Russell Shields is seeking justice

Food glorious food. We’ve never had such abundance or been more anxious about what we put in our mouths. When I’m wondering what to cook for my meat loving husband and my daughters who are vegetarian and vegan, I wonder, ‘How did it get this complicated?’

While many of us are deeply absorbed with what and how much we eat, there are people in our community going hungry.  I want to hear about positive food initiatives and was delighted when Russell Shields agreed to meet.

Russell helped found food rescue organisation SecondBite and, more recently, set up The Community Grocer to supply fresh food to people living in public housing estates in inner city Melbourne.  He also manages the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre’s (ASRC) Food Justice Truck (FJT). Over a tour of the ASRC and the FJT, I learned how Russell is harnessing community, collaboration and social enterprise to address food insecurity for vulnerable populations.

Russell Shields in front of the Food Justice Truck       Photo by Charlotte Bowra

Seeing my parents working in a service industry had a big impact on me. My parents have always had food businesses. Seeing them as business owners, creating enterprises and working for themselves all their lives certainly had an influence on my career.  During primary school, I grew up in regional Victoria in a very small town called Mangalore on the old Hume Hwy.  My parents owned a road house – that was my first foray into food as a business. We moved to the city when I was in grade six and bought a milk bar in Camberwell. I remember stocking fridges, squashing boxes and doing whatever needed to be done. A lot of my life was around customer service. You are always thinking of other people and looking at how you can provide the best service.

Owning my own restaurant didn’t fulfil me. I spent a lot of years working in restaurants and cafes, particularly in fine dining in Australia and overseas. Owning your own restaurant is a kind of end goal for a lot of people working in hospitality, and when I came back to Australia with my English partner Katy, we bought a little café bar in Bourke Street, but it wasn’t satisfying. After that I was a little bit stuck about what the next path would be. I ended up teaching hospitality at Swinburne University. I really enjoyed that, even though it was short lived. While I was there, I saw the job for SecondBite and ended up working with Katy there as their second employee. It was a time in my life when I went against all the advice of friends and colleagues – it just felt right.

I made the decision to do something I believe in that had more purpose. It turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done through what I have been able to learn, how I’ve been able to grow in a professional capacity, and the individuals and communities that I have been fortunate enough to meet. I have never looked back. It felt natural and the right thing to do when we have so many challenges in our food system.

In Australia, we produce enough food to feed 60 million people, three times what we need, but we throw out a third of everything we produce. We have the food, but not everybody has access to it. I still can’t come to terms with how running alongside this amazing food culture in Melbourne is this incredible missing out. We have dozens of soup vans that go out every night and thousands of people across Melbourne who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, who are living side by side with people who are obsessed and overindulged with food. So how do we ensure every person has access to this wonderful produce we grow in Australia?

Food is a central, powerful theme for positive connection and positive social change. When I left SecondBite, I thought ‘How can we directly access individuals in need and do it through a model that can be self-sustaining financially?’ That’s when I set up The Community Grocer and we had our first market in Carlton in late 2014. Then I saw the FJT job . I had read all the evidence and was aware that ninety percent of people seeking asylum ran out of food last year and were unable to buy more. It made sense having just set up The Community Grocer, that I could transfer those skills and help the ARSC meet the challenge of helping more people.

The key barriers to a healthy, affordable and accessible diet are financial and physical access to food. For all food choices, finance is the number one driver. For people seeking asylum, we offer a significant 75% discount so that breaks down the financial access. The physical access issue is broken by taking locally sourced, fresh food into the communities we exist to serve. It is open and accessible to everyone. Our customers like the fact that we are promoting a strong social message; simply by shopping at the truck, you are supporting us to offer people seeking asylum access to the same food that you have.

Food is dignity. As a community, we have a responsibility to provide healthy food for the most vulnerable people, particularly people seeking asylum. If the government is taking away their choice to be able to provide for themselves, then we as a community have to ensure the choices we provide them are healthy, nutritious and dignified. It’s about everybody having that basic human right of access to the food that provides them with their cultural and dietary preferences.

I can jump on my high horse all I like and try and do things, but collectively we can achieve so much more. Collaboration can be a real challenge. Often people have the same end goal, but very different methods for getting there. Surely if you have the same goal, you can work together, leave your ego at the door and be open to other people’s opinions and listen. I know I don’t have all the answers to a better food system. I know the community I aim to support have the answers, and if they are empowered and provided the opportunity, then the answers will come.

Visit the Food Justice Truck  to learn more.

© Matilda Bowra 2017

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