Simon Farrell-Green talks to the people trying to change the way we eat
“WE TALK ABOUT food insecurity,” says Matt Dagger, the general manager of Kaibosh, a food rescue organisation based in Wellington. “The inability to have sufficient quantities of the right types of food. The thing which always amazes me is the fluffy white bread you can buy for $1 – that’s not going to keep you healthy or your kids strong.”
Kaibosh – along with the other organisations featured in these pages – is at the forefront of trying to change the food system in New Zealand. Whether it’s establishing community gardens or rescuing food for the poor, or coming up with novel ways in which to deliver local, organic produce – or on a totally different level, telling the stories of refugees’ food – these groups see food as the solution to multi-pronged problems.
It’s not easy. There are deep, embedded ways of thinking – but they can be changed. “That’s what we’ve ended up with – so many skills lacking and generations of welfare,” says Common Unity Project founder Julia Milne, whose idea for an urban farm has reinvigorated a small community in Lower Hutt. “What that creates is an external currency. That’s what we’re trying to break – let’s tell a new story of ourselves.”
GARDEN TO TABLE
You can hardly have missed Garden to Table: over the past eight years the programme has expanded from three Auckland primary schools to 40 spread across the country, involving hundreds of volunteers and thousands of children spending several hours a week in school gardens before heading into the kitchen to make themselves lunch.
The programme started in 2008, at a now-defunct food symposium called Savour at which one of the keynote speakers was Australian food writer Stephanie Alexander; the call went out to create a similar programme here. Within a couple of years, the Garden to Table trust had raised $180,000 and three Auckland schools were signed up. Now, says chair and founder Catherine Bell, the need is “even greater. I don’t think we realised how great the need was.”
While the trust received a lot of press attention for its work in low-decile schools, it works in every type of school from Decile 1 to 10. “It’s across all families,” she says. All working parents with children struggle to sit down as a family to eat at night, regardless of whether they’re working in a law firm or a factory. “It’s food poverty for a different reason – but it’s still food poverty. Those kids aren’t hungry, but they’re not having a positive food experience on a daily basis with their families.”
Garden to Table works on three levels. Students learn about what it takes to grow something – planting the seed and nurturing the plant, before harvesting the food and learning how to cook it. After that, they sit down as a group and share what they’ve grown and made. “It’s incredibly empowering,” says Bell. “It’s sitting down and sharing food – that’s a great act of togetherness.”
The effect on individuals and communities has been marked. Getting solid data is difficult – the trust is working with Victoria University on a project to measure the impact on children’s BMIs – but anecdotally, schools report that children know more about vegetables and eat more of them. Parents, meanwhile, report their kids are coming home with knowledge that changes the way the family approaches food.
The only frustration? Government support has been unforthcoming. Schools pay $2000 to join Garden to Table, which provides them with a package of resources and an area coordinator, and then find funds for garden and kitchen coordinators from their own budgets.
“We just want the government to acknowledge the value of the programme,” Bell says. Last year the Minister of Health, Jonathan Coleman, announced the Childhood Obesity Plan, a raft of measures to reduce childhood obesity, which included the Ministry of Education as a key partner. For Bell, enabling every school to roll out Garden to Table would go a long way to teaching children about food. “It’s a no-brainer.” gardentotable.org.nz
Ooooby Founder Pete Russell used to import food – a business that was impacted severely by the chaos following the global financial crisis, as currency and commodity markets went haywire. “It started out as a crisis for our own business,” he says, “and turned into something bigger.” As the crisis deepened, Russell grew concerned about the future of food security in New Zealand, a country that exports its best produce overseas, just as small holders find it increasingly uneconomic to grow food.
Ooooby (it stands for Out Of Our Own Backyards) was set up to rebuild local food markets by creating direct, local infrastructure for small growers. The issue is two-fold: unless they export, the price growers and producers receive for their goods isn’t economic, and many find themselves locked out of domestic distribution because they’re too small.
