Meneka Premkumar is living her values

Meneka and her daughter Indira at The Common Good Store                                  Photo by Robin Bowra

When Meneka Premkumar and her husband John Currey opened an organic grocery store around the corner from my house five years ago, it was met with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement. I remember a neighbour saying to me, “That store won’t last.”

Five years on, The Common Good is an integral part of the local community. I love the fact I can wander in, pick something up, and Meneka will be able to tell me where it comes from and who makes or grows it. I also like the way the store and everything in it invites you to consider the impact of our consumption choices.

 Over a pot of tea, Meneka explained how her passion for ethical living turned from an interest into a way of life.

My journey – personally and professionally – is the intersection of the ethics in food, consumption, lifestyle and living. I don’t believe there are these perfect silos in our lives. I think it just becomes how you live and the conviction of what you believe in, more than a business idea or a passion.

It started when I was about 21 and I had my first experience with a naturopath.I used to suffer from eczema on my hands and had seen lots of GPs and tried different treatments. I thought, “I’ll give the naturopath a go.” She gave me a whole host of different creams and it stopped. I thought, “There’s some validity in that.” That experience started me on alternative medicine and from there, that’s where the interest in food began.

That was the beginning of my journey to understanding the correlation between food and health. With an inquiring mind, I started thinking, “Where am I getting my food? What’s in it? What is organic?” I realised that making better food choices is about ethics and the willingness to understand how has your food got there? Who was hurt or not hurt in getting this food in front of me? That translates to the clothes I’m wearing, the car I’m driving, where I bank and my superannuation. But it’s not overnight, it’s a journey to arrive there.

When John and I decided to put our ethics where our mouth is, we had already started breaking up with supermarkets. We were procuring most of our food from farmers markets, independent stores or IGAs.  We lived in Richmond at the time and didn’t have any independent stores in our community, so I had to drive to other suburbs to shop. One day, I was driving to Fairfield, and Indira, who was only eight months old, was having a crying fit in the back. I was stressed, and I remember thinking, “Why can’t I walk to a shop and get what I need?” It was a light bulb moment. I thought, “I’m going to look into seeing why there’s no organic grocery store in my own community.”

Our business and the nature of it is an extension of us, which is why it’s in our own community. It’s the least amount of money I have earned, but the most fulfilled we’ve been. It’s been a slow burn. There’s a generation of people who are used to supermarkets, these hyper maniac places with bright lights where there’s isles and isles of things, and you are made to believe it’s really cheap and you need more of the same thing because ten is cheaper. I think they influence people very negatively, and changing that trajectory is really challenging.

 When I opened my store, the people who first came in and really supported me were the university kids who lived across the road. My parents’ generation romanticised supermarkets, but people who are in their late teens, early 20s, don’t have those positive and romantic notions about supermarkets. There’s a lot that can be improved in young people who are 18 to 25, but what you can’t fault them on is their level of empathy and awareness, and that makes them different and far more mobilised to change things.

 I’ve learned having a business model isn’t enough. I think the authenticity of our store is why its lasted.  While 80% of what we sell can be got elsewhere, what you won’t get is the transparency of what I’m doing with the money you are giving me to buy those products, the back story and the genuine sense of community, because it’s my own neighbourhood.

One of the motivations of the store has been to inspire other people to open identical stores in their own communities. John and I would like to open another store, but we don’t want to franchise it or own many. I have always said to others, “If this is something you want to do, come and talk to us and we will open whatever doors we can.” I hope what the business says, more than anything else, is that it’s possible to replicate this and inject a sense of community into your own neighbourhood.

 To learn more, visit https://www.commongoodstore.com.au or Instragram thecommongoodstore.

© Matilda Bowra 2018

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Jo Murray is connecting her community

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Jo Murray welcoming people to the Surf Coast Repair Cafe                        photo by Charlotte Bowra

I met Jo through my old friend Sue Guinness. Jo and Sue got together about 20 years ago and since then, I’ve followed their personal journeys with interest.  Both left jobs in Melbourne, embarked on a sea-change and are very active in their local community at Fairhaven on Victoria’s Surf Coast.

Living by the sea has created opportunities for my environmentally conscious friends to be involved in conservation initiatives. Jo cultivates an enormous vegetable patch, is a member of the Community Garden and volunteers at the Tip Shop. With Sue’s support, she recently started a Repair Café.  I spoke with Jo about why she focuses on building awareness and practical initiatives in her community.

