A brief history of the website
The website initially came into being some time in 2012. The current webmaster (Guy) took over the management of the website in late 2013. This page provides a few words about how the website and its associated newsletter have evolved since then. In so doing, it discusses the main sections of the website and how and when they came to be, plus some of the philosophies underlying some of the material.
The first half of 2014
I (Guy) took over the management of the LFC website in late 2013, at which time it comprised only 15 pages and received only around 7 visitors per day. The obvious immediate task was to review the organisation of the existing material, moving things around and changing some aspects of the technical platform. In my opinion, WordPress is the obvious technical platform for just about every local website and the key to a good WordPress site is effective use of plugins, the vast majority of which are free. The main initial plugin decision was a choice of calendar (All-in-One Event Calendar) and this is still used on the current website. Hence the calendar was born.
In early 2014, Nillumbik Council completed a survey of the local food producers around Nillumbik and they and we agreed that the LFC website should be the vehicle for publishing the results of that survey. Again this required a choice of plugin (Business Directory Plugin) and again that plugin is still used on the current website. Hence the Local Food Directory was born.
We started Eltham Farmers’ Market in April 2014 and decided that its website should be part of the LFC website. That required yet another plugin for the lists of stallholders (TablePress) and again this is still in use.
By mid 2014, the website comprised a few hundred pages and received around 60 visitors a day. The material focused on local food swaps and food producers in Nillumbik and Banyule. I hadn’t yet started to generate any material myself.
The second half of 2014
I was originally attracted to Local Food Connect because its stated mission at the time was to act as an umbrella organisation, supporting other local food organisations. The Local Food Directory fitted well with this objective, as it is about promoting local food producers, so expanding the directory was where I decided to start adding content.
As soon as the Local Food Directory came into being, it became clear to me that ‘Nillumbik and Banyule’ was not a natural geographic area to define as ‘local’. As someone who lives in Eltham, it did not make sense to me to exclude Templestowe (which is 4km away) whilst including Kinglake (which is 38km away). Combining this with technical, graphical arguments for the area of interest to be rectangular(!), we came up with the concept of ‘North East Melbourne’, with the bottom left corner defined by the CBD and the top right corner defined by Kinglake.
A second issue was whether the directory should be limited to primary producers (i.e. farmers) or also include secondary producers (e.g. makers of condiments and cakes). Some people argued that secondary producers should be excluded unless their ingredients had been grown locally, which would have excluded most of them. My view was (and is) that a major aspect of the local food movement is ‘community’ and that local makers of food are definitely part of the ‘local food community’. A few people also unsuccessfully argued that wine and chocolate should be excluded on the grounds that they were overly bourgeois.
Two important procedural rules were put in place. First, I would proactively seek out organisations for inclusion and would write the initial, draft material for them based on their websites, Facebook pages, etc (as I had learned from my involvement in the original Nillumbik Council survey of local food producers, a more passive approach, simply inviting organisations to send in material, results in a much smaller and patchier directory). Second, an organisation should only be in the directory if it wanted to be and if it had approved the words in its entry (there are over 100 local food producers who I have written to inviting them to be part of the directory but who have never replied and are therefore not in).
I also established the personal rule that I would sample the food or drink of each of the organisations in the directory.
By end 2014, the Local Food Directory had successfully been expanded to cover the whole of North East Melbourne.
This newsletter was originally started in mid 2012 by Robyn Currie, who then produced weekly newsletters for 2½ years until early 2015, when she decided to stop. My role had been largely limited to encouraging and supporting Robyn (plus putting copies of the newsletters onto the website). However, I had always viewed the newsletter as one of the most important things that Local Food Connect did and so, when Robyn stopped writing it and no one else came forward to take her place, I decided to volunteer for the role. Between us, Robyn and I have now written around 400 newsletters.
For me, the heart of the newsletter was (and is) the calendar of upcoming events. If, by advertising a local food event, we can increase the attendance at that event then that is a real, tangible achievement, with gains to both the attendee and to the organiser of the event. And that applies to any local food event, not just those organised by us or those which happen to interest us. So, from the start, I decided that I would treat all local food events equally and this is one of the things that I hope distinguishes what I do from that of many other newsletters and websites, which largely only promote their own events and select others.
The calendar of events follows similar rules to that of the Local Food Directory previously discussed: the geographic scope is ‘North East Melbourne’ and I proactively seek out events for inclusion. It took me some time to work out where to find out about all the events and I now visit around 400 websites each week to see if they have any new events listed.
By end 2015, the scope of the calendar was effectively what it is today and the standard template for the newsletters had been established. Also, the newsletter and the website had become much more closely linked, sharing the same calendar and with all the substantive articles in the newsletters being duplicated somewhere on the website.
