Wheat in the foreground with a out-of-focus sunset in the background

Food in the land of the fair go

1 September 2021
‘Food insecurity in Australia is on the rise, yet it remains a serious and underappreciated policy issue’ claims a new paper from FoodLab Sydney, lead-authored by SEI Doctoral Fellow Omar Elkharouf.

By Omar Elkharouf

There is a popular conception that contemporary Australia has a social justice ethos of a ‘fair go’ for all. The essence of this ‘fair go’, however, is equality of opportunity for all, which does not equate to real equality in income and wealth. In line with this emphasis on ‘opportunity’, the common understanding of real inequality – present in both government and media discourse – is one that blames people’s life choices and actions rather than socio-economic or cultural conditions1.

This ‘fair go’ ethos is partially rooted in Australia’s current lucky country discourse which denotes the state’s relative economic prosperity and high standard of living, liberal democracy, universal health care, and physical distance from the tyranny of other global issues. There appears to be a reluctance to admit that even in a highly prosperous country there remains a governmental responsibility to address deep structural issues that cause ongoing inequities2. The unprecedented crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of these vulnerabilities, particularly in Australia’s fractured food system.

While Australia is commonly considered a place where citizens enjoy access to readily available, safe and relatively inexpensive food, the reality is considerably more bleak. With growing numbers of people experiencing food insecurity3, and a dominant food governance model which prioritises the corporatized charity sector as a primary response4, our paper suggests that we might look to examples from across the globe to get a sense of what innovative alternatives exist and how they speak to the Australian experience.

Building on a comprehensive overview of the current failures of the Australian food system and food security projects at the national, state and local levels, our article asks: ‘what are the strengths, weaknesses, and shared elements of some key models of emerging grassroots and governmental innovations in urban policies and practices focused on transforming complex food systems?’ and goes on to examine the potential of such initiatives to address the complexity of food insecurity, injustice, and unsustainability in the Australian context.

The three alternative models examined are those of Detroit, United States; Belo Horizonte, Brazil; and Toronto, Canada.

The first of these is umbrella network FoodLab Detroit, a small, not-for-profit network which emerged in 2011 in response to the ‘well-documented economic and social challenges’ facing Detroit. Here, a focus on enabling small business and entrepreneurial efforts in the food space has encouraged local economic development, encouraging wealth-generation and economic self-sufficiency while bolstering local food security. There is a strong commitment to place and existing critical discussions in the community guiding FoodLab Detroit’s strategy, with the strong grassroots engagement meaning that the ‘organisation has transformed part of Detroit’s hospitality industry to be committed to issues of labour justice, racial and gendered biases in the workplace, and environmental sustainability’.

Limitations of the model which have emerged are its reliance on external funding, which can impact the organisation’s strategy and methods of engagement, and also growing pains as the growth of the network has had implications on the social justice norms, culture, and identity of the membership base5.

Belo Horizonte in Brazil was our second case study. With a population of 2.5 million, Belo Horizonte presents a unique example of urban government-led creation of an alternative food system7. Here, a municipal department drives policy and programs that are guided by the understanding that food security is a ‘citizens’ right to adequate quantity and quality of food throughout their lives, and that [it] is the duty of the government to guarantee this right’6.

The programs are divided into three fundamental pillars: the supply of food to at-risk communities according to their consumption needs, using diverse delivery models including restaurants and school meals; market regulation of prices, control of quality staples, and promotion of ‘straight from farm fairs’; and strengthening family and urban agriculture based on agroecological practices7. While Belo Horizonte is a shining example of the mainstreaming of food policy as important, it is an isolated case in Brazil and the municipal department itself remains subject to contestation over budgeting and internal conflicts8.

Our final example was Toronto, Canada. Alongside an increasing concentration of poverty in the city’s outer suburbs, Toronto faces a range of concerns about health, equity, and accessibility. The city has become a food policy leader among global city-regions, illustrating how an integrated view of food systems can be achieved by reversing the top-down, state-driven technocratic approach and recognising the ability of and capacity for municipalities to correct food system inequities9.

Two key institutional entities, the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) and the Toronto Food Strategy, are embedded within the city’s municipal infrastructure and are key actors in urban food security efforts. Essentially these entities work as magnets and platforms for diverse actors to contribute to food policy issues, forming the bridge between grassroots directives and broader municipal strategy. Further, this method of collaboration works to break down traditional siloes in policy-making, bringing diverse voices into conversation10. This does not, of course, remove all friction and division, particularly regarding the need for anti-racism work, which has been noted as an ongoing tension in the project. It has also been subject to the general trend of defunding state services and heightening contestation of what funding remains available11.