I love the outdoors. I was born in Launceston and spent the first nine years there and was lucky enough to have all of my grandparents in Launceston. We had, and still have, a block of land 18 miles out of Launceston that my grandparents bought.  It is a very tranquil, peaceful place on a river. We used to go there a lot on weekends. When we moved to Melbourne, I used to go there every Christmas and school holidays. I still go there to this day at least once or twice a year. I love the fact it’s a simple cottage and there’s not a lot to do; you just slow down, read and relax and spend time with family.

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school. People were choosing to be nurses and teachers, or lawyers and doctors. We were all really sporty and someone said, ‘I’m going to do Physical Education’ and I thought, That’s a good idea. I taught for eight years and always organised all the sporting events and teams. Then I started organising the interschool sports and camps and found what I really enjoyed was organising events. I decided to do a Graduate Diploma in Business at Deakin University in Sport Management. I studied for two years with the aim of leaving teaching and getting into the event management industry.

Through my work, I learnt the value of volunteers. My first job after teaching was with a national sporting organisation. Then I joined a sports management company that ran events and managed athletes. I ended up at the Grand Prix and was there for the first six formula one events. That’s where I learnt how sport depends so much on volunteers. If all the sporting events had to pay people do to all the jobs that needed to be done, they wouldn’t exist.

I have always had great role models. Dad always volunteered at golf and school fairs, my grandmother was very involved in her bowls club and my mum’s parents were founding members of the National Trust in Tasmania. At school, I coached and umpired hockey and continued this at club level for many years. I also joined committees at my tennis club. These days, my sport volunteering is focussed around golf and local events.

I think building community is really important. A couple of our Repair Café volunteers are new to the area and they see this as a way of meeting people. When you see someone down the street who has repaired something for you, that creates connections. That’s the whole reason I joined the Community Garden about six and a half years ago. From the minute they had a stand at the local market, I wanted to be involved. I didn’t want a plot, because we have a huge garden at home. I wanted to get involved because it is a great way of connecting people and building community.

 Movements like Repair Cafes and Community Gardens have relied on people seeing the ideas and saying, ‘Let’s start these up in our own community.’ We can’t go on filling up landfill and digging more resources out of the ground. I think the best way to change that thinking is to bring national projects like Community Gardens, Plastic Free July or Repair Cafes to a local level. With something like the plastic bag free moment, it’s not something the shire can say ‘We want to make the shire plastic bag free,’ the whole community has to get on board. It’s about people going out to the rest of the community and saying, ‘We’d like to do this, what do you think?’ and getting other people involved. It’s got to be from the grass roots.

The Repair Café is about sharing skills and empowering people. These days, people don’t know how to fix things. Our hedge trimmer broke down. It only cost $79 and it was three years old, so even if I could have found somewhere to have it repaired, it would not have been worth the expense. We ended up taking it to the Melbourne Repair Café (Inner West) in Yarraville where we met this lovely volunteer, James. He unscrewed the plastic casing, straightened the cord out and jiggled a couple of levers, plugged it into the power and it worked. He got me to put it back together again so next time it stops working, I’ll be confident to repair it myself.

It’s about leading by example and educating others. My next thing is to focus on advocating for sustainable actions, starting small via our Community Garden with about 100 members. If we can raise awareness on one action each month, just focus on one thing and get that working, then work on another and then another, hopefully we can bring about permanent changes. Once others see how easy it is, then hopefully they will start making some of the changes too.

Visit Surf Coast Repair Café for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2017

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

Arabella Douglass is illuminating Australian history

 

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Arabella Douglass at Centennial Park in Sydney                       Photo by Jeff McAllister

One of the projects I am working on is Stories of Indigenous Engineering for non-profit organisation Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

The project has facilitated fascinating conversations with Aboriginal people and cast light on the need to listen to Indigenous perspectives in our quest for a more sustainable and inclusive future.

One of the most passionate people I have spoken with is Arabella Douglass who started her career as a Senior Development and Environmental lawyer, and is now a Government Advisor, Strategic Consultant and EWB Board Member. During my discussion with Arabella, she challenged common miss-conceptions about Australian history and invited us to celebrate our ancient heritage.  I loved her forthright style, big picture thinking and unbridled enthusiasm to collaboratively find a better way forward.

I am a Minyunbal woman from Fingal Head. My country straddles South East Queensland and Far North New South Wales. I was brought up as part of a collection of children and that taught me a different perspective about genuine happiness. Growing up, I was part of two other families. One had eight children and the other had six. They were like brothers and sisters to me. I learned happiness is not an individualistic kind of notion; that if your siblings are happy, there’s more happiness in the household. I think that’s a very clear distinction between how Indigenous people understand their sense of happiness, how they operate, and how non-Indigenous people operate.

