For many of us food is a delicious and essential part of daily life. But all of us were first nourished by the breast or its stand-in, experiencing that primal need and its glorious satisfaction. We attach so many meanings to eating and sharing food. So many arguments and announcements happen around dinner tables. So much love and power is associated with food and its provision.
Being central to life, it’s not surprising that food has featured strikingly in all the arts. Think of the number of dinner tables which feature in films and television, a stage in which drama of one kind or another – love, gratitude, hate, long-bottled frustration and grievance – plays out. Food is represented lushly in painting – particularly in still life. And food is captured memorably, deliciously in my particular province – poetry. Seamus Heaney’s crabapple jelly, Neruda’s watermelon whales, Alison Croggon’s voluptuous vegetables, and the bite of Carol Ann Duffy’s onion. It’s a good topic for poetry because it gives license to be sensual, symbolic, to string the work with multiple meanings and associations. The concept of food is redolent of life and vigour, of nourishment; but it is also chthonic, evoking the below-ground domain – the earth from which we all come and the shadowy nether regions where food is grown and to which we will return.
Then there is food’s twin – hunger – an experience I have never truly had. Like the majority of Australians I’ve only been hungry momentarily when I’m late to eat or for brief fasts for medical or health reasons. I’ve felt a mostly contented stomach’s occasional plea but have never gone for any significant period without sustenance. I don’t know what the claw in the belly is like – have never experienced how hunger must gnaw at your mind as well as in your body. Hunger and its kin – malnutrition and starvation – are not even close enough possibilities that I have ever personally had to reckon with them.
Another privilege is having so much plenty that we can afford to throw food away. Annually, Australians waste a staggering $5.2 billion worth – over $1.1 billion of this being fruit and vegetables. Alongside this an estimated 1.2 million Australians are considered to be food insecure – defined as not having access to affordable, safe and nutritious food. There is something decadent and obscene when you put these facts side by side.
SecondBite, an Australian food rescue charity, takes these problems of food waste and hunger and allows one problem to serve as an elegant and sensible solution to the other.
The organisation was set up by my brother Ian and his wife Simone in 2005. It was corporate food waste which first turned Ian on to food rescue. Attending corporate functions, he was appalled by the mountains of perfectly edible fresh food which was left over at the end of lunch.
“I had seen this obscene waste so many times, it had sickened me so many times, but there came a time when I couldn’t bear it any longer. I asked a waiter at a particular function what they did with the left-overs from the buffet. Did they recycle them? Oh no we have to throw them away, he said, confirming all my fears. That was the day I decided I was going to do something. I thought ‘I can right this’.”
Ian’s decision to act dovetailed with legislative change in Australia which made it possible to reuse food for charitable purposes. Previously, fear of being sued had kept charities away from food rescue and redistribution.
“That change allowed me to act. Mum had always told me that I had to eat my greens because of the starving kids in Africa – it was a popular cliché from the times but there was wisdom behind it and I must have listened,” he said.
Starting with a friend and a single city restaurant, they arranged to collect 20 litres of soup weekly and take it to a local charity. Not long after that first food rescue, Ian’s wife Simone mentioned that she’d noticed the waste of fresh vegetables at their local market.
The concept of food is redolent of life and vigour, of nourishment; but it is also chthonic, evoking the below-ground domain – the earth from which we all come and the shadowy nether regions where food is grown and to which we will return.
With a wry smile, Ian told me that, in the long tradition of men not listening to their wives’ great ideas, he didn’t give her serious attention at first – but, after she had suggested it a number of times, he did listen.
“It turned out to be a stroke of genius. I’m so glad she persisted because collecting soup would not have allowed an organisation to form or grow – it just wasn’t sustainable.”
SecondBite followed on from there. Ian, Simone and their three children drove their station wagon each week to Prahran Market to pick up food which the stallholders threw away at the end of the Saturday shift – food which wouldn’t last until Monday morning. They packed it into the back of the car and drove it to Sacred Heart Mission. There it joined other donations to be cooked up into meals to serve people who are impoverished and homeless.