We see lessons for Australian food governance arising from each of these case studies. While clearly differing in their approaches to governance models, common to these case studies is partnership building, network development, creating space for innovation and incubation, and a multipronged approach to food insecurity. That is, not only are diverse actors operating across movements, markets and governments, but they act to bring multiple policy areas together to break from siloed modes of policy development.

How might Australian cities encompass this kind of approach to addressing food insecurity?

The FoodLab Sydney model includes both programmatic and governance aspects of each of the innovative food systems cases examined in the paper. Pragmatically, FoodLab Sydney combines coursework and a TAFE certificate in Kitchen Operations with business and entrepreneurship training on the model of FoodLab Detroit. It is designed to include participants from low socio-economic backgrounds and a range of other conditions that traditionally contribute to food insecurity. FoodLab Sydney works collaboratively with good food entrepreneurs, businesses and other organisations to identify the strategies, resources and policies needed to support individuals’ participation, employment and entrepreneurship in Sydney’s food ecosystem. Partnerships are extended to businesses and organisations across Sydney to share resources, experiences and ideas in hopes of making new models of food business more sustainable and equitable.

In terms of governance, FoodLab Sydney was made possible by an official partnership across the City of Sydney, TAFE NSW, FoodLab Detroit, and the University of Sydney, which manages the initiative. These affiliations make the program a unique example in Australia of a local government-community-university partnership working toward best practice and innovative change in a local food system. Similar to those comparative global examples, the governance model for FoodLab Sydney combines the agenda-setting of city policy with attention to the need for an associated ‘food security from below’ approach based in creating a good food network across a range of civil society and governmental actors.

The paper argues that FoodLab Sydney can serve as a model that works to strengthen connections and relationships among different actors across the food and small business ecosystem in a more community-based model of governance and change. By bringing together educational, research and governance institutions with civil society organisations and the voices of those often left out of urban food systems, the program illustrates that the assets for growing more diverse and inclusive food environments already exist in many communities. It also illustrates how such partnerships can implement place-based, appropriate alternatives to neoliberal privatisation of responses to food insecurity, and Australia’s problematic dependence on food charity – perhaps contributing to the realisation of an actual ‘fair go’ for all Australians.

The full paper can be found here.

More information about FoodLab Sydney can be found here.

1. Baum, F. 2008. The New Public Health. 3rd ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

2. Pollard, C. M., B. Mackintosh, C. Campbell, D. Kerr, A. Begley, J. Jancey, M. Caraher, J. Berg, and S. Booth. 2018. “Charitable Food Systems’ Capacity to Address Food Insecurity: An Australian Capital City Audit.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15 (6): 1249.

3. Foodbank Australia. 2020. Food Insecurity in the time of COVID-19 2020. North Ryde: Foodbank Australia.

4.Lindberg, R., J. Whelan, M. Lawrence, L. Gold, and S. Friel. 2015. “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 39 (4): 358–365.

5. Daniel, J. 2016. “FoodLab Detroit: Good Food Enterprise in an Urban Food Movement.” Doctor of Philosophy, Michigan State University.

6. Rocha, C. 2001. “Urban Food Security Policy: The Case of Belo Horizonte, Brazil.” Journal for the Study of Food and Society 5 (1): 36–47. doi:2752/15289790178673273.

7. Deakin, M., N. Borrelli, and D. Diamantini, eds. 2016. The Governance of City Food Systems: Case Studies from Around the World. Milan: Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.

8. Sumner, J. 2016. “Waging the Struggle for Healthy Eating: Food Environments, Dietary Regimes and Brazil’s Dietary ” Local Environment 21 (10): 1230–1242.

9. Dowding-Smith, E. 2013. Resilient Urban Food Systems: Opportunities, challenges, and solutions. ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.

10. Mah, C. L., L. Baker, B. Cook, and B. Emanuel. 2013. “The Toronto Food Policy Council and the Toronto Food Strategy: Focusing on Food Systems and Health at the City-Region Level.” About SCN News.

11. Toronto Board of Health. 2021. Strengthening the Role of the Food Policy Council. City Councillor Joe Cressy. Accessed April 10, 2021. https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.toronto.ca%2Flegdocs%2Fmmis%2F2021%2Fhl%2Fbgrd%2Fbackgroundfile-165056.pdf.

Omar Elkharouf is a PhD student with the Department of Government and International Relations and a Research Assistant for FoodLab Sydney. Omar holds a Bachelor degree in Arts /Sciences and an Honours degree in Human Geography from the University of Sydney. Omar has a passion for social/environmental justice, urban geographies, sustainable food systems and intersectionality. His PhD seeks to build on this passion by examining the idea that an intersectional lens holds explanatory potential in heightening critical public policy models aiming to alleviate food system inequities by uncovering at risk group populations often rendered invisible.

Header image: Victoria Kennedy via Unsplash

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