I believe it’s important to be connected to things bigger than yourself. It’s humbling.  If narcissism and individualism are so fantastic, extremely wealthy people would be very, very happy and they’re not. Lots of volunteers have a sense of drive and purpose and fulfillment that’s far greater than a financial reward. If you can be of service, it does something for you. There’s something about the giving which is fundamental to Indigenous values.

My main role model growing up was my great-grandmother, Jane Currie. She was an extraordinary woman, I was lucky to know her. She engaged with the missionaries, but didn’t just retreat into agreeing, she found a way to balance it. She used to say, “The Earth is my mother and God is my father.” She spoke three Aboriginal languages and learnt to speak English, her fourth language, by reading the Bible. I could never achieve what she achieved; keeping her family together, keeping her language and her cultural underpinnings intact, as well as managing the complexity of brutal missionizing.

When I went to school, I wasn’t told about the magnificence of Aboriginal culture.  People think there was nothing here before Captain Cook arrived. In fact, we were successful at living for 60,000 years. There were 400 nations co-existing without exploitation. They didn’t harm or hurt each other. You know why? Because fundamentally it’s about Indigenous values. Every nation has enough. Every little place has enough water, enough food and enough space for you to exist. The world is amazing. It provides everything you need wherever you are.

How unfortunate it is that people are stuck with truly believing that Indigenous people didn’t participate? When I was growing up, I learned about Burke and Wills. I thought they must have been the first people to cross the continent. I was shocked to realize a few years later what a joke that was.  Indigenous people were guiding most of the expeditions. They also guided most of the land use and where the resources were for white people. White people didn’t discover anything. They were shown something in a gracious attempt to say, “This is how we live,” like “What do you bring? What can we bring, how can we cooperate?”

I come from a culture that is complex, highly sophisticated and intelligent. They had structures. They had nations, boundaries, order, law systems, water and food systems. They had everything you could want. It wasn’t a vagueness. They had their own languages, and their own trading routes across the continent. Young Indigenous students should have that confidence to know that science and engineering is in your blood. You come from a very lush cultural historical base that has managed problems with astoundingly creative, excellent solutions that sustained human populations.

I’ve yet to meet an architect or an engineer who has told me anything about an Indigenous engineering feat in this continent. That needs to change. We need to reposition the history of 60,000 years and understand how people used land in a cooperative way. We need to embrace our history so that people talk about Indigenous brilliance with the same affection they talk about Ancient Rome and Greece and the Aztec nations. We have a historical, vibrant, powerful history of engineering here. If we utilize the traditional engineering practices of this continent and bring it alive and combine historical and modern components, you’re going to get creativity and innovation, especially in relation to sustainability.

A film interview with Arabella Douglass will be added to Engineers Without Borders Stories of Indigenous Engineering webpage when the next round of stories is published shortly.

© Matilda Bowra 2017

Dave Martin is reimagining the way we live

 

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Dave Martin    Photo by Franky Walker

Humans crave connection, but we habitually retreat to our homes where we are separated from the outside world.

Dave Martin, a builder and entrepreneur, is challenging us to consider new, sustainable ways of living that foster bonds with nature, people and communities.

Dave lives at Cape Paterson, in south eastern Victoria, in a carbon positive house which he designed and built. His latest venture, The Sociable Weaver, aims to transform our urban environment and mainstream carbon positive, eco-homes that create a sense of belonging and connection.

I live in a Victorian house with a 1980s renovation and am always questioning how I can live sustainably. Talking with Dave opened a window into a world of possibilities.

A key moment happened when I was in year 10 working through a building and construction course. It was a new course and instead of building a TV cabinet, you were able to build something useful. We had to build horse stables for the agricultural department. I remember I was up a ladder nailing rafters in place, and I had an epiphany. I thought, “This is amazing, I love it!” I realised I was creating a purposeful structure and felt I was accomplishing something meaningful. My mum wanted me to pursue tertiary studies, but I knew it wasn’t for me. I chose a building apprenticeship instead. I started digging holes and sweeping floors and ended up directing sites.

My teenage years were also when I developed a connection with nature, which stemmed from my parents. When I was a teenager, they trucked us around doing a lot of bushwalking, camping and cycling. They took us to Tasmania,  Cradle Mountain, then the South West Track when I was about 14. We flew in by Cessna, landed on the beach and walked out. It took two weeks. I wasn’t at the age to appreciate it how I would now. They also took us up to central Australia and Indonesia for a couple of months along with similar trips that now I realise helped develop my understanding and connection to the world.