The most important thing that happened in 2016 was that Helen Simpson, from The Mushroom Shed, volunteered to write a series of ‘how to grow …’ guides. These have proved to be immensely popular, with around 300,000 visitors between then and now. They also established the principle that it would be good for other people to contribute articles for the website and since then we have published articles from Angela Spencer, Ann Stanley, Bev Robertson, Dana Thomson, David Murray, Evan Gellert, Felicity Gordon, Fran Lennard, Greta Gillies, Jian Liu, Judy Vizzari, Kat Lavers, Lucinda Flynn, Marina Bistrin, Pam Jenkins, Paul Gale-Baker, Penny Grose, Robin Gale-Baker, Sabi Buehler, Stuart Rodda and Tracey Bjorksten.
The other thing that happened is that some of us ventured forth and actually visited most of the food swaps around North East Melbourne, with the end result being a proper database of these swaps.
The most important thing that happened in 2017 was that Helen Simpson, having run out of veggies to write ‘how to grow …’ guides for, volunteered to undertake a series of visits to the gardens of home growers and write up the results. In subsequent years, Ann Stanley, Greta Gillies, Judy Vizzari and Marina Bistrin have followed in Helen’s footsteps. We now have around 40 garden visit writeups on the website and these include some of the more notable names in our local food community, such as: Adrian O’Hagan, Angelo Eliades, Bruce Plain, Chloe Thomson, Katrina Forstner, Lucinda Flynn, Maria Ciavarella, Olwyn Smiley, Pam Jenkins, Robin and Paul Gale-Baker and Virginia Solomon.
We also have around 10 interviews with community gardening people.
When I first joined Local Food Connect in 2012, the subject of local food producers was much discussed at Committee meetings and, when establishing the Local Food Directory in 2014, I simply assumed that the local food producers and their interactions with the public were, or should be, at the centre of the local food community that we were trying to foster. But this has turned out not really to be the case. This first became apparent to me through my involvement in setting up Eltham Farmers’ Market: there are lots of interactions at farmers’ markets between producers and the public but these interactions are basically the same regardless of whether or not the producer is local; and, as a corollary, some local food producers who do not participate in markets only have, and only seek to have, limited interactions with the local community.
Rather, I concluded that the centre of the local food community that we were trying to foster is more the numerous community gardens that exist in North East Melbourne together with the food swaps and workshops that are often associated with them. For those who have never been to a food swap or a community garden working bee, these are essentially social events involving people who have a common interest, namely growing veggies and fruit trees. It is also clear from my interactions with newsletter readers that many/most of the readership have a similar home growing interest. In other words, it is more the home growing of food that binds us together than the local commercial growing and making of food.
I therefore decided that I wanted to talk to, and hopefully visit, each of the 60 or so community gardens and work with each of them to develop material for the website. Hence the community gardening section of the website was borne. But I also recognised that this would be a major task so I waited until the other parts of the website were stable before commencing it. In the event, it took me from mid 2017 to mid 2019 to develop a proper database of all the community gardens, with pages on each of these gardens. I progressed Council area by Council area, starting with the most active areas (e.g. Darebin) and ending with the least active (e.g. Whitehorse).
My first entree into the fascinating, and somewhat mysterious, subject of ‘food justice’ was way back in 2013 when I visited the Diamond Valley FoodShare in Greensborough. It was a much bigger, and a much more altruistic, enterprise than I had envisaged. In subsequent years, I tried, but failed, to help the Eltham FoodShare and I tried, but failed, to set up a Food is Free venture in Diamond Creek, so my interest waned. It was partly revived in 2016 by my discovery of the extensive network of free local community meals but it was only in early 2019, when I was fortunate enough to visit the extraordinary FoodShare operation in Abbotsford and also became aware of the equally extraordinary Mitcham Community Meal, that I fully realised the width and breadth of the food justice activities around North East Melbourne. I then decided to pull all the strands together into a proper food justice section on the website – see the various subject areas in the right hand sidebar.
In passing, the subject of food justice has a rather different political context in Australia than in the country that I have spent most of my life in (the United Kingdom). This difference is illustrated by the differing attitudes towards ‘food banks’: in Australia, food banks appear to be simply seen as worthy enterprises to be supported if possible (e.g. see this article in the Guardian); by contrast, in the UK, the very existence of food banks is controversial, as many people view them as akin to a sticking plaster hiding government failure to take proper action on the subject of food justice (e.g. see this article in the Guardian). This difference is part of a wider difference whereby the UK, together with the rest of Europe, have a tradition of universal benefits whereas Australia apparently has more means-testing than just about anywhere else in the developed world. This is a subject about which I might write more in the future (according to my wife, this should be viewed as more of a threat than a promise!).
2020 was, as you know, a year like no other. In February, there were around 350 local food events around North East Melbourne but, by April, this had plummeted to around zero. I was minded to put the newsletter (and website) on hold until the end of the pandemic but wiser heads prevailed and, instead, it partially re-invented itself as a more interactive publication where readers asked/answered questions about food-related matters, offered tips, sent in photos, provided recipes and wrote articles. Surprisingly, many more people clicked links in the newsletter than in previous years (almost 30,000 links clicked in 2020) and many more people subscribed to the newsletter than in previous years (almost 1,000 new subscribers in 2020). So, rather than being a victim of Covid-19, the newsletter actually became a beneficiary.