Building community through food


“Community Through Food”

 First published, Coffs Advocate, 7.8.10

Nick Rose

Farmers’ markets – ubiquitous before the age of supermarkets, then almost disappearing – have enjoyed a renaissance during the past decade. Ten years ago they were virtually unheard of in Australia; today there are more than 120, including of course the popular growers’ markets in Coffs Harbour and Bellingen.

Their growth in the United States has been equally dramatic, rising from 1,755 in 1994 to 6,132 in 2010. And in the UK there are now 550 farmers markets, from a base of zero in 1997.

This is a phenomenon in search of an explanation. There is the quality, seasonal, produce these markets offer. There is the convivial atmosphere, often enriched with arts, crafts and live music. There is the knowledge that each dollar spent goes directly to the farmer. And there is the direct connection with the person who produces the food, which contrasts so sharply with the antiseptic anonymity of the modern supermarket.

Farmers’ markets create ‘community through food’, as Shana Henry, one of the founders of the Nambucca Valley Local Food Network (NVLFN), puts it. It’s this capacity to bring people together which is perhaps the key to understanding their popularity, in an age when there has been such a widespread loss of any sense of ‘community’.

The NVLFN, launched last September, placed farmers’ markets at the core of its mission to create greater access to local produce for local residents. Inspired by the various sustainability initiatives launched in Bellingen over recent years, Shana and her co-founders felt frustrated by the low availability of locally-grown produce in such a fertile valley. “We just can’t get much local produce [where I live] in Macksville, unless it’s from a face-to-face exchange, and that’s what we want, those face-face connections.”

They soon found however that supporting a farmers’ market is not as easy as it sounds. Their first efforts were directed at the Valla Beach market, in existence for less than two years, but they feel disappointed by what they see as a drift in the market’s initial focus on local produce, and a lack of support from local residents. Jocelyn Edge sees the problem in the market’s lack of frequency: “It’s a bi-monthly market, and people don’t use it to buy their food.”

Last October, other members of the NVLFN in Taylor’s Arms successfully launched a farmers’ market supported by the local Primary School. Shana believes that this market may be more successful, because “they’re a small community, more easily mobilised”. She adds, “We [also] want to establish a [farmers’] market in Macksville, but we need to see how things play out with the recent opening of Woolworths.”

And what has been the impact of Woolworths on local businesses in Macksville? Not as bad as some expected, according to Shana. “Food Works [the local co-op] have survived, people have tried out Woolworths and came back. They [the co-op] were pleasantly surprised.”

“In some ways Woolworths have been their own worst enemy”, adds Gary Pankhurst. “They’ve cannabilised their own market, because now the Woolworths in Nambucca Heads is suffering.”

Apart from farmers’ markets, NVLFN members support each other through the sharing of skills, knowledge and information. “We’ve done breadmaking, and soap-making and candle-making, and we would like to involve the older generation in teaching us how to bottle”, says Shana. Recently the group organised a cheesemaking day, producing 8 kilos of feta from local cow’s milk. They’ve organised local food picnics, and have plans for a bush dance later in the year.

Though they may be relative newcomers to the Valley, Shana and her colleagues are attracting support from long-time residents. Recently Shana was contacted by a 79-year old lady in response to a NVLFN notice about sourcing goats’ milk locally. “She rang to tell me how she needed it years ago for her children, and she was just so happy to see that people were taking things into their own hands [again]”, said Shana.

Building a community around food.