Before too long Mum was roped in to help, then my sister and it wasn’t long before there was a team of volunteers and the beneficiaries grew beyond Sacred Heart Mission. I remember filling in on a couple of occasions when someone was sick, hefting the boxes into the back of the car and driving them off for them to be made into meals to fill someone’s stomach – it was a good feeling.
The organisation has come a long way. Now SecondBite operates six refrigerated vans out of a Kensington warehouse. They have 55 paid staff as well as a team of 600 volunteers Australia-wide – all funded solely by donations.
SecondBite has partnership agreements with some of the major supermarkets as well as still maintaining their grass roots origins by continuing to collect from fruit and vegie markets. They have a particular outreach into Aboriginal communities and a well thought-out and research-based education and training arm to promote nutrition. Programs are targeted to assist long-term disadvantaged people shop, prepare and store food. They have created a comprehensive and thorough approach to food security.
Recently I went to the SecondBite base in Kensington to ‘ride the van’, as SecondBite calls doing the rounds of pick-up and delivery. I went out with driver Nick. We had two deliveries to make and five potential pickups. The most moving was to a community centre which makes up food bags for families who are doing it tough. The bags were ready when we arrived standing in ordered lines around the room, upright and eloquently opened-mouthed, awaiting their food. The women were loud with banter and teasing while their hands flew, distributing big shiny aubergines and more potatoes than anyone would know what to do with in a week. Mostly it was high quality fresh food – wilting vegies were set aside.
The supermarkets didn’t have much for us that day – Nick said that even though a particular chain agrees to make donations, it takes time to educate the store managers as to what is appropriate. But at Costco we got a full pallet, the whole neatly wrapped in cling wrap. A forklift driver ferried it over to us and manoeuvred the load in, the weight sinking the van deeper over its axles in a satisfying way.
On a personal level I’m a member of an organic food co-op run out of my local community learning centre. Members buy weekly or fortnightly food boxes direct from local farmers – a husband and wife team. We don’t get to choose the vegies but agree to take whatever the farmers have grown that week. This is a terrific exercise as you’re forced out of habitual cooking grooves into trying new recipes – kale and rutabagas are previously unknown vegetables I’ve learned to love through my vegie box.
There are many obvious advantages from this arrangement – we know we are eating seasonal produce with low food miles, for example. There’s the security of knowing no chemicals have been used in the growing or harvesting cycle. But there is another dimension which is particularly instructive. I am amazed at how differently I feel about the organic, direct-from-the-farmer food compared to the food I buy from supermarkets, and this has led to me changing my own behaviour.
I value the co-op food more – partly because it is just picked and brimming with life. But it also is directly related to the relationship I have with the farmer, Shelley, and seeing the dirt under her fingernails and ground into the denim of her jeans where she has kneeled to pick baby spinach leaves, or broccoli or cabbage. Buying my food from the co-op I am only one step removed from the growing cycle. I partake of the enterprise in however small a way, and have a modest stake in its success.
My food provision has become personal so that I just can’t blithely throw out food Shelley and her husband Craig have grown. I would feel dreadful, like I was letting them down, betraying their effort. This has led me to make a commitment to not throw out anything I buy from them. It’s a challenge in a busy life and embarrassing to see the contrast with my previous attitude. If I can’t use the food in a meal I’ll cook it up into a vegie stock and bung it into the freezer for a later soup or casserole. I feel ridiculously proud of this small commitment, but to the many millions of starving and food-insecure people the world over it would seem insanity to do anything else.
There are many factors which contribute to us being predisposed to waste food. Most of our food purchasing happens in shops and supermarkets which stand in front of the famer or producer and render food provision an anonymous activity. What we gain in convenience we lose in immediacy – it’s much harder to feel responsible to a grower and value their produce if you don’t have a personal relationship with them. When meat is glad-wrapped on polystyrene trays many children have no idea that it has come from an actual living animal.