 I believe our path is fated. If we wander too far off that path of our purpose, we get slapped to say “Mate, get back on the path.” I was married when I was 22. Jen and I were childhood sweethearts. We had two kids, a boy and a girl and we built our own house. My plan was to retire when I was 30 and live a good life, travel, surf and have a family. That was it. I was totally naïve and something in the universe just went slap!

I felt my whole life was ruined.  Jen met another guy, Leigh. I thought I’d lose my kids because he’ll become their new father. It was really tough at the time, but it woke me up and allowed me to look at life. My perception of the world changed. It was like a switch was flicked and I looked at life in a completely different, bigger picture kind of way. Then 12 months after we went through all the legal and financial stuff, things became easier.  I approached Jen and Leigh and said, “Let’s concentrate on these beautiful kids, let’s show them love and respect.” It took some time and looking deep inside, but now Jen, Leigh, myself and my parents are one super tight unit. Leigh is like my brother; we hug every time we meet. He has an eight year old Mia who I say is one of mine as well. It’s so messed up, but so beautiful, and it works. We call it a beautiful mess.

 I feel it’s our responsibility to live in coherence with the planet and to educate the next generation about what’s important and meaningful in life. I’ve been given skills in building, people, inspiration and energy to create teams and businesses. The idea is to educate people about how we can live in harmony and create positive change for the world, that’s what drives me. I think it all goes back to love and connection. We all want and need love and connection.

I see my purpose as creating positive change to humanity, animals and the planet. We need as much nature around us as possible. It has a calming, positive affect on our wellbeing, even if we are not conscious of it.  On an unconscious level there’s something that happens with having plants and animals around us. We need to blend the home with the natural environment. If we can connect people with nature, it has this unconscious effect of calming and soothing like a Zen garden.

I want to inspire and motivate people to do something different and better. We can strategically build places or configure existing places to influence community interaction through buildings. The way we live now, we are fenced off from each other and there’s no integration with the streetscape. If we take the barriers away, open up the streetscapes and create spaces with nature, food, art and music, people will be attracted and feed off each other and create a thriving community.

Visit thesociableweaver.com.au for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Damien Mander is on a mission to protect animals

 

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Damien Mander with an orphaned nyala                       Photo by Andrew Craig

 We all come to forks in the road. What matters is what we do when we reach them.

Damien Mander has worked in the navy, toured Iraq 12 times as a private military contractor and travelled the world, but the biggest journey he has taken is inside himself.  After travelling to Africa and witnessing the effects of poaching, Damien decided he couldn’t return to his previous life. He took a different path, one which led him to setting up and running the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF).

I was intrigued to find out why Damien chose a difficult route. What I found was a man disarmingly honest about his life choices, his motivations for change and his journey from mercenary to a vegan animal activist.

I’ve got salt water running through my veins. I grew up initially in the Northern Beaches in NSW. Dad ran the Mona Vale Hotel so I lived there for the first nine years of my life, then we moved down to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. We were always on the beach.  I used to get up early and ride my bike down to the pier. I’d go free diving and collect all the fishing lures and the squid jigs that had been lost overnight by the fishermen and sell them back to them. I started diving off piers when I was 13. I’d be down there rain, hail or shine trying to make a dollar. I used the money to pay for my own scuba diving equipment and got right into scuba diving, which gave me the ambition to join the navy as a clearance diver.

Until I started doing what I’m doing now, I was a selfish person. I didn’t join the military to serve my country, I joined the military because it was a challenging job. I was also very self-conscious of image growing up. I don’t know why, just a testosterone fuelled teenager always interested in trying to impress other people. It was the same when I went across from the navy to the army to special operations. It wasn’t because I wanted to be part of a national response team to terrorists on home soil, it was because it was the next challenge, and again it was about me and nothing else. I suppose I was trying to create this image of being a touch guy, being a person in control, being a person who is not scared of anything. I went to Africa with the same mindset.

When I saw what the rangers in Southern Africa had to go through and realised I was trying to have an adventure on the back of their hard work and dedication, that was probably the lowest point in my life. I went over there to spend six months running around in the bush doing something I thought would be cool. I saw rangers who were living away from their families for up to 11 months of the year for a minimal salary, risking their lives every day to protect animals. I don’t know why, but seeing what happens to these animals affected me in a way that was worse than what I’d experienced in Iraq.

