Two UOW graduates are reshaping our relationship with food and what we do with the leftovers.
It’s 7pm on a cold Thursday evening. The unmistakeable sound of plastic wheels rattling across concrete fills a quiet street in Glebe as Alexandra Iljadica drags her garbage bin to the join the hundreds already lining the curb.
The contents of those bins isn’t something most of us give much thought. But Alexandra and her friend Joanna Baker certainly have.
“Forty per cent of what we throw into our bins at home is food,” Alexandra says. “We’re throwing out 20 per cent of the food we purchase. That’s like leaving one out of every five shopping bags at the checkout,” Joanna adds.
Alexandra and Joanna are the founders of Youth Food Movement, a national not-for-profit organisation that wants to improve the food literacy of young Australians and the way they engage with food – and with good reason.
Globally, roughly one third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted. Closer to home, Australians throw out $8 billion worth of food every year. That’s four million tonnes per annum of food that ends up in landfill. And one of the biggest culprits: young people aged 18-30.
“I believe we are the supermarket generation,” Joanna says. “We’ve been born into a world where food just magically appears on supermarket shelves. Less value is placed on it and food skills aren’t being passed down from our parents the way it was inherently done in the generation before us.”
Globally, if food waste was a country, it’d be the third biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions.Alexandra Iljadica
Why food waste matters
All this food waste effectively means that one third of the precious energy, resources and labour that’s spent producing, packaging and distributing this food is also wasted. More than that, this waste of resources and food can have a damaging effect.
Food that ends up in landfill decomposes without air (anaerobically). This process creates methane, which is 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere – contributing to global warming and all the disruptions associated with it.
“Globally, if food waste was a country, it’d be the third biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions,” Alexandra says. All this waste is happening to the backdrop of increasing global malnutrition that perplexingly includes serious levels of both under-nutrition and obesity.
The economic impact is a far simpler one. Those one in five shopping bags we’re ‘leaving’ at the checkout equates to every Australian household throwing out more than $1,000 worth of groceries each year.
From paddock to landfill
Household waste is only part of the equation. While research into the area is limited, it is estimated that between 20 and 40 per cent of the food Australian farmers produce is rejected by retailers due to their appearance. This is perfectly edible and nutritious food that will never see our shelves.
“Having worked at a stone fruit orchard that supplied the retail market, I’ve seen how stressful it is to produce perfect fruit,” Joanna says. “Supermarkets do place strict standards on the quality and appearance of fresh food, but as consumers we’re reinforcing these aesthetic standards by only buying the most perfect produce.”
“It’s self-perpetuating,” Alexandra adds. “Supermarkets have put these beautiful, aesthetically pleasing produce in front of us and that’s what we’ve got used to. We’ve lost that intrinsic ability to say ‘there’s nothing wrong with this oddly shaped carrot or spotty banana’. It’s why we launched CropFest – to celebrate wonky food – and SpoonLed – to give practical advice on reducing waste.”
Both Joanna and Alexandra believe it’s going to take every player in the supply chain to do their part if we are to change the tide of food hitting landfill.
Major supermarkets are partnering with food rescue groups like OzHarvest and Second Bite to help eliminate food sent to landfill by feeding the thousands of homeless Australians and households with low levels of food security. Initiatives such as Woolworths’ ‘Odd Bunch’ and Harris Farm Market’s ‘Imperfect Picks’ are saving wonky fruit and vegetables by introducing this produce to consumers at a discount price. However, more could be done to address the cause of the waste.
Straight from the farmer’s mouth
Youth Food Movement believes that deepening young people’s relationship with food will see the biggest long-term changes in attitudes and actions towards food and waste.
“The way in which we, as a society, consume food and waste food is unsustainable, and it comes from a disconnection and lack of appreciation of where our food comes from,” Joanna says. “If you don’t know what goes into producing the food in front of you, how can you value it?”
Joanna and Alexandra set about bridging this divide between producer and consumer with the simple idea of getting them in the same room.
“Essentially Meet The Maker was born out of a desire to bring a producer to a pub so they could tell their story while giving young people in cities the opportunity to ask questions and understand the role they play by supporting different products.” Joanna says. “The questions are also valuable insights for the industries we are showcasing.”
