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Special Report: Food Insecurity

Authors: Luke Craven, Glenn Althor, David Schlosberg and Alana Mann

Food insecurity in Australia's major cities and regions is on the rise, and in the last 12 months, more than four million Australians (18% of the population) have been in a situation where they have run out of food and have been unable to buy more. Of these, more than three in four (76%) are categorised as having very low food security.

Existing policy responses to this problem in Australia are failing food insecure populations and are unsustainable in the long term. The primary response, emergency food provision, is insufficient and inadequate for addressing the root causes of food insecurity, such as economic disadvantage, social exclusion and rising inequality. Programs provided by the charitable food sector are both precarious and variable. Worse, such emergency food provision has never served more than a small minority of the total food insecure population does not meet even the most basic and immediate needs of the small populations that it does serve.

Much like other ‘wicked problems’ that local governments face, many of these interventions are lacking a vital characteristic, systems thinking.  Systems thinking gives decision makers and stakeholders the latitude move away from a focus on siloed and individual interventions, to understanding how food insecurity arises from complex interactions in the food system.

The lack of systems-based approaches to food insecurity is increasingly being recognized as a reason for why, despite the vast amount of resources and effort being allocated to addressing food insecurity, historically the majority of food security interventions have failed to ’shift the needle’ on food insecurity.

A systems approach gives us the ability to understand the interconnections between the who, the what, and the how of food systems. Importantly, it gives us the ability to understand and recognise where/how the food system is driving food insecurity. And, crucially, thinking about food as a system, allows us to target interventions at these different leverage points, and predict the potential impacts that an intervention might have. Better yet, it allows us to understand how multiple interventions might work in concert across the system.

Cities and partners around the globe have begun to look at more innovative policies and approaches that can work to address the deeper, systemic, and more complex causes of food insecurity, including the affordability and accessibility of fresh and nutritious food, social and economic disadvantage, rising inequality, and economic exclusion. One such innovation being increasingly trialled internationally are food business incubators, which assist new food business start-ups in vulnerable communities, build relationships and connections between businesses and their community, and catalyse broader change in food systems.

This approach, and the transformative change we hope to achieve, encompasses our approach at FoodLab Sydney. Based on the experiences and learnings of the highly successful FoodLab Detroit, the project is supported by University of Sydney’s Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) and UNSW Canberra, in partnership with the City of Sydney, and TAFE NSW. The program is a unique example of local government-community-university partnership, and the first of its kind for the City aimed at tackling the complex causes of food insecurity.

FoodLab Sydney exists to support local residents in bringing their idea for a food business or career in food to life in their own community.  It is Sydney’s own, local version of an internationally recognised food business incubator model that aims to support food entrepreneurs from all backgrounds and levels of education.

On the surface FoodLab Sydney is a place-based intervention based on assisting vulnerable populations in the development of new food businesses, empowers individuals and communities, expands inclusion in the food system, and creates new economic development opportunities. However, below the surface is the unique and exciting research ‘engine room’, which we will be using to undertake a systems wide understanding of food security in Sydney, and how interventions such as FoodLab Sydney are likely to fare within the Sydney food system. This project will be the first to test this promising approach to food insecurity in Australia.

At this thrilling, but early, stage of the FoodLab Sydney project we have high hopes, not only for the future of food security in Sydney, but also for the impact of systems-based approaches to addressing food insecurity in local communities across Australia.

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