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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Food for thought … and a homegrown opportunity for sustainability action!

The most powerful and compelling sustainability issues are simultaneously hugely global and intensely local, geopolitically important and personally engaging. Energy is one, water another, and recently an old stalwart, food, has become a born-again bolter.

This post is about a way to make organic home food gardening a sustainability leadership activity for staff and member programs, one that extends to home life, and which can stand alongside more established activities like recycling, energy and water saving, and carbon reduction and offsetting.

First, however, let’s recap the centrality of food, a sustainable living fundamental for individuals, communities and whole nations. At the popular level, we’ve all seen the rise and rise of celebrity chefs with their books, blogs and TV shows, culminating (here in Australia) with the success of Master Chef as an entertainment and marketing phenomenon.

We all know the critical importance of food and diet for our health and wellbeing, and we are increasingly aware of how the food and beverages that we consume are a major component of our environmental footprints, including big implications for carbon pollution linked to our lifestyles.

At a political level, few things raise public concern like escalating food prices and food security fears, and these have the proven potential to fuel protest movements and destablise governments and regimes. On the humanitarian side, the current famine in the Horn of Africa is a terrible reminder of many famines, of a resource-challenged world that needs to feed 7 billion people rising to 9 billion by 2050, and also a warning of what the concept of catastrophic climate change actually means.

For all of this, if you’d told me even a year ago that I’d be taking a frontline role promoting organic home food growing as a staff and community engagement program, I’d never have believed you. Given that I am now doing just that, what gives here?

The answer is multi-faceted. Like many people I’ve been assailed by news stories and social media discussions about food price rises and security fears, and their role in political instability, human misery and sustainability crises. In many ways these are not new stories, yet to me their intensity is escalating.

On a happier note, I’ve also tuned into an international trend in the developed world for people wanting to re-engage with producing their own food at home or in their communities, or buying locally-produced food, or seeking healthier and more environmentally aware growing methods like organic and biodynamic, or lower-carbon food options, and sometimes all of the above.

Then I met Peter Kearney, the founder of Cityfood Growers, which is when entrepreneurial ingenuity and the power of the Internet were added into the mix. For the past three or so years I have been working on home energy management solutions that can be connected via the Internet, allowing householders to create their own ‘energy saving networks’ independent of traditional utilities and metering technologies.

In meeting Peter, a Brisbane-based businessman who’s been growing food in the city since his childhood, it suddenly became clear that gardening knowledge and advice was something else that could be deployed online with some very clever functionality.

     Peter Kearney in his pumpkin patch (photo from CItyfood Growers website, courtesy of The Courier Mail)

The key success factor for home food gardening is working with your local climate conditions. Depending on where you are, getting information tailored to your specific locality is not always easy. What Peter Kearney has done with his fee-based subscription service is allow his members to filter all of the very detailed information on his website, covering 300-plus types of food crops, by matching it to their nearest local weather station.

When I learned about this feature, I had my own food growing meets sustainability program ‘ah-hah moment’.

Cityfood Growers already has its model working for Australia, New Zealand and the US, and is looking further afield, wherever reliable local weather station data exists and is publicly available. It doesn’t matter if you live in Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia, or Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand, or even Miami in Florida in the US, you get essentially the same service adapted to where your food garden is, including your climate and your seasons.

That means a company with staff spread across Australasia, or a large member-based organisation for that matter, can easily initiate and coordinate a network of home and community gardeners, tens or hundreds or even thousands of them, who are all getting consistent and comprehensive support to help them succeed.

Many enterprises are constantly looking for positive programs to engage their staff or members in socially, environmentally and ideally personally beneficial activities, which also are good for the organisation itself. I reckon it doesn’t get better or more sustainable than growing your own food and eating the outcomes. All done while building a greater appreciation of nature’s wonders, gaining empathy for those who struggle to feed themselves and their families everyday, and learning life skills to put food on the table from your own food garden always.

Cityfood Growers is already helping to build organic home food growing into the curricula for over 1000 early childhood learning centres around Australia, aiming to make the next generation gardening-savvy. Peter Kearney’s vision is people everywhere learning how to feed themselves, being successful in their own food gardens, and loving the process of doing it.

Taking similar content to the childhood centres into workplaces and major institutions is a new path for Cityfood Growers, and for me. Let me know if you have ideas on how home and community food growing can work for your business or other organisations?


See Peter Kearney's article in the CSIRO's ECOS magazine CLICK HERE

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