A farming community recovering from drought is giving fresh fruit and vegetables to people throughout New South Wales while at the same time building resilience.
Hillston Uniting Church, a small rural church in southern New South Wales — like most in the region, without a pastor — has turned its focus to the community.
It is not a charity asking for money but it’s building a reputation as a group of people seeking opportunities to give.
Members of the church recognise God’s blessing in the flush of green the region is now experiencing.
Congregation member John McKeon remembers a decade ago feeding his sheep early in the morning when the sheep were the only life he saw. There was no chorus of birds.
Now there are kingfishers and quail and hawks by the dozen on the local oval (hunting for plague mice — because when times are good for farmers they are also good for locusts and rodents).
With the long drought over, Mr McKeon says he is experiencing his best year of farming in 20 years. The shire has full silos and bunkers and there is good soil moisture — a promising sign for another good season.
Now Mr McKeon, the Hillston Church and the Carrathool Shire are seizing upon the opportunity to “give back” to urban communities who supported them through the dark years.
Waste Not Want Not, a project that will deliver otherwise wasted produce from the shire to the tables of hungry families throughout New South Wales and the ACT, was launched in Hillston on April 29.
Sixty members of the community celebrated the launch at the Hillston Ex-Servicemen’s and Citizens Club.
The project — the brainchild of Uniting Church rural chaplain Julie Greig, a Department of Primary Industries rural support worker, a council community development officer and local farmers — is also intended to build community spirit and capacity.
Carrathool Shire (named from an Aboriginal word meaning “native companion”) is located in the Riverina region of south-western New South Wales, about 570 kilometres north of Melbourne and 680 kilometres from Sydney.
It is a predominantly rural area, with two-thirds of the population living in the township of Hillston and the smaller villages of Carrathool, Goolgowi, Merriwagga and Rankins Springs.
The Shire encompasses a total land area of about 19,000 square kilometres. Traditionally a grazing and cropping area, with innovations in irrigation, the industry has now expanded into citrus, cotton, viticulture, walnuts, olives, potatoes, lettuce, mangoes, cherries, corn, rice and a large cattle feed lot.
Unfortunately, perfectly sound food that does not meet the very narrow specifications for commercially acceptable product — it could be too small or have blemishes on its skin — is going to waste. One grower last year ploughed in 3,000 tons of pumpkins. Seeded melons are left to rot.
With the help of Waste Not Want Not, some of this food will now be saved and distributed through Foodbank in Sydney to charities throughout New South Wales and the ACT.
The idea originated when Julie Greig approached Parramatta Mission to take the available produce.
When it was realised the quantities involved were too great for the mission, Ms Greig was referred to Foodbank, the largest hunger relief organisation in Australia and endorsed by the Australian Food and Grocery Council as the food industry’s preferred means of disposal of surplus product.
The need is great
The Hillston Uniting Church took the lead of the initial phase, seeking and obtaining a grant from Uniting Care for seed money and funds for publicity to share the story locally and throughout the state.
The first steps included confirming the participation of some key suppliers in Carrathool Shire and forming a committee from the local community.
The project originally aimed to provide at least 16,000 kg of food each year — the equivalent of 35,320 daily servings of vegetables. On the weekend of the launch local farmers had already promised 200 tons of produce (441,500 servings).
Participating growers are motivated by altruism and a desire that their produce does not go to waste; they also have the incentive of a tax benefit, thanks to a certificate issued by Foodbank.
CEO of Foodbank NSW, Gerry Andersen, attended the launch of the project and said he had never been so touched by a community.
He said at present Foodbank distributed to 450 charities on a weekly basis — 80 tons a week — 57 per cent to country areas. But he needed to increase the quantity of food distributed from 19,000 tons to 50,000 tons by June 2015.
He said two million Australians needed help once a year and one million needed help every week. Half of those were children who went without dinner or went to school without breakfast.
Foodbank was not the front line, he said. “We are the wholesalers. Volunteers at the charities regularly have stories that leave me with a lump in my throat.”
