A growing group of social entrepreneurs are helping Australians doing it tough to move beyond food handouts.
Australia’s cafe culture, sourdough obsession and rise of organic food stores hide a harsh reality: some city-dwellers are being priced out of daily staples.
Social enterprises offering affordable essential items such as bread, fruit and vegetables are popping up to serve students, single parents and other people on low incomes. They take an entrepreneurial approach to help ensure everyone can eat well.
An estimated 13 percent of households experience food insecurity in Australia. In 2017–19, seven percent of households in high-income countries were estimated to be food insecure, and this figure is likely to have doubled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For more than 200 years in Australia, free food and ‘alms for the poor’ have been provided by charities and community agencies. But the growth of the sector, and its corporatisation – major partners include Australian supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths and food and drink multinational Nestlé – haven’t necessarily led to reduced numbers of food-insecure people.
The sector has tripled in size over a decade, but the volume of food shifted between warehouses and charities across the country averages out at less than one kilogram, or approximately two meals, per food-insecure household per week. This sector has famously been characterised by Professor Corrina Hawkes as providing ‘too much and too little’: it redistributes food that would otherwise have been wasted, but it is unable to sufficiently meet needs or address root causes.
Many people who use food charities say they would prefer alternative options, feel judged and embarrassed because they need a free meal or a food parcel, and at times hide their use of these programs from their family or friends. But the rising cost of living and the gentrification of their neighbourhood (which tends to drive up local prices) means people need these charities to cope.
One food social enterprise in Melbourne called The Community Grocer is on average 40 percent cheaper than retailers, tailors options to the cultural and dietary preferences of its customers, and provides spaces where people can connect.
Another in South Australia, The Food Centre, is being used to trial the concept of a social supermarket. The idea is to tackle food insecurity by providing low-cost groceries and simultaneously deliver social services and support.
Social supermarkets “…attempt to bridge the gap between charitable food donation and food retail, providing a stepping-stone between reliance on food relief handouts and self-sufficiency”.
FoodLab Detroit, a nonprofit, partnered with the University of Sydney in 2019 to launch a food business incubator in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern. It aims to help the 17,000-plus residents of Sydney who are food insecure, but it also offers training and support for those considering starting their own food business.
Food insecurity will only become more pervasive after COVID. Entrepreneurial and disruptive projects like these are tackling this age-old problem in new ways. They are going beyond food banks and charitable giving to create the possibility of sustainable change.
Rebecca is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University and a Director of The Community Grocer. Rebecca has undertaken paid and unpaid projects with not for profit food organisations.
Editors Note: Rebecca Lindberg