Part Three of the Hungry Lucky Country was first published on April 8, 2015 on Beacon Reader, the now defunct crowd-funded journalism platform. An edited version (much stronger thanks to Hop Dac’s skill as an editor) was published in Issue 25 of Kill Your Darlings, a quarterly Australian literary magazine.
“While we have great opportunity and the hipsters, all with the latest wagyu beef burgers and pulled pork sliders from the trendiest food trucks and the trendiest suburbs, you’ve got hundreds of people every night queuing up for the St Vinnies soup van.”
SARAH COLES speaks to RUSSELL SHIELDS, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Food Justice Truck Manager, about people going hungry, farmers getting ripped off, colossal food waste and what can be done about it. This is the final part in a series about the ASRC Food Justice Truck, an innovative social enterprise that launched last month and is well on the way to helping to alleviate food insecurity for asylum seekers in our community.
The following sentence should give you the pip: In the same year 4 million tonnes of food was thrown in the bin 1.2 million Australians ran out of food. Russell Shields has seen both sides of the food sector; corporate and community. Prior to being awarded the Churchill Fellowship to study international models of food rescue and community initiatives he owned cafes and lectured in hospitality. He was a founding member of the Australian Food Hub Network and before he started work as the ASRC Food Justice Truck Manager he started the Community Grocer, a pop up market that provides people living in high rise commission flats with access to good fruit and vegies, and features a cranking weekly BBQ cooked by a 75 year old Turkish fellow called Mustafa. The clock struck epiphany for Russell when he worked for the 2006 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, ‘I was appalled by the level of food waste. We were literally throwing out hundreds and hundreds of meals every day.’ He saw a job going at a new food rescue operation called SecondBite, ‘They didn’t have an office. They didn’t have an asset. They didn’t have a van! They just had this great idea and a handful of volunteers to rescue good food that would otherwise go to waste and distribute it to people in need.’ SecondBite was founded by Ian and Simone Carson in 2005. It has grown from being a few risk taking visionaries huddled around a laptop in Ian’s accounting office to a national non-profit rescuing and redistributing nearly six million kilograms of produce every year. Russell worked at SecondBite, what he calls ‘the corporate gleaners’, for seven years.
Russell feels like the community food system runs parallel with the Melbourne foodie universe, ‘You have Melbourne which is the foodie capital of Australia if not the world, everyone talks about it as this amazing food destination, yet we have this undercurrent of need; this undercurrent of disadvantaged community members accessing food programs that runs alongside that.’ It is tough to estimate how many people don’t have enough food. Across Australia there are about 3,500 community food programs and charitable organisations providing food relief. Russell says that the Global Financial Collapse in 2008 was a turning point for SecondBite and describes what sounds like a not-for-profit-flavoured existential crisis, ’We went : Are we really addressing the problem? Are we really just part of the system?’ Russell pauses and looks around the packed ASRC lunchroom, ‘SecondBite shouldn’t exist. Ultimately we shouldn’t have a charitable food sector, we shouldn’t have 300 people lining up at the community soup van every night at Flinders Street asking for a hand out of food. We can’t continue to invest millions of dollars of philanthropic money in to propping up a broken food system.’
SecondBite invested in research in an attempt to get to the root cause of the problem. What the research showed was just over 5% of the population in Australia are food insecure. A recent public health report ‘Still serving hot soup?’ cites evidence showing one in four indigenous people don’t have enough to eat and posits that neo-liberalism characterised by privatisation has added pressure to the charitable food sector. Russell says, ‘We know if you’re an indigenous Australian, if you’re older, if you’re unemployed, if you’re homeless, you’re more likely to be food insecure as well.’ And the demographic that has it the worst? ‘The evidence is 70% of asylum seekers run out of food.’ The ASRC was one of the first recipient agencies of SecondBite, which is how Russell met the Director of Humanitarian Services at the ASRC Patrick Lawrence, ‘I remember driving down a little back lane with the van and he literally lifted up this little roller door in what was like a domestic shed. We threw in some potatoes and onions and some of the fruit and vegies that we had. I said, ‘This looks amazing. What are you doing in here?’ and he talked me through the Food Bank and then he said ‘Do ya wanna stay for lunch?’ Russell ate a lunch that was cooked by an asylum seeker that was rich in flavour and community spirit- exactly what happened to me the first time I went to the ASRC.
The paradox is this: Australia, with a population of 22 million, produces enough food to feed 60 million people. 8 billlion dollars worth of food gets thrown out every year in this country. Russell explains, ‘About 4 million tonnes, of that the majority is household waste, matched with a significant commercial and industrial waste problem.’ Over the last 20 years there has been a power shift in the food sector from farmers to retailers. Tristram Stuart, author of the cracking good read Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Waste Scandal points out that,’ Farmers throw away a third or even more of their harvest because of cosmetic standards.’ In 2011 researchers looked at the impact fresh food specifications had on food waste on North Queensland banana farms. The results showed in one year 37 000 tonnes of fruit was wasted. It is sobering to think that at the exact same moment those bananas were rejected by clipboard toting supermarket idiots because they weren’t the right shade of yellow thousands of people queued up for some soup. Spade and Barrow, a social wholesaler that buys ‘nature’s grade’, is aiming to tackle the issue of food waste on farms head on. The brain child of Katy Barfield, former CEO of SecondBite, Spade and Barrow not only purchase the whole crop, they let farmers set the price of their produce. Russell says, ‘It is so important that farmers become price setters not price takers.’ The Food Justice Truck chose Spade and Barrow as their supplier because they are honest. Russell says, ‘You look at their price list and it tells you the farmer, it tells you the size of the farm, tells you where the produce comes from.’ You can also see how much the farmer is paid, ‘In a very murky industry, transparency is something we are fighting for.’
