Connect Shed, a community-owned local food hub where food entrepreneurs can rent affordable kitchen space and share resources to create artisan products.

Maintaining diversity in our food supply means providing opportunities for new growers.

An eye on the future

Creating fairer food systems for growers isn’t just about benefiting farmers today; it’s also about ensuring that there will be a system in place to support the next generation.

“Right now, one of the things that’s happening in Victoria is there’s all these young growers growing in a little city plots, or on the edge of town, or sharing a bit of land on an established farmer’s place,” Ennis says. “We really try to help support those growers, buying their produce so they can have a reliable source of income.”

More established farmers are generally older, and once an established farmer retires, it can leave a big hole in the market that can be difficult to fill. Ennis believes that by supporting tomorrow’s farmers today, the entire food system will ultimately benefit.

“We want to support that next generation,” he says. “Because eventually these young farmers will expand, and they’ll be the ones who’ll be our big suppliers in the future.

“If food retailers just play price, all you’re going to do is reduce the number of farmers that can survive. We’re all about the opposite – we need more farmers, and we need young farmers coming through. There’s got to be a pathway, or else suddenly there’s only two or three big farms producing a few types of food and that’s it. And that lack of diversity means there’ll be a lack of product. We want people growing wonderful, interesting things, and young farmers are often the ones who experiment and bring in the new stuff.”

It’s time for a fresh take on our fresh food supply.

The way forward

Pekin believes that systems like Food Connect and the Food Connect Shed are the right way forward for the future of food, not just here in Australia, but around the world.

“We haven’t got any choice, really,” he says. “The cracks are starting to appear in the globalised food system. When you look at climate change, and those impacts coming down the road, investors we’re talking to are starting to see that Coles and Woolies are going to be stranded assets, because that global food system isn’t going to be able to supply them.

“We want to divorce ourselves from market forces, so we’re not competing in a market system based on supply and demand, because that’s a ridiculous concept. The failure in the food system is that food is treated like a commodity, whereas we see it as a human right.”

Want to know more? You can check out CERES Fair Food at ceresfairfood.org.au, and you can find out more about Food Connect at foodconnect.com.au