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COVID-19 - The need for a local food system has never been more evident

Georgia Karavis, Communications & Events Coordinator, Sustain & Melbourne Food Hub

To put it mildly, this year started on shaky ground.

We saw bushfires and floods, felt tangible momentum for action on the climate emergency and were moved by calls to build and strengthen our communities, as described by my colleagues Dr. Kelly Donati and Annemaree Docking in their earlier blog posts. These calls are equally relevant in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic – perhaps it is unsurprising that what solutions we do have are already known to those trying to create change for the better- in food systems and beyond.

While the virus itself has the potential to be devastating, it is the deeply entwined consequences for the broader community which keep centring in my mind. Already I have friends describing their ‘near joblessness’, while others look forward to the possibility of staying home- a reprieve from the daily grind (cynical maybe, but honest). Community services and organisations are facing the incredibly difficult decision to continue serving their participants - the hardest hit in times of instability - or close their doors to dampen the rate of transmission.

The place we currently find ourselves idling feels exposed. I have heard people pleading not to give in to panic, and those who say we are asleep at the wheel. Both of these perspectives leave me wanting. What is the ‘responsible’ decision here?

We have been exposed through fire, through pandemic, through diet-related ill-health, through under-resourced hospitals and through food banks picking up the slack of frankly inhumane social services and wasteful corporations. This exposure speaks to the incredible fragility of our systems. It is not only the withdrawal of services that we must consider, but the services that weren’t there in the first place. When we fill our shopping baskets with flour, rice and other affordable staples we need to ask ourselves what the alternative is for the people who already rely on these goods.

We don’t need to fight over toilet paper, we need to honestly assess why we are fighting over toilet paper. These exchanges have been characterised as greed, but I disagree. This is the result of an Australia in which we do not have faith that our needs will be met. A place where we distrust the idea that government and industry has some, even small, duty of care to us.

We feel this way because we have not seen a public commitment to our collective wellbeing in some time, and that when we have, it comes with caveats. An income tax break that barely applies to those earning under $48,000, an NDIS which boosted the government’s bottom line when services weren’t delivered, and a process to start Indigenous reconciliation where the recommendations were ignored.

If we were truly committed to the universal human right to food, then it wouldn’t matter that food banks were receiving fewer donations than usual. If we already had urban food production and markets in every suburb, it wouldn’t matter if the trucks couldn’t come in. If we spent more time with our neighbours and could work in our neighbourhoods, rather than sitting in same traffic jam commuting, then we would be more attuned to how we could help one another.

These are not new, original or revolutionary ideas. If there is a lesson to be had, surely it’s that these ideas not only deserve thought but action. They require us all to commit as best we can - put our money, time, emotional energy and trust where our collective mouth is. While we are all vulnerable in some way, for those trying to create change this feels like an opportunity. Our local food system is the most resilient one we have, and can only be strengthened by welcoming new people into the fold. It has become clear that short-sighted political and financial economies must change now, and people are looking for alternatives. Rome wasn’t built in a day but Milan can close in one.

Yes, it will take courage and creativity to do more, spend more, and think more when the pressures of day to day life are as intensely felt as they are now. But these acts also allow us reprieves from the pressure, because they enrich us through connection, care, health and solidarity.

We can all act now in some way to support each other and our local food system.

Here’s 10 ideas to get you started:

  1. Buy fresh fruit and veg now. I’m talking before we go into lock down people – we should be enjoying the best of the fresh while we can.
  2. Shop for food locally – get out of the supermarkets and into farmers markets, CSA’s, veggie boxes and locally owned businesses. If you still need a supermarket, look for independently owned. Same goes for restaurants or takeaway food.
  3. Tell two (or twenty) people who aren’t sustainable foodies why local food systems matter and invite them to come shopping with you.
  4. Get gardening. If Costa says it, it must be true.
  5. Get in touch. Got a friend in casual work, or an oldie down the road? Swing by with a bunch of flowers and leave a note on the door. If you don’t know anybody, check out organisations like One Good Street or see if your local neighbourhood house can connect you to somebody.
  6. Keep an eye out online. People are turning to social media with the help they need – from food trucks looking for a spot to park or people needing an extra few hours work. Take a moment to consider how you can help or who you can connect.
  7. Share recipes. It’s tricky to know what to cook, especially if you can’t get your usual pantry staples. Share some low-cost, healthy recipes around and remind people that the freezer is your best friend!
  8. Actually, just share your resources. From impromptu loo-paper libraries to buckets of home-grown produce – put your surplus goods out front or in your lobby for people to take as they need.
  9. Got some spare time or feeling a little lost? Giving back can change that story fast and while many organisations are cancelling in-person activities, you won’t know what skills you could contribute until you ask.
  10. Commit to what you want your community to look like once COVID-19 is over and work towards it. Not everybody can take action now, but it’s worth making a plan for what you can do in the future.