Cultivating Community Crowdsaucing EventPeta Christensen of Cultivating Community on the far right at a recent event

 

1. Peta, you are the Food Systems and Partnerships Team Leader at Cultivating Community. Could you tell us more about what Cultivating Community does?

Cultivating Community is a small Melbourne based NGO working in the areas of urban agriculture and community food initiatives.  We look after community gardens on public housing estates, have a school food gardens program, run a community food centre with kitchen based activities in Fitzroy, deliver community composting and food waste reduction strategies, run workshops on all things community food and food systems and are working on a number of other community food initiatives.  We work with people from loads of different cultural backgrounds mainly in low income communities, this makes for a wonderful and fascinating exploration of relationships to food and the food system.

 

2. As the Food Systems Projects and Partnerships Team Leader, what is involved in your day-to-day?

I’m happy to say my day to day is often varied and multifaceted – a typical day could involve some office based stuff like emails, applying for grants, coming up with menus and activities for programs before heading off to a meeting with an interesting and inspiring group who want to use the Community Food Centre to deliver say food rescue community lunches or a social enterprise employing refugees to create beautiful cultural foods for sale at a farmers market.  Later in the day I might attend a local government forum looking to address food system issues for their upcoming health and wellbeing or sustainability strategy and then head to the Fitzroy Community Food Centre to make a 3 course meal with primary school kids in a weekly after school cooking program.

 

3. A fellowship saw you exploring some of the best community food projects around the world for six months. Could you tell us where you went, about the projects and your learnings?

My Churchill Fellowship feels like a long time ago now, it was back in 2005 and I visited Canada, the US, Denmark, Brazil and Cuba looking at urban agriculture initiatives and food security projects in low income communities. Although the trip was more than a decade ago many of the learnings and strategies that I encountered are as relevant and applicable today as they were then.  I really drew my fellowship out and visited a great many projects and places in that 6 months, it was an incredible opportunity and wonderful learning experience.  I visited loads of different types of community gardens and urban agriculture projects, community food and farmers markets and other food distribution projects, food policy councils, community kitchens, school garden projects, composting initiatives. Back then, it really felt like much of this kind of work was just starting to really take hold in Australia and the possibilities of what we could do blew my mind, I reckon we’re probably where things were at in the states back then right now in Australia, we’ve come a long long way – thinking about where our food comes from and the impacts of those decisions is becoming more and more part of policy makers thinking and the community sector has exploded in this area, there’s just so much happening now around the country I’ve lost track – it’s  fantastic! If you want to check out my report you can find it here.

 

Cultivating Comunity Afterschool cooking program kids cooking hands (1)All hands on deck at Cultivating Community’s After School Cooking Program

 

4. What results have you seen through the work of Cultivating Community and which community members benefit the most?

Wow, over the years there have been so many results from across the projects – the community gardens provide not only a place to grow food but also a place that provides comfort and peace, it contributes as much to people’s mental health as it does to the health of their bodies through physical activity and the fresh food they produce.  The gardens also build a sense of community as it provides a safe and familiar space for people to spend time and get to know each other, and of course gardeners can’t help but talk to other gardeners about what they are growing, the weather, pests and diseases, etc.  We have 21 community gardens around Melbourne on public housing estates and those patches of dirt mean the world to the gardeners who come from many different language and cultural groups, I have heard people declare over the years that the garden has literally saved their lives, that they don’t know how they would have coped with their life’s stresses without the gardens.  Then there’s our schools program, teaching children about growing food, getting your hands dirty and connecting with the natural world – this kind of education is invaluable and hopefully we’re teaching the kind of skills that will benefit these kids throughout their lives, whether it be about growing a food garden, composting or just understanding a bit more about where our food comes from.  Similarly our cooking programs in the Fitzroy Community Food Centre are helping to develop life long skills teaching kids and adults how to make simple, delicious and nutritious food – some of our kids really rely on this meal as the cupboards at home can get pretty bare sometimes.  The cooking and meal programs are also a wonderful way for people to share their own cultures and special foods and we often incorporate recipes from the many cultures represented on the housing estate making the most of the many teachers we have in our community.  We are also about behaviour change and sustainability and we’ve seen some fantastic results from our Food Know Program which we did in partnership with the City of Yarra a couple years ago.  That program was all about reducing food waste and teaching people to compost, it was the tip of the food waste iceberg but it’s fantastic to see people’s awareness increasing and their actions changing in relation to these issues. It’s hard to measure the outcomes and results of many of our programs, although we don’t necessarily have hard data we know that our programs have lasting and profound impacts on the lives of our participants which is articulated to us all the time – it’s very rewarding work.

 

5. Where should we all be sourcing/buying our produce from?

In a perfect world we’d all have enough space to grow our own food and source what we can’t grow from local farmers and social enterprises however in the real world we do the best we can.  I think if you’re thoughtful about where your food comes from considering what’s in/on it, the impacts of it’s production on the planet, who made/grew it and how they have been treated, what’s going to happen to the packaging, then that’s a really great start.

 

6. In terms of food education and food sustainability, where are we most lacking as a society and how can we improve that?

I think one of the biggest issues is that we’ve become so removed from our food system, it’s too easy to simply go to the supermarket and not really understand the implications of our buying choices – if we understood what had gone into the production of that food then we might make different choices, we might choose to spend a little more on an organic or free range product, we might not let that item rot in the bottom of our veggie crisper and then throw it away.  If we understood more about the implications of unhealthy food choices on our bodies and health this might also make us think differently about food.  I think learning about the food system at school would be an excellent start and I’m heartened to hear that something like this is being proposed in Victorian high schools, this should definitely be the norm as we all eat every day and through our food choices we have enormous power to make positive personal, community and planetary changes.

 

7. What ways can people get involved in the work of Cultivating Community?

We have a wonderful team of volunteers and there are always plenty of ways for people to get involved at that level – we have volunteers helping out with things like our After School Cooking Program, school gardens program, research projects, administration tasks, etc. People can also come along to some of our workshops and activities or get in contact if you’d like us to run a workshop.  If you don’t have any time but love what we do, you can also make a financial contribution via our website.

 

8. What do you love the most about your job?

Well I’ve worked with Cultivating Community for a long time now (since 2000!) and I think the thing I love most about it is that it’s fun! Working with, growing, preparing and sharing food is incredibly joyful – it taps into something fundamental and I think even primal in people, we love it, it’s what we do as human beings.

 

9. What future projects are coming up for Cultivating Community?

Cultivating Community have got a few things on the boil, my main focus is the Fitzroy Community Food Centre and we’re hoping to expand this space so that we can do more food based activities and have more people come and participate.  We’re also getting a little ‘Street Food’ social enterprise happening in partnership with the Melbourne Farmers Markets Association which we’re very excited about.  One of the wonderful things about Cultivating Community and community food projects is that there’s always something new brewing away, keep an eye on our website for more info!

(Images provided by Cultivating Community)

 

Website: www.cultivatingcommunity.org.au

Twitter: @CultivatingCom

Facebook: Cultivating Community

 

 

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