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

James Fitzgerald is dreaming big


JF sitting 1

James Fitzgerald on the roof of The Dream Factory.                                               Photo by Charlotte Bowra

I’ve always liked James’ love of new ideas and big picture optimism.  The longer I’ve known him, the more apparent these traits become.

 When I first met him a few years ago, we were both working at the same engineering company. We didn’t realize until later we were simultaneously hatching plans to find new roles.

 James was the first to jump ship. He left his job as a certified civil engineer to become Director of Members and Supporters at Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Recently, he’s moved on from the non-profit sector to take up a new role as General Manager Community at the Impact Investment Group’s latest venture, The Dream Factory; a former woolshed in Footscray that has been converted into a hub for start-ups, creative entrepreneurs, social businesses and not-for-profits who focus on design, technology and social change.  I caught up with James to find out what inspired his involvement with The Dream Factory.

My Nonno was a big influence on me. As an Italian migrant to Seddon, he was really big on family and local community. He was one of the community leaders at the time and helped a lot of Italian migrants settle in Australia. He was also really big on small business, had a fruit shop and was very passionate about looking after his customers. Even though he has passed away, people still talk to me about Frank and tell me how he treated people really well in business. I really resonated with that. He was introverted, the flip side of me. I liked going there because he was very calming. He led by example and was very entrepreneurial, but very family and community focused.

Education was a passport. I was the first person in my family to go to uni and the first person from my school in Hoppers Crossing to go to the University of Melbourne.  Pursuing a career in trade was common practice, going to uni wasn’t. In year 11 and 12, I had checkboxes on my bedroom wall about getting into Melbourne Uni Arts/Engineering and travelling the world. It wasn’t a checklist like a bucket list, it was because I wanted options and flexibility. I did engineering because I liked maths and science, and so I could get a well paying job. But I also studied Arts as I’m passionate about humanitarian issues and social change, so I thought I’m going to do both and see what happens.

 As a teenager, I realised I needed to have options, I needed to have vision and I needed to be around people who were thinking big. Now I want to work where I can have the most impact fast; that’s impact investing and social enterprise. We need to encourage people to innovate and take risks. You have all these old industries like mining and manufacturing that are going out of business, but there’s no point debating the macro economic stuff because that’s government and they are going to take 20 years to make up their mind. We need to create jobs for people through socially focussed businesses that are more aware of what’s going on in their community, and they’ve got to make money.

 The Dream Factory could have just been set up as a normal commercial project, but instead the Impact Investment Group set it up as a socially-focused design and tech precinct. This means we can focus on supporting businesses and not-for-profits who are utilising design and technology to create positive social and environmental outcomes. It’s enabled us to create a centre for like minded individuals and organisations where they can share ideas, skills and experience.  Since it’s launched, the amount of good will it’s generated has been overwhelming. So many people have emailed and twittered us and said “Thank you for creating this opportunity for people to be able to use their skills in business and design for good.”

 We can harness the power of business, design and technology to create large scale social change.  The core of the change I want to see is for everyone to double or triple their empathy. If we had more empathy, I think people would think about their impact more. They would think twice about what sort of careers they did, or how they invest their money. There are multiple pathways for improving empathy, but I think one of the best ways is through enabling that connection between technology and design with humanity to create social change.

 The generations coming through, they don’t just want to work for money, they want a job that makes money, but also has an amazing impact. I’ve only got 40 years left of my career; that’s not a long time. So for the next 40 years, I want to be dedicated to ensuring that business is a massive force for change and I want to create social change fast using design and technology. I see huge opportunities and the most talented people will only want to work for companies that are doing amazing stuff.

See The Dream Factory or The Impact Investment Group for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2016