A Real Utopia: The Case for a Community Kitchen on Campus

1 in 4 university students experience food insecurity – but they don’t have to. Kate Johnston explores why a community kitchen providing access to free and affordable food, job opportunities and training could revolutionise food security on and off campus.

Image by Kaleb Kroetsch, via Shutterstock. ID: 690143179

The Community Kitchen Project needs your support to get up and running. Do you agree that it is time for the University of Sydney to join the local food revolution? Add your voice to this quick survey.

Let’s imagine for a moment, a food hub on University grounds that responds to our most vulnerable students and community members by providing food in times of need, whilst offering training and employment opportunities, and an affordable testing ground for business ideas and products. A food hub with research opportunities rooted in and driven by local community. A food hub that puts to practice ‘good food’ principles of sustainability, fairness, and inclusivity – it re-purposes campus waste, and builds healthy relationships with social enterprises, businesses and community members and organisations, and it makes good business sense. It helps to build a better food system, providing food aid when necessary and support to actually become part of that better system.

It is a bold, some might say utopian, vision for campus. But it is grounded in evidence and good business pragmatism – what Erik Olin Wright would call a ‘real utopia’. Not an oxymoron but a real word example of a functioning social alternative. “Real utopias capture the spirit of utopia but remain attentive to what it takes to bring those aspirations to life.”1 This utopia offers an alternative to a food system that is currently socially exclusive, unfair, and simply unsustainable.

This vision for the Community Kitchen Hub is being spearheaded by Ben Pinney from The University of Sydney Union (USU), Shaun Christie-David from PlateitForward, and the teams from Sydney Environment Institute and FoodLab Sydney. It is grounded in experience, research, and pragmatism. Indeed, many of these activities have been taking place in microcosms across the University and City of Sydney and have proved to be effectively transforming the lives of individuals and our food system.  What is needed now is a physical space to incubate ideas, businesses, and community relationships.

Let me make the case for why this is a bold but concrete vision that works to further the University’s sustainability goals whist attending to the social and economic needs of our community. And, if achieved, how it would place the University at the global forefront of innovative food systems solutions.

Prior to COVID-19 one in four tertiary students were food insecure.2 More broadly, food insecurity has been on the rise across Australia’s major cities.3 In 2016 the City of Sydney estimated that 8.5 % (19,000 people) residents had run out of food and were unable to buy more in the last year.Research suggests that the numbers are likely much higher, as food insecurity in Australia is widely unreported due to a lack of routine measurement and variability in the focus and measures of studies.5 COVID-19 made this situation worse, and has revealed disproportionate impacts of food insecurity on certain groups. According to the Food Bank 2020 Report, two new food insecure groups emerged in 2020: international students and the casual workforce, with 65% of Gen Z going hungry at least once per week. We also know that the experiences of food insecurity in Australia are unevenly distributed amongst racial, gender, sexuality, and socio-economic subgroups.

Last year University of Sydney Union (USU) and PlateitForward stepped up in response to their respective community needs. From late last year USU provided free and affordable meals to international and local students who were struggling to put food on the table. Within three months approximately 1500 students registered to collect hampers and 15,680 kilos of food was produced for food insecure students. PlateitForward donated over 55,000 meals to those identified as most at risk in their communities. These efforts joined many other food charities which saw food relief rise by 47% during the pandemic.

These initiatives did more than provide basic food for at risk groups; they provided a space for social interaction. And, this encouraged Pinney to develop a plan for a centralised food hub.

“My vision for the Community Kitchen Hub was born out of a need to address food security on campus… but also to bring back a sense of community. This has been lacking, not only during COVID but for the last few years there’s been a real disconnect between how students experience campus and how they interact with each other. There’s a growing sense of isolation combined with various social issues, and we feel that not only bringing students together in cafes but having a centralised location on campus where they can meet and have a lived food experience, is good.”

— Ben Pinney, USU

Anecdotally we know that affordable housing for students is rarely set up for cooking. In the shared vision, the space would also offer opportunities for students to take cooking lessons and learn about food and sustainability.

The proposed campus Community Kitchen Hub is a hybrid model, combining food relief via the USU Food Pantry, a commercial kitchen, and social and teaching space. It would also be used to provide opportunities for those who want to participate in the food system as entrepreneurs developing new food business solutions or employees through training, experimentation and network building.

One key and innovative part of the vision for the Community Kitchen Hub, says FoodLab Sydney program facilitator Jamie Loveday, “is to create a central hub for people to come to get their food business started. Our goal is to create 400 new sustainable food businesses and 2000 new jobs in the food sector for vulnerable Australians by 2030.” The Hub would incorporate both a reactive and proactive approach to food aid, focused also on helping people become a part of the solution to a more sustainable and fair food system.

From a business perspective, this part of the program is pragmatic. Loveday, says “it serves as a risk mitigator, built to prevent potential losses in future food entrepreneurs which occur through a lack of market research, premature capital spending, and commitment to unnecessary loans. We know that there’s a high entrance rate for food businesses but there’s also a high exit rate, usually at the point where businesses need to scale up from their home kitchen to a commercial space. The Community Kitchen, with its commercial grade facilities, would off an affordable testing ground for innovative food products, food waste solutions, new food cooperatives, you name it. The space would even enable us to host workshops to deliver the FoodLab program.”

FoodLab Sydney is about relationship building, and since 2019 the project has connected with over 300 businesses, social enterprises, individuals and organisations in Sydney through its mentorship and guest speaker program. Over the course of a ten-week training program, a participant will be exposed to more than 50 different businesses and individuals across Sydney’s sustainable food system. We are finding through our research that this often leads to future collaboration and support, key elements of business survival. So far, 55% of participants have started their own business, and with 37% close to starting, these support networks are invaluable.

This hybrid model and vision encapsulates the latest research and thinking about the limitations of the food relief model.  While emergency food relief is crucial, especially in times like these, there is growing awareness it is only part of the response needed and does little to address the multiple determinants of food insecurity. The ultimate goal then is to create change in the food system and within society so as to address the situations that lead to food insecurity in the first place. Hybrid models like these offer an opportunity to transition away from the emergency food and create broader food systems change.

“The ultimate goal then is to create change in the food system and within society so as to address the situations that lead to food insecurity in the first place.”

Yes, it is utopian in its bold vision of a fairer and more sustainable food system in our community – and in the role of the University in supporting such change. Yet, the only thing that remains ungrounded about this project is that it is missing access to stable space, its bricks and mortar. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for well-heeled anchor institutions, such as the University of Sydney to ‘step up’ and collaborate with councils to support resilience in our local food community. Afterall, our slogan is ‘Leadership starts here’. So, let’s use the ample bricks and mortar on University grounds to build a sustainable food system for all.

1. Wright, E. O. (2011). Real Utopias. Contexts, 10(2), 36–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/1536504211408884
2. Gallegos, D., Ramsey, R. & Ong, K.W. (2014). Food insecurity: is it an issue among tertiary students?. High Educ 67,497–510. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-013-9656-2
3. Temple, J. (2008). Severe and moderate forms of food insecurity in Australia: are they distinguishable? Australian Journal of Social Issues, 43(4), 649–668.
4. City of Sydney Research. (2016). City of Sydney Community Wellbeing Indicators Report: City of Sydney
5. McKay, F., and Dunn, M. (2015). Food security among asylum seekers in Melbourne. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 39: 344-349. doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12368
6. Larder, N., Lyons, K., & Woolcock, G. (2014). Enacting food sovereignty: values and meanings in the act of domestic food production in urban Australia. Local Environment19(1), 56-76.

The Community Kitchen Project needs your support to get up and running. Learn more this Tuesday April 20 at 5pm, with a panel discussion, USU x SEI Panel: Changing Our Food System Within, followed by a unique Indigenous, locally sourced canapes provided by the USU & Colombo Social chefs and wines by The Hidden Sea. And add your voice to this quick survey.

Kate Johnston is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project FoodLab Sydney (2018-2020) with partners including City of Sydney and FoodLab Detroit. She has previously worked as project leader on a partnership project between the University of Sydney and Taronga Conservation Society Australia. The project developed and trialled a holistic tool for measuring socio-cultural, economic and ecological dimensions of conservation. Her research interests include environmental/food justice, sustainable food systems, sustainability discourses, environmental/food governance, blue humanities, experimental and interdisciplinary methodologies. Her professional experience includes roles in communications and events within the food industry in Sydney and Italy. She is co-founder and co-editor of Counter Magazine.