In Supermarket Monsters Knox writes, ‘Four crossbench federal parliamentarians, Nick Xenophon, John Madigan, Andrew Wilkie and Bob Katter, have designed a bill that would allow courts to order the break-up of companies that misuse their market power. It is directed squarely at Coles and Woolworths.’ Russell says, ‘Food corporations have incredible power and you don’t have to research far to see that power.’ You only have to read about how the Assistant Health Minister’s chief of staff cut his teeth as a Cadbury rep and owned shares in a big food lobby group- and how the Minister pulled a healthy eating website the day it went live- to know that the big corporations have too much influence on policy around here. Small and medium farmers across Australia are leaving the land at the rate of 280 per month because they are being squeezed out by the food giants. Russell’s thoughts are with the farmers, ‘They go to all the effort, and all the water and the inputs and the time and the land and the cost and for us to just then just discard this produce. Its abhorrent levels of food waste.’ Russell adds, ‘Farmers have 2.5 times higher suicide rates than any other profession in the country.’
I consider the environmental costs of food waste to be pretty much the worst thing that ever happened. When Russell says, ‘A quarter of the world’s water is used to grow over one billion tonnes of food that nobody eats,’ it gives pause. The fruit that was wasted in one year on those banana farms created 16 300 tonnes of CO2 emissions and used 11.2 gigalitres of water. Russell says, ‘Food waste emits methane: a toxic gas which is 23 times more potent than car exhaust fumes. So when we throw out food we’re not only throwing out all of the inputs that is has taken to grow that food we’re then adding to environmental degradation.’ Russell tells me about a 2008 methane gas leak in Cranbourne’s Brookland Green’s Estate in Melbourne, ‘Methane escaped from a landfill site. 30 to 40 houses had to be evacuated and cordoned off and last reports it was about a hundred million dollar bill to fix it up.’
If the food waste, supermarket duopoly and piss-weak politicians have gotten you down, fear not. ‘We’re seeing a really strong community food sector that is growing significantly across Australia, ‘ says Russell, ‘We’ve got the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, farmer’s markets are on the increase, you’ve got diversified distribution models such as food hubs, open food networks, social wholesalers. People are really getting back to food.’ Russell has worked alongside some of the best innovators in food in this country such as Kirsten ‘break up with your supermarket’ Larsen and Food Connect’s Robert Pekin.
The Food Justice Truck started trading at 3pm on Friday 20th March 2015. By the time the photographer Graham and I get to the launch Patrick Lawrence is beaming, ‘We sold out of artisanal sourdough.’ The zero waste truck looks awesome; there’s no cardboard or packaging in sight. No product of China garlic. Russell describes the truck as a ‘symbol of transparency and openness.’ It is a mobile market where everything folds out, the whole side is up and the fruit and vegie cabinets are dropped down. The design is unique, for most community food trucks people go on board to get their food. This is often practical (see: New York winter) but it is a temperate afternoon in Footscray, there are volunteers manning the till and restocking the Spade and Barrow produce and someone just popped a champagne cork. Patrick wanders over and talks to us about how the Food Justice Truck aims to be a hybrid market catering to hipsters and asylum seekers. As someone who rides a vintage Peugeot road bike and wears ironic koala pumping iron jumpers I can say this: the truck has hipster appeal. Joost Bakker has donated a couple of grain grinders, there are portable stools made by a SecondBite volunteer and timber interior and tables donated by Urban Salvage, a recycled timber yard in Spotswood. Tea from Storm in A Teacup. There are apples from Summer Snow orchard. (Nick Russo from Summer Snow attended the CobaltNiche development day during the genesis of the truck) The foods such as rice, red lentils, okra and chillies are culturally appropriate, with asylum seekers coming from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka the truck has to cater for a broad mix of cuisines. My favourite part about the truck (aside from the staff, volunteers, customers and the good men and women who designed and built the thing) are the labels on every food item telling you where it was grown. When I ask Russell about it he starts talking about the farmers individually. ‘Gavin Phillips is farming 35 acres. He has described it as “headwinds from every direction”. Ben Peelman in Bacchus Marsh… the kale is from Freya and Doria…’
After the end of the first day’s trade I watch the zero waste Food Justice Truck pack up and drive away. While Graham chases it down the street like crazed paparazzi I watch some kids kicking a soccer ball around the Footscray Primary School gates and it all just seems so right. Russell reckons, ‘We need to have a humane and just approach to the asylum seeker issue and policy and ultimately it is going to benefit all of the community. Food’s the same.’ A report in to refugee food security reckons that, ‘for refugees and asylum seekers, focusing on community food security strategies could assist in building community capacity, facilitate the retention of cultural integrity, restore and maintain dignity, and will be instrumental in ensuring both short and long term health.’ The ASRC aim to roll out the Food Justice Truck across metropolitan and regional Victoria shortly.