The ongoing project is giving people on both sides of the food fence the opportunity to learn from each other. As this relationship deepens, Youth Food Movement hopes it will translate into better food practises.
Alexandra says millennials are values-driven and ask a lot of questions. “Young people like us realise that our consumer choices, be it around food or fashion, have the ability to change the world. It may sound altruistic but what we buy and eat three times a day is determining the food system we have, which has a huge impact on our health and the environment.”
No Australian farmers, no Australian-grown food
Another big challenge affecting the security of Australia’s food system is that of the ageing and declining farming population. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that “the number of farmers in Australia has been declining for many decades as small farmers sell up to large-scale farming operations, and fewer young people take over their family farms”.
“The average age of the Aussie farmer is 55 and with more and more rural and remote kids leaving their small towns for bigger cities, we don’t have enough young people going into the broad agricultural industry,” Joanna says. “Who’s going to feed us in ten years? It’s an issue that we need to address.”
It’s also an issue that has flow-on effects for the global food system. It’s reported that after supplying the great majority of the food consumed in Australia, more than half of what they produce is shipped offshore to feed about 40 million people elsewhere around the world.
So how do we encourage more people into agriculture to feed a growing population that in Australia is projected to double to 48 million by 2061?
“Agriculture as an industry talks about keeping rural kids in the local area, but we’re not thinking about this huge untapped resource of young people in cities who just don’t know that agriculture is actually an industry they could go into,” Joanna says. “It’s exciting, it’s dynamic, it’s challenging – it’s all those things, and they can apply urban-based skills in this field.”
A survey of the Youth Food Movement community found that over almost three-quarters of respondents have considered a career in food and almost half in agriculture, which is why Joanna and Alexandra feel so strongly about building people’s connection to their food.
How the movement got started
The seed of Youth Food Movement was planted when Joanna and Alexandra paired up for a group assignment during their nutrition degree at UOW.
“While working on the assignment we decided to catch up, because essentially our friends and families had enough of us constantly talking about food,” Alexandra says. “We were both volunteering for other organisations, which were fantastic, but everyone else was our parents’ age.”
Joanna adds: “We wanted to see if there were other young people out there who cared about food us much as we did”.
Youth Food Movement has now evolved to be a platform for young people to get actively involved in food culture through many different projects and events, all led by young people.
“The organisation is based on a peer-to-peer model, because what we’ve realised is that the best people to engage young people in food and agriculture in Australia, are young people,” Joanna says.
Now, five years on, Joanna and Alexandra are responsible for a team of five staff and more than 100 volunteers nationally with chapters in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Launceston and Greater Western Sydney.
In late 2015 Joanna and Alexandra secured a three-year grant from the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation to grow and scale Youth Food Movement and its activities across the country. This has also allowed both Alexandra and Joanna to make the organisation their full-time job.
“This grant has allowed us to look longer into the future. We now have the resources to say ‘yes’ to even more opportunities that come across our desk, including opening a chapter back where it all started – in Wollongong,” Alexandra says.
I started Youth Food Movement because it’s my purpose. Simple as that.Alexandra Iljadica
Back to their roots
Aside from the fact that’s it’s extremely close to our heart, the growing food movement in Wollongong is really significant,” Joanna says. “With agriculture all along the South Coast, there’s lots of opportunity to get people connected to food production very quickly and easily, which is very exciting.”
But rather than just roll out the same events and projects that have been so successful for other chapters, the pair plan to let Wollongong’s unique food culture and environmental landscape dictate the plan of action.
“It’s driven from the ground up. The culture of the community very much decides what the chapter focuses on and what kind of events they create. Which is, I think, what makes our work so impactful – a bespoke design suited to the needs of the community,” Joanna says. “It’s something we plan to bring to every state and territory in the next three years.”
They’re ambitious plans for two young women who have learned how to run a not-for-profit, by simply having the courage to start one. But if the last five years are anything to go by, the future of our food system is in great hands.
“The food system is what we have created and we all have equal responsibility for developing solutions,” Alexandra says. “And it starts with just giving a little more thought to what we’re dragging to the curb every week.”