Like the now all too frequent droughts, floods and fires in this country have shown, COVID-19 has again demonstrated that Australia’s food system teeters like a house of cards waiting to collapse.
Here at Food Connect, we’ve been feeding customers for 15 years, while at the same time paying growers the true cost of production and building a secure supply of locally sourced food and goods. Started by ex-dairy farmer Robert Pekin, the business is built on the concept of community supported agriculture, where a reciprocal relationship between the growers, makers and the eaters goes beyond a simple online transaction. Customers are provided with information about the people who grow and make their food, and 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 the vagaries of the market. They grow just enough to service Food Connect and their own direct markets, and have the ability to ramp up and ramp down as the situation dictates.
When COVID-19 forced the community off the streets and onto our computers to hunt and gather online, Food Connect’s orders quadrupled in a matter of days. Suddenly, Brisbane’s food ‘network effect’ quickly activated in a number of ways:
- Almost immediately, our networks of buyers clubs, restaurants and cafes pivoted to take on more customers, and we shared our business model to assist many to distribute their own fruit and vegetable boxes to their local community;
- Local events companies had to shut down and we diverted their vans and drivers to help us expand our delivery runs;
- Farmers markets started calling us and we shared ways they could set up box deliveries so that their farmers didn’t miss out;
- Food Connect’s farmers also ramped up their operations and started selling more directly to customers by collaborating with neighbouring growers;
- The packing and warehouse team employed jobless hospitality staff desperate for work, with 10 extra employees recruited in the first week of lockdown.
Bringing food back to a relationship-based system is not just a feel good exercise. It’s economically and structurally efficient and equitable – valuing all actors along the supply chain, and decentralising the 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.