The business – it’s 87 per cent owned by the Ooooby Foundation, which promotes healthy eating and local food – started with a short-lived retail store on Waiheke Island, before shifting its focus to farmers’ markets. Here, Russell realised they were selling to people who already cared about local food, rather than converting the mainstream. In its third incarnation, the business shifted to online ordering and home delivery from hubs around New Zealand.
An Ooooby box includes a huge variety of novel produce accompanied by recipes and suggestions on how to cook it. Customers can also dial up artisan products such as Fix & Fogg peanut butter and Wild Wheat sourdough, as well as free-range eggs or extra fruit for the week. “That’s when we started to get some real traction,” he says. “If we’re going to create a real shift in the way that people consume food, you’ve got to make it easy.”
On the face of it, it’s simple: the company prioritises small, organic or local growers, but will accept conventional produce if it has to. The logistical challenges behind ordering, storing and then distributing food are manifest – it’s one reason why supermarkets have reduced the number of suppliers they source produce from, and developed stock management systems that ensure they’re only ever a few days away from running out.
Ironically, Ooooby has ended up developing a similarly sophisticated system. After working in every area of the business and experiencing its “pain points”, chief engineer Davy van de Vusse has developed a sophisticated software platform, which helps assess demand, place orders, predict demand and deliver orders.
Russell is no programmer, but he does come from a background in logistics: the key to Ooooby (and the freshness of its rainbow chard, as I can attest) is that its supply chains have as few lengths as possible, and the food doesn’t move very far, which means Oooby is able to divert 50 per cent of its income from sales to its growers – almost double what they would receive normally.
After starting in Auckland, Ooooby has expanded around New Zealand, into Sydney and Fresno, California. At the moment, Russell is based in Yorkshire where he’s establishing the first British hub. “There’s real need here for local and small-scale producers to access a market,” says Russell. “In fact, there’s probably more of a need over here than our existing markets, and it’s an area where we can make a difference quite quickly.” ooooby.org
COMMON UNITY PROJECT
Not long ago, Julia Milne got a call from complaining about the “weeds” that had sprung up around the neighbourhood from the community garden she runs in the grounds of Epuni Primary School in Lower Hutt. “It turned out it was kale,” she says with a chortle, “which grows all through the neighbourhood. I was being told off for creating a kale explosion! It was beautiful.”
Three-and-a-half years ago, Milne got chatting to her neighbour, who just happens to be the principal of the school, over a glass of wine. Could a community build an urban farm and in doing so build a sense of community? “It was a way of caring for and feeding children that becomes empowering of children,” she says. “We wanted to see if it was possible to help the community to help themselves – and of course it is.”
Not long after, the board signed off on the concept and she found herself standing on a barren patch of grass that had formerly been one of the school’s two soccer pitches. In the weeks and months that followed, she badgered, cajoled and gently charmed the community – turning up regularly at school drop-off with her pet goat as a way of getting parents to talk to her – into helping her build what is now the country’s largest school garden, covering an acre and including chickens and hives run by a group of local fathers.
“Food production isn’t something that happens outside of the city,” says Milne. “By the time children go through the school they’ll learn that food and eating isn’t linear – it’s a cycle and it’s seasonal.”
The garden has become a key part of the school curriculum, and a hub for the community. Each Tuesday, the school heads out to the garden for the morning, learning about everything from keeping seeds to composting and pruning fruit trees, and each Wednesday there is the Koha Kitchen in the school hall, when the community comes together to cook – learning about food and cooking, and taking a meal home with them for that evening. The garden provides lunch for the whole school, three days a week.
“There is so much food,” says Milne. “It shows we don’t have hungry children because we don’t have enough food – it’s that we don’t have the appropriate distribution channels.”