He told of a boy at a Blacktown school whose teacher awarded points to students who brought fresh fruit to eat. The child’s family was unable to afford fresh fruit and it was only thanks to Foodbank that he could bring an apple and an orange and be awarded his first points. He was so grateful.
“We really can make a difference,” Mr Andersen said, “and we’ve got to.”
Mr McKeon was MC for the launch and said he believed the venture was a “feel good” project where whole community could work together and showcase some of the best aspects of primary production in the shire.
Penny Davies, Community Development Officer with the shire council, said the Waste Not Want Not project — a whole community working with an organisation such as Foodbank — was unique.
“Coming out of years of drought this is a way the community can contribute to the broader picture.”
She said, “I was really blown away by Foodbank, touched by the work that it does and the professionalism with which it works.
“This is the beginning of something quite remarkable and quite exciting.”
She said for the past ten years there had been calls for the city to support the bush. Now that farmers were in a position to look with some hope toward the future they could say, “Here’s something we can do for you.”
Carrathool Mayor, Councillor Peter Laird, said it was great idea to link the significance of irrigated food production with the ability to help people.
He said he hoped Carrathool could forge a relationship with Foodbank. “It is a beautiful relationship that we’d love to be involved with.”
John and Jenny Sheridan had already volunteered to do some of the local coordination but organisers hoped the launch would see the formation of the inaugural Waste Not Want Not committee.
Eight people offered to join the committee during the dinner and another eight submitted written expressions of interest.
During questions from the floor discussion moved to the need for fresh meat in addition to the staples of potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, onions, oranges and apples. One farmer said he didn’t think Mr Andersen would have a problem filling a truckload of lamb or cattle from the area.
Mr Andersen responded, “With your help, Shero’s truck and Julie’s faith we’ll get there!”
Lou Revelant, rural support worker with the Department of Primary Industries, said that in addition to the opportunity to give something in return in the form of fresh fruit and vegetables, Waste Not Want Not would help build resilience in the Carrathool community.
Mr Relevant has been with the government’s agriculture department for 40 years. After retirement he returned to do drought support and now has a rural support role — building resilience and capacity in preparation for future disaster.
“We need to make communities more self-sufficient, resilient and able to survive further crises and consequences like depression, suicide and poverty,” he said.
Mr Relevant hopes there will be an opportunity for other regions to get involved in projects like Waste Not Want Not. That would mean products would be available for Foodbank throughout the year, providing a consistency of supply but from different sources.
Julie Grieg said that by bringing together various community groups, government organisations and individuals, social capital and resilience in the community would be increased.
She marvelled at how generous country people were and said, “Altruism and reciprocity are fundamental components for social capital.”
She said working for other people helped build resilience, as did having pride in the things you do — like growing food.
Ms Greig said the current debate on the use of water in the Murray Darling Basin often portrayed irrigators as only interested in making money and not caring what happened to anyone else.
“This project will not only remind the wider community of the direct link between irrigation and feeding people, but also showcase how generous farmers are.”
She said during the protracted drought many primary producers felt that they were “victims” who had no option but to accept handouts and charity.
“This project provides an opportunity for them to return some of the help they received and raise their self esteem.”
She said Waste Not Want Not had “caught the imagination” of a number of residents who were keen to be involved and it had the potential to allow diverse groups to work together for the good of someone else.
Others who lived in the community but were not directly involved would also benefit from the “good news” story of the project and increased pride in their community.
She said that in the whole water debate an obvious point was often ignored: the water is used to feed people. But irrigators had been made to feel like environmental vandals, when it was really in their interest to grow food sustainably — it was their livelihood.
“And now, here they are, giving away food for needy people.
“It just goes to show that growing food is a really good thing,” she said.
Of the local church’s involvement in Waste Not Want Not, Mr McKeon said they saw it as part of their mission to serve people less fortunate than themselves, just as Jesus did when he fed the 5,000.
“It was in his power and it is within our power to put faith into action.”
This article first appeared in Insights Magazine, 13 June 2011, http://www.insights.uca.org.au/features/waste-not-want-not