Buying my food from the co-op I am only one step removed from the growing cycle. I partake of the enterprise in however small a way, and have a modest stake in its success.
By the nature of economies of scale, supermarkets favour large producers, putting pressure on prices and making it hard for smaller farmers to find markets at a reasonable return for their produce. This means that most of us have access to incredibly cheap fruit and vegetables – but there is perhaps a hidden cost.
Whatever the cause, the worldwide food wastage figures are appalling – between 25 and 50 per cent of food produced is wasted between paddock and plate. Into this abyss go the food rescue organisations like SecondBite. Since 2005, SecondBite alone has rescued an amazing 4.5 million kilos of surplus fresh food – enough for 9 million meals.
I wonder if I will ever bring the same attitude to the rest of the food that comes in through my front door as I have summoned to Shelley and Craig’s vegetables.
My background is social activism. I worked in women’s health and domestic violence for many years, then volunteered in the area of intellectual disability. When I turned to the arts it was initially to overcome burnout. How other artists combine their arts practice with social activism is fascinating and instructive, and I get inspired by those who manage to meld the two without compromising artistic integrity. It seems easier in some branches of the arts – singing and songwriting have a proud tradition of social commentary and activism (think Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach amongst a galaxy of other performers). I heard of a photographer who projected huge images of endangered animals on the walls of buildings in inner city lanes – letting the potency and beauty of the images convey the message.
But it’s harder perhaps to combine with poetry or novels – as there’s nothing which wrecks creative writing more readily than the didactic or the polemic. But there are other ways than just writing political poetry to have the arts contribute to social activism.
My first occasion for combining the two was a modest fundraising enterprise I called The River Soiree. I wanted to contribute to raising the profile of the Yarra Riverkeeper Association, a wonderfully evocative and archaic sounding title, which is part of a family of Keepers around the world dedicated to preserving the health of waterways. Set on the beautiful Herring Island in the Yarra River in Melbourne, I had a group of prominent Melbourne poets come and read both their own river poems and a river poem from an international poet. It was a magical occasion.
Since then I have been contemplating my next possible activist venture. I wondered whether poetry might have anything to offer the food rescue arena, specifically SecondBite – and the idea of a poetry competition emerged. It could have both fundraising and awareness-raising goals. It could generate a body of high quality poetry around the multiple meanings and angles on food. It could have people reflect on food wastage in their own homes. Perhaps it could raise a modest sum to contribute.
Our family’s experience is that political allegiance need have no bearing on social justice commitments, and both left and right have their own traditions of social justice even when they are formulated on different ideologically grounds. How wonderful to have discovered this alongside my brother.
In 2013, in recognition of her work with and for SecondBite, Simone Carson was awarded Citizen on the Year (Community) by Stonington council – acknowledgement of that original, great intuition which led to SecondBite’s establishment.
In 2014 I will trial the SecondBite Poetry Competition. I hope to raise sufficient funds from donations to offer a substantial monetary first prize. I want to do this in order to attract a large number of entries from poets everywhere, including prominent poets. I hope a publication may come out of the project able to be sold and raising more money for SecondBite.
I’ve grappled with the ethics as there is a tension between running an event for a charity which deals with poverty while offering a significant financial prize. But the prize will be going to a group mostly at the very bottom of the remuneration scale – only the most famous poets can earn an income from their practice of the art. So I hope to hold that tension between the polarities as a creative tension, a bit like how SecondBite uses the fact of food waste to help deal with its opposite – poverty and food insecurity.
The project has kicked off in style with Chris Wallace Crabbe agreeing to donate his services as judge. And I’ve just received my first donation to put towards the prize money.
For more information on the SecondBite Poetry Prize, contact Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information will be made available in early 2014 about how and what to submit. There are many ways to contribute to the project – submitting poems on the topic of food (not necessarily political), contributing donations (however modest) for the prize money or volunteering to assist in admin areas.