There is family gardening on Saturdays as well as a bike-share scheme on Saturdays, and classes on Mondays about
“Food production isn’t something that happens outside of the city. By the time children go through the school they’ll learn that food and eating isn’t linear – it’s a cycle and it’s seasonal.”
feeding a family of four for less than $100 a week. There is knitting on Thursdays and sewing on Fridays. The project is bursting at the seams, and has completely outgrown the school hall and kitchen – though the Ministry of Education, predictably, would rather focus on every student having a device than help Milne build a commercial kitchen.
The impact on the Epuni community has been enormous. “You’re creating abundance,” says Milne. “By filling the school up with flowers and plants and all that crazy stuff – and spreading kale around the neighbourhood – you can’t help but generate a new kind of vibe. The community knows that there is so much available to them.” commonunityproject.org.nz Kaibosh started in 2008, when Wellington woman Robyn Langlands was volunteering at a women’s refuge: she was contacted by the Wishbone chain to say they had leftover sandwiches, so she started picking them up from one store and delivering to the refuge. She very quickly realised she had more sandwiches than the women could ever eat, so she started to drop them off to the City Mission as well.
Initially it was an ad-hoc organisation: Langlands, her car and a fridge. Over the following few years, it grew and grew. “It caught the zeitgeist post-GFC,” says general manager Matt Dagger. “People were very aware of people struggling and waste had become unacceptable.”
In 2012, it grew too large for Langlands so she brought in help: a board was established and Dagger – who previously worked for the City Mission – came on board. Kaibosh now has two depots, one in Lower Hutt and one in central Wellington, and a staff of four, along with 140 volunteers who, Dagger reckons, drive the organisation. It now costs $400,000 a year to keep afloat.
The model hasn’t changed much: Kaibosh rescues food from eight Countdowns, the Wishbone chain and a few other organisations and takes food from the likes of Community Fruit Harvesting – who go scrumping in people’s yards and abandoned orchards – and Good Bitches Baking. Volunteers sort the food to make sure it’s in good condition, before delivering it to organisations around Wellington. Food is discarded for a variety of reasons: sometimes it’s nearing its best-before date; customers will always pick the freshest sandwich in the chiller. Kaibosh volunteers peel the leaves off the lettuce and open the bag of apples, and look for the food that is still good to eat. “Every piece of fruit is picked up and checked.”
From there, they target food to the organisation depending on need: vegetables to soup kitchens, sandwiches to night shelters, fruit and veg to families
“We put real importance on the quality of food and the dignity of food. If someone is struggling and they put their hand up for help, the last thing they want is to be given rubbish.”
in need. “We’re one little organisation that caters to 45 organisations,” says Dagger. “We reckon our food is going through 4000 or 5000 people a month, easy,” he says. “There are people crying out for food.”
And in particular, they’re crying out for fresh food. “People just don’t have the resources to cover their costs,” he says. Debt, poor health, overcrowding and inconsistent work all lead to people not having the resources to afford good, fresh food: for that reason, Kaibosh works only with organisations that also offer wrap-around help services.
It’s also the reason they focus so hard on the quality of what they deliver: Dagger often says no to bakeries and manufacturers trying to offload highly processed food. “We put real importance on the quality of food and the dignity of food. If someone is struggling and they put their hand up for help, the last thing they want is to be given rubbish.” kaibosh.org.nz
Auckland is full of refugee cultures, but it’s rare to be offered an insight into their food. There is one Ethiopian restaurant in Auckland, despite a sizeable community, and the only place you’re likely to eat Afghan food is in someone’s home. Breakbread is setting out to change all that.
Vivienne Teo was one of the original staff at the two-hat restaurant Orphans Kitchen, and a couple of years ago met members of Auckland’s Mon community while volunteering at an Auckland refugee centre. The Mon are an ancient civilisation from Burma who have been repressed first by colonial powers and then the military regime, and who have fought a war of independence to retain their distinct cultural identity. On outings, Teo was amazed by their food. “There’s just food there the entire time,” she says. “They have their language, they have their flag – and they have their food. When you don’t have land you grasp onto cultural identity.”