When I listen back to the tape of the interview Russell’s words are obscured by the sounds of the ASRC in Footscray: people playing ping pong, somebody on the piano 15 minutes 34 seconds in, the sounds of a hundred asylum seekers sitting down to lunch. 22 minutes in someone in the kitchen drops a metal pan and it crashes loudly. Somebody laughs. How remarkable that people can still laugh. Last week a 2013 article ‘The Impossible Refugee Boat Lift To Christmas Island’ reminded me, ‘This is the subtext to the plight of every refugee: Whatever hardship he endures, he endures because it beats the hardship he escaped. Every story of exile implies the sadder story of a homeland.’ The very least we can do is help asylum seekers get some good food. I wonder what the asylum seekers on Manus Island are getting to eat tonight.
The ASRC Food Truck launched the day former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser died. One of my friend’s came to Australia on a leaky boat as a refugee from Vietnam in 1980 when Fraser was Prime Minister. Unlike the current government who is in breach of the Human Rights Convention, Fraser had excellent policies on immigration. More recently he was a patron of the ASRC and a vocal critic of the human rights abuses systematically dealt to people seeking asylum in this country. Part 3 is dedicated to people like Fraser who can see the wood for the trees and to all of the asylum seekers in Australia.
This is the final in a 3 part article exploring the Food Justice Truck’s core mission to improve the food security of people seeking asylum. Thank you to the ASRC, Patrick Lawrence, Russell Shields, VMS, Brett Capron and Lorrin Windhal from CobaltNiche and Graham Parsons.
In the interests of being transparent a brief note that Russell Shields and Katy Barfield are partners. To offset any cash for comment scandals- Patrick and Russell gave me a Food Justice Truck trucker’s cap. $500 of the money crowd funded for this project will go to the ASRC because I didn’t take into account that pledges were in US dollars and I ended up with some extra which my backers generously agreed to donate to the ASRC- the largest portion of that money comes from the biggest donor- a young farmer who has been tearing his hair out over the state of farming in country Victoria and has been driven to depression watching the dustbowl and corporate tyranny blow across his home town.
‘give you the pip…’ The Oxford English Dictionary : to have (also get) the pip: to be (or become) depressed, despondent, or unwell. to give a person the pip: to annoy or irritate; to make angry, bad-tempered, or dispirited.
‘the 2006 Commonwealth Games…’ Australia was invaded in 1788 by the British. The traditional owners had been here for 40 000 years prior to Captain Cook rocking up. It is important to note that a lot of people protested against the Commonwealth Games and renamed them the Stolenwealth Games in reference to the colonial invasion.
‘In the same year 4 million tonnes of food was thrown in the bin…’ http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/national-waste-policy/publications/national-waste-report-2010
‘A recent public health report ‘Still serving hot soup?’ cites evidence…’ Lindberg,R, Whelan, J, Lawrence, M, Gold, L & Friel, S. 2014 ‘Still serving hot soup? Two hundred years of a charitable food sector in Australia- a narrative review,’ Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25716286
‘The evidence is 70% of asylum seekers run out of food…’ ‘A report in to refugee food security suggested that…’ Gallegos, D, Ellies, P, Wright, J 2008 ‘Still there’s no food! Food insecurity in a refugee population in Perth’, Nutrition & Dietetics, Vol 65, pp 78-83.
‘produces enough food to feed 60 million people…’ http://www.foodwise.com.au/foodwise-articles/food-security/
‘Tristram Stuart, author of the cracking good read Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Waste Scandal points out…’ Tristram Stuart. (2012). The Global Food Waste Scandal TED Talk. [Online Video]. May 2012. Available from: http://www.ted.com/talks/tristram_stuart_the_global_food_waste_scandal?language=en
‘In 2011 researchers looked at the impact fresh food specifications…’ White,A, Gallegos, D & Hundloe,T 2011 ‘The impact of fresh produce specifications on the Australian food and nutrition system: a case study of the north Queensland banana industry’ Public Health Nutrition, vol 14, pp 1489-1495.
‘You only have to read about how the Assistant Health Minister’s chief of staff cut his teeth…’ http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-02-14/staffer-at-centre-of-food-labelling-controversy-resigns/5261052
‘In Supermarket Monsters Knox writes…’ Knox, M 2014 ‘Supermarket monster: Coles, Woolworths and the price we pay for their domination,’ The Monthly, August 2014. Available from: https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/august/1406815200/malcolm-knox/supermarket-monsters
Mogelson, L, 2013. The Impossible Refugee Boat Lift to Christmas Island. The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/magazine/the-impossible-refugee-boat-lift-to-christmas-island.html?pagewanted=all [Accessed 01 April 2015].
‘Unlike the current government…’ http://theconversation.com/explainer-australias-obligations-under-the-un-refugee-convention-16195