 I called bullshit on myself: “You are full-of-shit as a person, everything you do is about yourself and nothing else,” and put my money where my moral mouth is. I decided to give up a comfortable life of travel and holidays. I didn’t have to work again for the foreseeable future. I had money and a property portfolio and a certain skillset that is unfortunately required to look after animals. So I was left with a choice, “Do I turn my back on this? Or am I actually going to do something about it?”

 After what I’d been through in Iraq and my time in Africa I realised what real courage is and that is being honest with yourself. Every person has their own switch, for me it was seeing what was going on over there and acknowledging the truth. That’s not just in regard to setting up the IAPF, but also in terms of my veganism and the way I choose to speak out on behalf of all animals. We have sub-categorised animals into sexy ones and ones that are convenient for us to ignore. The suffering of a rhino is no different to the suffering of a cow, the only difference is the difference we allow ourselves to accept in our own minds because it’s more convenient for our conscience. There’s no ethical way to kill something that doesn’t want to die. If people want to eat meat, then they need to to understand the suffering that animal has been through to reach your dinner table.

 There are tens of thousands of animals in reserves that we look after, but it’s not just about protecting elephant and rhino, but everything those animals represent. We train local people, make sure they are well equipped to go out and risk their lives and give them a better chance of survival. I am now feel hopeful for the future. As our organisation has grown and the success we are having with our projects, that feeling of despair, has drifted away. Thanks to the support of our donors around the world, we are seeing very positive results on the front lines.

I want to be part of the last generation that has a negative impact on earth. I don’t know what our generation is going to have on our headstone, but I want to continue to be part of something that is positive. For me, helping animals and protecting nature is the greatest opportunity I’ve had.

Visit International Anti Poaching Foundation for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2016

Juliet Le Feuvre is a water warrior

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Juliet relaxing in her backyard with her dog Tessa                                      Photo by Charlotte Bowra

I met Juliet Le Feuvre, Healthy Rivers Campaigner Manager for Environment Victoria, a few years ago and was stuck by her depth of knowledge and deep commitment to improving natural resource management. 

After initially meeting Juliet in the city, I was surprised to bump into her walking her dog in a local park. We discovered we live round the corner from each other and both like walking our dogs early in the morning. This created opportunities for unplanned, highly enjoyable chats which have kept me up-to-date with the happenings at Environment Victoria. But I’ve always wanted to know why she choose to dedicate nearly 30 years of her life to the environment movement? I was delighted when she agreed to share her story.

Nature is what feeds me and replenishes me. I have always loved nature and being outdoors, particularly near water. Water is the start of life, it’s really precious stuff, particularly somewhere like Australia which is a very dry place. I find the contrast between the dry landscapes and beautiful aquatic environments astonishing. I find it truly amazing we have wetlands at all.

The thing that struck me when I moved from Britain to Australia in my 30s was how much untouched bush there was. It was amazing to see you had areas that were not protected that could be protected. There were opportunities which were not available in Europe where there were hardly any wild places left. It was the late 80s and it was a very exciting time in the environment movement. The Hawke Government was doing a lot of world heritage work, there was a feeling conservation was possible. I’d never experienced that before.

My interest in Australian rivers was triggered by a camping trip when the youngest of my three children was two years old.  We went to Hattah Lakes up near Mildura for our first family camping holiday. Our campsite was on the lake shore in a beautiful spot under the red gums. The water in the lake kept rising. We had this row of sticks which we moved every day as the water came higher. The campground was gradually going under water and it was not raining, there was no flooding in Victoria and I wondered, “What’s going on here?” Eventually I realized the water was coming down from a flood event hundreds of kilometres away in NSW. This was a pretty unfamiliar type of river system. In Europe, rivers don’t work like that.

I never imagined I would build a career as a rivers campaigner in my 50s. I’ve had a pretty unconventional career path. After I studied zoology at Cambridge, I had all sorts of jobs from teaching to working on a farm and home decorating. When I arrived in Australia, I started volunteering for environment organisations. While I was volunteering at the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), I got involved in the campaign to halt the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory. It was a full on period with blockade buses going up and people getting arrested. It was all new to me. I hung around as a volunteer at ACF, made myself indispensable and eventually they gave me a job.

The most difficult part of my current role is persuading people that just because a river has water in it, doesn’t mean it’s in good health. In Australia, without man-made intervention, our rivers would either be in flood or virtually dried up, there is not a lot of in between. What we’ve done with all the dams is make a lot of in between. People don’t understand, they think if it’s got water in it, it’s fine.  If it weren’t for the dams, the Murray River would be dry right now and there wouldn’t be anything the matter with that.