Though the first time she met them, they offered to make her Malaysian or Thai. “They said, ‘Our food is salty, sour, you no like.’” Eventually, she persuaded them to cook Mon food. It was fabulous.
Determined to show the people and their food to New Zealanders, Teo left Orphans Kitchen and set out to make a documentary about a collaboration between Orphans chef Tom Hishon and a member of the Mon community, Naing Min – who just happens to be a former chef and fisherman himself. They would each learn about each other’s food, and Teo’s crew would film it. “They were really honoured to have Tom walk into their house. And then they were really nervous and worried we wouldn’t like it.”
In order to get people to see the film, she organised a dinner at central Auckland’s historic Hopetoun Alpha buildling, where you could watch the film and eat food inspired by it, cooked by Auckland’s hottest pop-up, The Cult Project. There were speakers including Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and Newshub’s Mike McRoberts – and the film. “The idea at the end is that at some stage of the night everybody has been touched somewhere. There’s something they’ve been able to connect with. They’re the basic keys to opening the dialogue.”
There were other, more tangible effects though: Hishon offered Min a job washing dishes at Orphans Kitchen, before it emerged he knew more about filleting fish than the restaurant’s chefs, and was eventually promoted to chef.
Teo is currently organising funding to make her second documentary – a collaboration between the Ethiopian community and restaurateur Che Barrington. And Breakbread is expanding into other areas too: Teo is helping to organise a refugee women’s community garden in Henderson Valley. She’d like to connect it to restaurants, which would buy the produce and supply chefs to help in the garden.
“The idea is that the investment from the restaurants will make it a sustainable business for the women in a safe environment,” she says. “I can’t really explain what’s going on – it’s crazy, but the people who are popping up are interlinked, in one way or another.” breakbread.co.nz
“The thing about Dunedin is that poverty was quite well hidden until a few years ago,” says Food Share’s Deborah Manning. “It wasn’t something you saw – we didn’t have people in the streets. But there are new types of food insecurity, because of the other commitments people have.” Too often, food is what people economise on.
Manning’s ah-ha moment came four years ago while watching a documentary about dumpster diving, just as she found herself reading a lot about food insecurity. “I saw that you could use one problem to solve the other problem,” she says. So she jacked in her law career and started Food Share, a not-for-profit company dedicated to rescuing food, using it to feed people who don’t have enough – and then educating them on what to do with it.
Crucially, she identified a need with fresh food and produce. Four years later, Food Share has a network of retailers and producers who contact them when they have food that would otherwise be thrown away, which the organisation matches with agencies that have people in need of food. Food Share doesn’t supply food directly to people in need: it specialises in getting fresh food to the right place – and quickly. “Unable to sell but good enough to eat,” she says. “And the test is: would they eat it themselves?”
Sometimes it’s retailers with food that is approaching its best-before date – like the 100kg of mince they recently took delivery of – or it comes from producers with cancelled orders, or food that hasn’t met the grade for export or supermarket supply, like the 1.5 tonnes of kiwifruit it recently distributed. The drivers pick it up, then head back to Food Share’s HQ, where volunteers break it down into volumes the agencies can cope with, before it’s straight back out the door.
In the early days, many agencies didn’t have chiller space to deal with perishable food. “When we first started, the issue wasn’t where will we get the food from,” says Manning. “The issue was where we could take it and who will be able to handle it.”
Four years on, that’s not so much of a problem, and the focus has shifted to education. Food Share’s agencies regularly reported that, while their clients appreciated getting fresh food, they didn’t always know what to do with it. So Food Share partnered with the University of Otago to develop an online resource of 40 types of vegetables – how to store, prepare and eat them; they’ve also developed recipes.
And most recently, the organisation has developed workshops in response to specific demands in the community – cooking classes for widowers, for instance. Slowly, she says, people’s attitude to food is changing. “People are talking,” she says. “People recognise that food is the connector – it’s nourishing for your families, your soul and the whole family.” foodshare.org.nz