We were recently interviewed by Lena Norton, editor of Green Magazine – here is the full interview with Doron Francis, Enterprise Manager of CERES Fair Food…
Can you tell us exactly what the Fair Food scheme is?
Fair Food is a Melbourne based Organic Box Delivery scheme with a number of social twists – all profits go towards supporting CERES, we have a distribution system which reduces food miles, we support local farmers and provide our community with low-cost, organically grown fruit and veg.
We also provide a fruit box delivery service for the workplace called Fair Fruit. We have a number of customers in and around Melbourne including NAB and Melbourne Water, mostly larger organisations who are keen to provide their staff with access to locally grown, organic fruit. Our customers want to work with an enterprise which has some social benefits too (i.e. less food miles, supporting CERES etc…).
What are the aims of Fair Food and how do they fit with the ethos of CERES?
Fair Food is a Social Enterprise which helps support CERES and our mission to promote sustainable living and alternative energy systems. Our primary objective at CERES is education, with over 65,000 school kids coming to our park each year to learn all about the need for sustainability, community and cross cultural awareness. CERES also has a strong focus on organic food production with a propagation centre, nursery, market gardens and regular organic market.
Fair Food has a number of goals: first and foremost we wanted to create an alternative to supermarket shopping, which, as we all know is dominated by two major players in Australia. Supermarkets supply nearly 80 per cent of all groceries sold in Australia and we see this as a major threat to the environment, local economies and our food culture in general. Market concentration in the supermarket industry has been cited as the main culprit for food price inflation over the past 10 years and often, supermarkets use bullying tactics to dictate prices and business terms to farmers. This has led to smaller farmers going out of business because of reduced margins or an inability to supply to supermarkets specifications (see article by Cassie White – Perfect produce quest killing Australian farms).
This is coupled with a supply chain which has a disturbing dependence on long distance transport, fossil fuel and cold storage. Carbon emissions from supermarket related food transport alone account for more than 2 per cent of the total carbon emissions in Australia. Shopping at supermarkets will generally mean that customers have no idea who grew the produce, how it was transported, stored and what environmental considerations were taken in its production.
CERES Fair Food is almost the antithesis of this model.
We work almost exclusively with Victorian farmers, the closer to Melbourne the better. We want to build long lasting relationships with our farmers and growers, based on trust and sticking by them right through the growing season and not chasing the lowest price just because there is an over-supply in the market.
Fair Food provides a link between farmers and customers. Our members care about where their food comes from and how it’s produced. They can see the advantage of buying local – the produce is fresher, in-season and whatever they spend with us stays within the Victorian economy. All of our suppliers are organic certified, which means our customers know that their food is produced without chemicals or GMO. However, we also try to get to know our growers and understanding their land care credentials. This is something that we are keen to spend more time doing as we mature as an organisation. Ideally we would introduce our own standards which would also take into consideration a component of social justice, for instance, ensuring farm workers are treated fairly.
Where did the concept for Fair Food come from?
CERES have always been a big promoter of local food and have spent years supplying and supporting fledgling food Co-ops (essentially buying clubs where people can get together to buy bulk organic food and take advantage of lower prices). After researching various models we decided that we would adopt a distribution system similar to Food Connect in Brisbane. This model has elements of CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) and Co-ops. It uses pick-up points instead of door-to-door delivery which saves on food miles and encourages people to get know likeminded folk in their neighbourhood. Rob Peakin (Food Connect Founder and all round clever bloke) has a solid vision for alternative food systems and was very instrumental in helping us get systems in place in the early days.
How was the scheme started? What kind of funding did it require? How did these funds enable you to build Fair Food?
In December 2009 CERES won a Government grant (Jobs Fund for Job creation) to expand our food distribution enterprise. The funds have helped us to hire staff, lease a warehouse, purchase delivery vans; develop our website, IT systems, branding and marketing, as well as provide other capital expenditure necessary for starting up an enterprise of this size.
How do you see schemes such as Fair Food influencing the marketplace?
Well, with Supermarkets dominating the marketplace there’s obviously a big job to do before we can say that we have any real influence. However, we see it as a big opportunity too, with more and more people waking up to the fact that local and organic food systems aren’t just fads but have tangible social and environmental benefits. We recently carried out a survey on our customers and although we have only been operational for just over 6 months it appears that our members are very happy with our service, the produce and most of all the ethos behind what we are doing. They are excited about knowing who grows their food and that they are supporting a service that has other social objectives too.
Much of the food in the weekly boxes is grown on site at CERES in Brunswick. Who grows, tends and harvests the crops? How do you decide what to grow and in what quantities?
We have two main market gardens – at CERES itself (managed by Farmer Steve) and another plot about 4km up the Merri Creek at our Harding Street garden (managed by Silke Genovese).
Do you find consumers are interested to come and see where their food is grown, or to be more educated about the process by which their food arrives on their plate?
Both, we have a lot of interest in farm visits, which we will be starting up in when it cools down a bit, and people are also responding positively to articles and links we publish online. We try to give our members as much information about how food is really produced as possible by giving them access to information which they may not be aware of. For instance last year we hosted a free screening of Food INC – this something we hope to be doing a lot more of in 2011.
You have staff from AMES working at Fair Food. Can you explain how this shapes what you do and why it works so well with the overall motivation of the scheme?
This is another example of our commitment to providing a social outcome for what we do. We have employed a number of people through AMES and it’s exciting to see the guys develop new skills and become better equipped to deal with the Australian workplace. In fact everyone we have hired through AMES has been an asset to Fair Food, making working at Fair Food an extremely inclusive and fun place to work.
How has the scheme created new links and relationships between growers, sellers and consumers?
It’s about developing trust really. We already share a lot of information about our farmers via our website, Facebook, newsletters and in farm visits. It’s empowering for growers to meet customers and vice versa. We are planning more ways of getting information to our customers, such as asking farmers to write guest blog articles, producing podcasts and videos, so that our customers can get a feel for some of the realities of growing food and are more in tune with the growing seasons.
Is it true that you are already fielding questions from other organisations over Australia who want to emulate the scheme in their own locations? If so, how do you offer advice and support?
Yes we are open to providing help to individuals or organisations who would like to set up something similar to Fair Food. So far this has ranged from fact-finding meetings and tours of our warehouse, to sharing information and systems.
What is the future for Fair Food?
There is still so much to do… but more happy customers and farmers would be fantastic!