I find the crunch I’ve identified between climate change and population growth truly scary.  There is less water coming in to our rivers and more demand for water going out. You have two really strong pressures colliding and the jam in the sandwich is the natural environment. I am really concerned, but I don’t think it’s hopeless. If we are smart enough and we care enough and we put a bit more money into it, we can come up with the solutions.

Businesses are now facing community pressure to make positive change and this is creating opportunities. The traditional environment movement path is to jump up and down and say “You are damaging the environment,” until something changes, but that’s not necessarily going to happen. You need more elements in the mix so we are forging new and different partnerships to create change and build a level of support for the environment the politicians can’t ignore.

Visit Environment Victoria for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2016

Cassie Duncan is giving us food for thought

 

Cassie & Luca

Cassie Duncan with her son Luca                                                                                                                       Photo by Libby Gott

Growing up on a farm in Northern Victoria fostered a close connection with the natural world and showed me how food ends up on our plates. Since my childhood, the way we grow, distribute and purchase food has changed dramatically. Now we live in a world of choice and convenience, but at what cost?  

While the established environmental organisations focus on issues such as climate change and renewable energy, Sustainable Table, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting a more humane, environmentally friendly food system, has taken a different approach .

Last month I had the pleasure of sharing a cup of tea with Sustainable Table Co-founder and General Manager, Cassie Duncan, and learning why she is passionate about empowering consumers to support healthy, sustainable food production.

I was blessed to have part of my childhood in the country.  I grew up in a single parent household and so when Mum was working, I used to spend holidays with her parents who live in Yarrawonga on the Murray River. I made friends, including my best friend who I met when we were five years old. Her family really embraced me and her grandfather ran a farm so we’d spend time on the farm, going around on motorbikes and doing things you just wouldn’t experience as a city kid. We’d take our bikes out to the bush and pick mushrooms and as long as we were home by tea time, it would be ok. That side of my childhood really informed my interests later in life.

During year 9 at Methodist Ladies College, I spent a term on a remote farm called Marshmead which was hugely life changing. Enjoying nature was something Marshmead introduced me to. I really loved the sense of peace I got out in the bush. I adored being in nature and loved every minute of it. From that point on, I felt this deep sense of connection with the earth and wanted to do something connected to that in my own life.

Connecting how I choose to eat with the impact I have on the environment was a really empowering moment in my life.  Prior to that, I was focused on having shorter showers and switching to green energy, which are all really important, but food is something I make decisions about three or four times a day. Each time it’s an opportunity to consider how I’m impacting the environment and how I’m supporting our community. That, for me, is the power of food. It’s not a chore, it’s a joy. I think most of us find joy in food, and to attach that with how we choose to care for the world I think is a very positive message.

Everyone has to eat and how we choose to eat has the power to change the world. We get to choose where we spend our money every single day and that’s a very powerful vote. But making ethical decisions can be very complex and confusing. We realised if we can do all the hard yards and simplify that for the masses, then maybe more people would jump on board.

We need to educate people about the true cost of their food choices. I remember chatting to Sylvia, who runs Bass Coast Farm in Gippsland, and she was saying she had watched 34 dairy farmers close in her region in the last 20 years. She said, “People don’t realise what that does to our communities. Who is running our CFAs? Who is filling our footy teams?” So we might corporatise farms and people are still getting food, but at what cost?

You have to believe we are all good at heart, but I think there is a real disconnect in the way people behave. You have animal lovers who donate to the RSPCA monthly, but eat meat three times a day from God knows where. They haven’t connected their sense of care and love for their pets with their sense of care and love for the animals that they consume so we are trying to bring that to light. That’s why we are currently in the midst of our Give a Fork! Campaign. We need a national food campaign that gets people talking and discussing the impacts our food choices have on the environment, our health, on animals and on farmers. We would love to see the Give a Fork! campaign grow to be the sort of national voice for food system issues in a way that Movember is for men’s health issues.

Developing connections is really important to me. When it comes to food shopping, that’s been a big influencing factor. It’s not just the sustainability aspect of shopping at a farmers’ market, it’s the fact I get to have conversations with the people who grow my food. I think that’s how we should be relating to our food and how we are born to connect with people and communities. Sometimes in cities we are lacking that. For me, I’ve been able to create that sense of community through how I purchase food and that’s incredibly empowering.

Visit Give a Fork! or Sustainable Table for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2016