It was during the autumn harvest when communities at Melbourne's public-housing estates heard that Victoria's Department of Health and Human Services would close community gardens to enforce physical distancing.
The news saddened them. The gardens had been a reliable supply of food for their families. Where were they going to go? The neighbourhood houses they would seek out next for food assistance would soon shut too.
The team at Cultivating Community, which helps manage the gardens, needed a plan to keep plots alive for the tenants while keeping their organisation afloat. Across Victoria, other food-based social enterprises also faced the risk of closing down as the threat of the coronavirus grew.
Already aware about the glaring pocket of hunger that existed in an abundant so-called 'foodie' city, they recognised the pandemic would widen this gap. So it was almost serendipitous that a couple of months ago, STREAT, a social enterprise providing youth a pathway from crisis to sustainable livelihoods, had committed to achieve a goal it made two years ago: to encourage enterprises to work together to achieve greater sustainability and food security.
This set the stage for their role in the pandemic. With everyone already willing, it took a matter of several calls from STREAT to other organisations to gain traction for what they have called Moving Feast.
Envisioned to be fair and regenerative, Moving Feast is the beginning of an answer to the longstanding crisis of food insecurity in Victoria. Since its launch eight weeks ago, it is hallmarked by a bulk of employees from vulnerable communities, and a commitment to provide free meals and create opportunities for people. To date, 20 social enterprises comprise the movement.
The first aim of Moving Feast is to meet the immediate need for meals by preparing and delivering an average of 1,000 meals each day. Refugees, women and children escaping domestic violence, and people facing homelessness are some of the groups Moving Feast serves. Already, 30 plots have been mobilised to grow the produce for these meals, including the public-housing community gardens managed by Cultivating Community. Another 40 will follow.
Rob Rees, the CEO of Cultivating Community, says, "The team are sowing seeds and trying to reassure the gardeners who don't have the access that they used to have." The gardeners are public-housing tenants who are newly migrated or have low-income backgrounds.
Gardening was their way of connecting with a community and their roots. "They're managing a lot of the stress by knowing that they are restocking this fresh food larder [for Moving Feast] and it will give hope," says Rees.
"You have to put time aside to see differences in style of cooking and flavours, try the food and chat. It's a learning process for everybody."
Their plots continue to produce vegetables and herbs used in various countries' cuisines, while the tenants receive meal deliveries.
Likewise, another participating social enterprise, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), has continued preparing cultural meals for their beneficiaries. ASRC's kitchen team comprises asylum seekers and refugees from countries including Uganda, Middle East, India, and Ethiopia.
Head Chef Brett Kuhne prioritises his team's voices when planning meals. "You have to put time aside to see differences in style of cooking and flavours, try the food and chat. It's a learning process for everybody."
While these enterprises recognise the value of providing cultural food for vulnerable Victorians, largely, the food-relief sector still has a way to go. This was the most startling discovery the Moving Feast team made when they stepped into the field.
"We were astounded when we looked across the current food banks or food rescue organisations and could see such an absence of culturally appropriate food," says Bec Scott, the CEO of STREAT and organiser of Moving Feast.
"We were astounded when we looked across the current food banks or food rescue organisations and could see such an absence of culturally appropriate food."
Besides creating diverse meals, Moving Feast has also given people menus. Often in food-relief efforts, meal recipients feel a sense of shame when they can't choose their meals. Moving Feast recipients have been grateful for the opportunity to choose.
Given the meals are starkly different to usual food relief, it was inevitable that demand would mount. But ongoing philanthropic support and self-funding is the key for Moving Feast's longevity. It is ket to it moving to the next phase of empowering their beneficiaries to grow their own food to get through the pandemic and the long-term food insecurity that the world is predicted to face afterwards.
The team knows why it's pressing on even though the problem seems insurmountable.
At the beginning of the project, they delivered meals and a produce box to a young family who needed it to fill their stomachs that week. It was later discovered the mother had also shared the food with other people in her neighbourhood who were in distress.
In these moments, Scott says, "you realise not only the criticality of food in allowing us to survive but how food is so much a part of the way that we care for each other."
Photographs by Rachelle Davey and STREAT.
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