From farm to table and everything in between
3 February 2021 at 8:32 am
Do you know where your fruit and veggies come from? It’s a question that Robert Pekin is trying to answer with Food Connect, a social enterprise putting the regional food economy back into the hands of the people writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise.
Pekin’s journey to creating the Food Connect that exists today has meant asking a lot of questions and challenging a lot of systems.
After losing his multi-generational family dairy farm in the late 1990s, he took to the books to broaden his understanding of where food fits into the world of business, and look for a solution to the disconnect many people (including himself) had to the food they were eating.
“There were a lot of questions around whether food was something that was to be exploited as a commodity on the market or if it’s a human right,” Pekin told Pro Bono News.
Moving to Brisbane, he knew that he wanted to create a food system that was divorced from market forces, hyper-localised to cut down on fossil fuel emissions, and one that made the eater a participant. But, it was the backing of a group of Brisbane mums that really saw the idea take off.
“It just so happened that I got on the radio to talk about my idea and a whole bunch of Brisbane mums heard me and got in contact because they wanted to be involved,” he said.
“And because at that stage it was just an idea, they formed a support group and got behind me.”
Food Connect works with over 80 local farmers (no further than 500 km from Brisbane) to provide seasonal, ecologically grown food that goes into produce boxes for Brisbane locals.
Farmers are paid about four times the amount they would get from big supermarket chains, made possible by cutting out the middleman.
One box might hold up to 20 different products from 20 different farmers, and instead of being delivered straight to individual homes, the boxes are distributed via a special network called “city-cousins”, which are customers and locals that have signed up to distribute the boxes to people in their neighbourhood.
“It was a way to not only get people really involved in the process but to break down the six-foot high fences in the city and get neighbors talking to each other,” Pekin said.
Farm tours are also on offer for customers to see how their food is grown and to learn about what’s involved in regenerative farming practices.
Evolving, at a pace
Because the overarching aim of Food Connect was always to create, educate and advocate for fair food systems locally and internationally, in 2009, the Food Connect Foundation was established to do just that.
“We had 45 staff working for Food Connect and grew to a point where we realised that we couldn’t do all our advocacy work across Australia,” Pekin said.
The produce and grocery boxes are just one of 46 revenue streams the organisation has to keep the business running and fund its advocacy and education programs.
Other revenue streams include a consultancy practice that works with groups such as local councils struggling with environmental land planning, renting out electric vehicles, and hosting workshops and events.
All under one roof
Possibly the biggest achievement of Food Connect to date however is the development of the Food Connect Shed, Australia’s first community-owned local food hub. It’s home to over 27 social enterprises that range from a brewery, a Japanese cheesecake shop, and a creative design and marketing business.
In 2018, the enterprise successfully raised $2 million through a community crowdfunding campaign to purchase the shed after renting it for nearly 12 years.
Pekin said that buying the shed not only secured the future of the enterprise but gave the people who had invested money into it (the local community and a few impact investors) a sense of ownership and responsibility for what went on inside.
“If the community owns the infrastructure and we have a really aligned group of investors who understand that this isn’t a property play, then it becomes about supporting what happens in the building, not about the building itself,” he said.
He also said that because there were so many like-minded enterprises under the same roof, they were able to resource share, support one another, and work towards common goals such as reducing food waste and being as environmentally friendly as possible.
“Our role as Food Connect is to support these businesses with all sorts of ideas on how they can collaborate, come up with really innovative products, and share skills which further reduces the overheads,” he said.
“We have changed the mantra that it takes a village to raise a child and instead say it takes a foodshed to raise a social entrepreneur.”
He added the shed gave farmers working within the Food Connect network a chance to form relationships with the tenants and supply them directly.
Getting the community on board
Pekin does admit that at times, it’s been hard getting the community on board with an idea that has so many layers to it.
“We thought we would raise the money we needed in our crowdfunding campaign in a month, but it took us the full 90 days we were allowed by law to do it,” he said.
“But we quickly realised that it wasn’t a marketing thing, it was an educational thing, and once we started doing shed tours to explain what we were trying to do, things started to change.”
He added that over the years, they have learned to not take on “too many good ideas at once”, and that sometimes, compromising on a few aspects of the business actually meant that they could have more impact.
“I look back at how I tried to build a lot of those really complex systems into the business in the first go, but it just became impractical,” Pekin said.
“We’ve slowly built a strategy that’s worked towards achieving some of those things, as well as being financially viable.”
He said that it has taken nearly 15 years of operating Food Connect to be at a point where they are financially sustainable, but that that goal is now well within their reach.
“We’ve been going for 15 years, which in itself is a tremendous success when we’re doing something that is so against the grain, delivering impact, and also competing against the everyday fruit and veg shop out there,” he said.
A model to be replicated
When Pekin first started out, his mission was to take down the big supermarket giants. But 15 years later, he said that goal had shifted slightly.
Works are now in motion to replicate the food shed across the country, showing people and food producers that it is possible to participate in a food system that works for all.
“I’m working on a replication model at the moment that is going to really empower regions in their own unique ways,” he said.
“My focus was probably just a bit angry in the early days, now it’s more about how we’ll replace these big companies, because if they don’t wake up to themselves, by the time there are 200 to 400 food sheds operating across Australia, they won’t have any farmers to get supply off.”