Global Observer

Melbourne tech startups address the most basic of things: food

Melbourne tech startups address the most basic of things: food

Posting in Food | From Issue 02 November 25, 2013

MELBOURNE -- How do we feed a growing and increasingly urbanized city? Three new Melbourne startups work toward a collective solution.

MELBOURNE -- The population of Melbourne, a city named one of the world's most livable, is also Australia's fastest-growing city. The anticipated expansion and sustainability implications have caused some anxiety around the city's future, prompting the government to respond with its food policy framework.

On the ground, the city's do-it-yourself mindset and history of grassroots action has seen a popular resurgence of foodcentric groups in the past few years, including city beekeepersforaging tour guidespermaculture activists and green roof advocates.

The latest to emerge from this scene are three independent but related players, Open Food Foundation, Growstuff and 3000acres, who have all adopted a digital approach to food supply and have a shared vision of providing residents with more options when it comes to access to fresh produce.

"Currently there are a lot of barriers to people accessing fresh, quality food at an affordable price," Serenity Hill, a cofounder of the Open Food Foundation, says. "We want to see more people eating good food and we think technology can play a role." 

Open Food Foundation, along with Growstuff and 3000acres, represent a new wave of food innovators who work with a collaborative and open mindset, across business, diverse communities and demographics. Their inclusive approach illustrates that the solution is not the responsibility of just one group. 

However, these new enterprises are facing two key local challenges: the country's increase in foreign food imports and the continued supermarket duopoly and dominance of big food manufacturers in the supply chain. This unhealthy competitive industrial food model privileges quantity and price over local communities and good health, and preferences big factories and supermarkets over family farms and local markets.

To level this playing field, Hill and Kirsten Larsen, both 36, of Open Food Foundation have recently launched their flagship project, Open Food Network, an online marketplace connecting consumers to local producers and food hubs.

Hill describes the platform as "an Amazon for food" where endless possible scenarios could occur. For example, customers can buy directly from farmers; groups of friends in a neighborhood can set up a food co-op to buy bulk from farmers directly; or a fruit and vegetable business can establish an online shop to sell food online and offer home deliveries. 

As a nonprofit organization, Open Food Foundation supports free software for community-focused small businesses working in the food industry. Hill and Larsen hope their digital platform will offer a viable alternative to the current food supply chain.

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Hill explains that the idea for the organization came from the concept of 'open food' systems. “Open food is about bringing transparent information to growers, eaters and everyone in between so that they can make better decisions,” she says. “There is a global movement underway to rebuild locally controlled food economies, support fair prices to farmers and consumers, and regenerate agriculture."

And while Open Food Foundation endeavors to rethink food distribution chains, a new social enterprise is focusing its attention on city's home growers. Launched last July, Growstuff uses open source software to help Melburnians track what they are planting and harvesting, while providing them with a practical local guide to growing their own food.

Founder Alex Bayley, 38, a software engineer, came up with the concept when she was unable to find a localized garden database. Her site is based on 'real-life' planting information from local gardeners, rather than advice intended for a European or U.S. audience that may not be relevant to Australia's unique climate.

The technology entrepreneur believes she is typical of an increasing number of people turning to their own backyards for food. "I grow my own veggies because I like to know where my food comes from, and because it gets me better quality produce for less money," she says.

Growstuff, with close to 600 users globally, is still refining its platform but has already attracted government interest. The City of Melbourne, the government's local representative, is currently working alongside the startup to produce a series of education-based initiatives aimed at encouraging home food production.

As Growstuff's user community grows, its data will become a valuable tool in measuring and assessing Melbourne's food production capabilities, by tracking the productivity of backyard harvests year after year.

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Next month, urban planner Chris Renkin, 39, and landscape designers Thomas Gooch, 31, and Kate Dundas, 32, will launch 3000acres, a web platform that enables communities with a practical toolkit of useful information and advice, such as legal agreements and a gardening checklist, to help them reclaim underutilized city spaces as food gardens. 3000acres will join the ranks of existing initiatives, including New York’s 596 Acres, Los Angeles’ L.A. Open Acres and Vancouver’s Sole Food street farms.

Renkin says her team will help refocus how we make use of underutilized land in the city. As she warns, "Urban growth consumes productive land, increases the distance food is transported, disengages people from food production processes, and makes fresh food expensive."

Renkin claims 3000acres, through changing the urban landscape, will help to alleviate the pandemic of inactivity and obesity in the city. A recent Victorian Health Report shows poor nutrition accounts for around one-sixth of the total burden of ill health in the state, costing the government between AUD$1.25 to $4.15 (USD$1.19 to $3.94) billion every year.

Meanwhile, Shawn Ashkanasy of Urban Commons, a design supplier of urban food products, believes there are other economic benefits associated with this transition to a more inclusive system. "These models have the potential to open up new opportunities for employment and, because it is decentralized, the supply chain is more dynamic and responsive," he says. "The goal should be to encourage and support local food production and networks."

Emily Ballantyne-Brodie, a PhD candidate focused on design-led food communities, shares Ashkanasy's views that these technologies will help establish a more egalitarian food network. "In the future, our food system will consist of a diverse array of food co-ops, businesses and social enterprises that develop models for local food growing, delivering, sharing and purchasing."

Photos: Toni-anne/Flickr (main), Lyre/Flickr, Urban Commons.

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Lieu Thi Pham

Correspondent (Melbourne)

Lieu Thi Pham is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She has contributed to The Age, Associated Newspapers, Melbourne University Magazine, the Big Issue, Dazed and Confused, Indesign Group, Time Out, SOMA and Niche Media. She holds degrees from the University of Melbourne and RMIT University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure