Opinion

We’re in This Together: Working Towards a New Food Culture

FoodLab Sydney doctoral student Eva Perroni finds businesses, individuals and community organisations rising to meet compounding environmental, public health and economic challenges through potent acts of social solidarity.

Photo from Colombo Social Facebook page.

The cumulative pressures of large-scale back-to-back shocks that Australia has collectively borne witness to, including ongoing drought, the recent mega-fires and the current global health COVID-19 pandemic, have triggered a gamut of emotional responses—ranging from shock, sadness, anger and grief to acceptance, compassion and perseverance. Not only are many Australians working through the loss of property, livelihoods or even loved ones, but also the very fabric of familiar life and the comfort brought on by its standard routines. As the country transits through the uncharted emotional and practical aspects of compounding environmental, economic, and health crises, individuals, businesses and community organisations are rising to this unprecedented challenge through small but potent acts of social solidarity, bringing support, relief and moments of normality to members of their community.

History clearly demonstrates that the uneven impacts of such crises hit society’s least privileged the hardest, exacerbating existing disparities as they relate to food. Presently, the food security implications of a COVID-19-triggered economic slowdown are manifesting in some of the most vulnerable populations across Australia. International students and temporary visa holders are queuing for food across the country, while members of isolated communities, immuno-compromised and elderly persons face barriers in safely accessing supermarkets. Migrants and newly-arrived refugees excluded from the government’s support mechanisms are relying on food and care parcels from charities to feed their families. Widespread job and income loss are increasing financial pressures and pushing more people into the ranks of the food insecure, making the fissures of Australia’s already fragile food relief system all the more apparent.

“Widespread job and income loss are increasing financial pressures and pushing more people into the ranks of the food insecure, making the fissures of Australia’s already fragile food relief system all the more apparent.”

The disruptions caused by coronavirus have also extended along the food chain, forcing a massive reshaping of local food system enterprises, operations and transactions from farm to plate. Social distancing measures have forced restaurant and farmers’ market doors to close to the public, creating a major demand shift from food service to an already highly concentrated food retail sector. This has not only resulted in a reorganisation of how and where people buy, prepare, and consume food but has also placed major strain on small farming and food businesses struggling to find alternative avenues to sell their goods and stay in business.

There are obvious implications on food systems in both urban and rural areas, so how might these disruptions prompt a re-think of Australia’s food and agricultural systems towards building more diverse and resilient local food systems? The future of how and what Australians eat, and who has the privilege to choose, is contingent upon the pursuit of a new, values-based food culture once quarantine is lifted.

New initiatives and collaborations among businesses that place the social health of our communities at the core their enterprises are already charting a path toward a more equitable food culture. An example is Colombo Social, a social enterprise kitchen who have evolved their #PlateitForward campaign to feed the most at-risk members of communities across Sydney during this difficult time. Together with a team of talented chefs and experienced restaurateurs and in collaboration with charity partners Mission Australia and Settlement Services International, the initiative has already delivered more than 11,000 high-quality meals to elderly Indigenous Australians in Redfern, social housing residents in Camperdown and people seeking asylum in Marrickville.

“Community lies at the heart of the #PlateitForward movement and Colombo Social. As a for-purpose business we have a responsibility to help the most at risk and vulnerable which is what we did at the time they needed it,” says Colombo Social founder Shaun Christie-David. “A lot of companies look out for those in their ‘target market’ but we wanted to help out those who may never be our customers, but are integral and incredible members of our community, and sometimes get overlooked. This was always the purpose behind #PlateiForward, and with the economic crises continuing and worsening, we have committed to this project as a long-term project.”

Difficult social problems often require collaborative solutions, and for Shaun, facilitating smart partnerships among social enterprises and across sectors is one way of bringing impactful solutions to more people. Social enterprises share many common features: limited resources, dwindling sources of funding, and passionate but often overworked teams. The key commonality, however, is the shared vision as purpose-driven businesses to create positive social and environmental change. Sharing people, expertise, operating models, resources and ambition can help social enterprises already successfully addressing social problems to become more efficient and grow so that they can reach more people and increase impact.

“Sharing people, expertise, operating models, resources and ambition can help social enterprises already successfully addressing social problems to become more efficient and grow so that they can reach more people and increase impact.”

“Collaboration in our sector is crucial for our collective long-term sustainability as an industry. We are stronger together and can create change and impact much greater through smart and aligned partnerships,” affirms Christie-David. “As the recession hits harder we will see budgets getting tighter and therefore every dollar saved means so much.”

Collaborative and inclusive strategies and policies are also required by the government to create enabling environments for social enterprises and other innovative programs working toward greater food equity. “Joined-up” policy thinking and action, where government works collaboratively across portfolios and agencies to develop a more holistic approach to policy design and delivery, are required to reform the macro-conditions that place vulnerable community members at increased risk of food insecurity and limit the opportunities for small food and farming enterprises to thrive. Crucial to this task is a participatory policymaking process that brings industry and community to the table and foregrounds the experiential knowledge of those most involved in and affected by food system issues.

These are unprecedented times of unprecedented need, calling for leadership across all levels of the food system to stimulate transformation with unprecedented solutions. “We have seen how important food security [in this country] is and that hopefully will lead to us coming together,” says Christie-David.

Driven by creative energy, community solidarity and an urgent sense of pragmatism, businesses like Colombo Social are building networks and alliances to share skills, knowledge and resources while fostering an ethics of care towards society’s most vulnerable and food insecure. Drawing on this collaborative, community-driven ethos can open up pathways and policies so that Australia not only bounces back from these cumulative crises but bounces forward to a better, more equitable food culture.


FoodLab Sydney wants to learn how food and farming enterprises across Sydney and New South Wales are coping with increasing challenges across Australia’s food chain and what their visions are for a more resilient, equitable food system. Contact Eva Perroni at eper8307@uni.sydney.edu.au to share your views and be part of the discussion.

Eva Perroni is a doctoral student at FoodLab Sydney, an interdisciplinary project supported by University of Sydney’s Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) and UNSW Canberra, in partnership with the City of Sydney, and TAFE NSW addressing local food insecurity through participatory social enterprise. Her research will assess opportunities and processes in building a participatory culture to effectively address food insecurity and social exclusion within local communities in Sydney.