Creating Alternative Food Systems With Melbourne Food Hub

Since the onset of the global pandemic in March, food has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Between the surge in homemade bread baking and panic-ravaged supermarket stocks, the disconnect between food consumption and education has become apparent. With a country as biodiverse as Australia – with the capability to grow and harvest literally thousands of food sources – why do we have such a warped perception of the supply chain?

Melbourne Food Hub is working to change that. With the launch of their fruit and veg delivery program, Grow/Source/Eat, the Hub provides over 100 subscribers with weekly packages of produce grown at their urban farm in Alphington. By partnering with regenerative, next generation farmers, the program encourages hyperlocal consumption and education around seasonal produce.

We caught up with Grow/Source/Eat program manager, Nichole Foster, to enlighten us more about the initiative, as well as the positive pandemic side effects for urban farmers seeking to provide an alternative to supermarkets. Hot tip: She REALLY knows her stuff!

Can you tell us a little about Melbourne Food Hub?

Melbourne Food Hub, initially funded through the Lord Mayors Charitable Foundation, was a collaborative effort between Sustain: Australia’s Food Network and Melbourne Farmers Markets. Since its inception in 2016, Melbourne Food Hub has grown into a thriving ecosystem of like-minded businesses and organizations, all working to create an alternative food system that supports its community, environment and farmers.

The Melbourne Food Hub farm remains at the Alphington site where our farmer Clare Harvey grows and contributes produce to the Grow / Source / Eat program each week. As of May 2020, Melbourne Food Hub has moved from a stationary food hub to a distributed model, collaborating with local businesses and hunger relief organisations to engage and address community needs.

Can you further elaborate on what it means to create ‘a replicable model of a self-sustaining Food Hub’ – what does this involve?

Melbourne Food Hub’s vision originates in the USA and Canada, where food hubs bring together small and medium scale producers to create greater market access and increase efficiency within the selling and distributing of locally grown produce. We have a vision of creating a replicable model like this here in Australia, a place where individuals and businesses can come to learn and develop their own techniques, to benefit their communities’ specific needs.

In Melbourne, our Grow / Source / Eat project has had the privilege of being mentored by Edithvale Community Greengrocer, a wholefoods store and veggie box program. To create a long-term sustainable food system, collaboration over competition is key.

What are some of the community benefits of this, particularly in an urban context? And how can people be part of this?

There’s no way around participating in food systems, whether that means going to Coles or your local farmers market each weekend. Melbourne Food Hub is meant to create a space where individuals aren’t forced into being a consumer, but where they can participate in the food system. That could be volunteering at the urban farm, attending farmers markets, subscribing to a weekly fruit & veggie parcel, attending webinars, (and one day post COVID) attending dinners and meet and greets with farmers.

Our Grow / Source / Eat program is one way to bring like-minded people and people new to sustainable food together. Our community of over 100 subscribers interact with one another and our farmers over social media. They share recipes, tips and tricks to new produce they’ve never before tried and are able to engage one another in a way that feels social, even if we’re all stuck indoors.

GSE is also working closely with locally run community organisations like Whittlesea Food Collective, Lentil As Anything and Bridge Darebin to assist in hunger relief efforts. Any produce leftover from each packing day is donated and we are working with our small-scale farms to rescue food waste and redistribute to communities in need.

What is the Grow/Source/Eat program, and how long has it been running for?

Grow / Source / Eat is a weekly fruit + veggie subscription program that began in late 2019. After running a few trial subscriptions throughout the summer, we launched our official subscription program in March 2020 – just weeks before our first COVID lockdown in Melbourne.

The program is focused on local, sustainably grown produce and the farmers who grow it. We support our farmers directly by paying a fair rate for their produce, educating the public on sustainable, seasonal eating and purchasing items unknown to many eaters (broccoli leaves anyone?).

To date we have distributed over 6,500kg or 1429 parcels of sustainably grown, local produce adding up to $36,808 of sales to around 14 small-scale farmers, including our very own Urban Farm at Alphington. From these farmers we have distributed 54 different varieties of vegetables and herbs and 10 varieties of fruits from celeriac to blood oranges and everything Victoria produces in between.

What’s next for Melbourne Food Hub?

Melbourne Food Hub  is constantly thinking about the future of food systems and food security. MFH envisions a food system where urban farms are scattered throughout the city, and our peri-urban agricultural areas are supported through food hubs catering to the specific needs of the communities they serve. We are looking to expand our partnerships to address the pressing social, environmental and economic stressors that Melbourne and Australia now faces as a result of COVID-19 and the climate crisis.

Our hearts are set on creating a sustainable distribution model for small scale growers and makers, linking their products to the right customer bases and markets. We are aiming to educate the public on the importance of eating locally grown, seasonal produce and fight off the stigmas against it. Produce grown sustainably (without chemicals) might not be picture perfect – what you’re used to seeing in Woolies – but is more nutritious, has lower food miles (how far your produce travels from farm to plate), reinvests your dollars into the local economy and supports farmers looking after the health of our lands.

Keen to know about Melbourne Food Hub’s philosophy? See here for more info. And here to discover more about Grow/Source/Eat subscriptions!


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