Project update: building strong Victorian regional food economies
Disruptions to food supply in 2020 highlighted the importance of Community Food Enterprises (CFEs) as they maintained food security for their communities. For many enterprises, it felt like a window of opportunity to connect with consumers who were being awakened to the possibilities of becoming a food citizen.
Open Food Network and some of these enterprises identified an opportunity to work together to build capacity in the sector, particularly in response to 2020 shifts in customer demand for shorter-supply chain food.
Support provided through the Working for Victoria Program (funded by Department of Jobs, Precincts & Regions) enabled us to create a range of roles to support regional food activation, commencing in April 2021. This included six Regional Food Activation Officers (RFAOs) co-located with four partner food enterprises, plus marketing coordination and enterprise training roles. Using a combination of these roles and Open Food Network’s existing capacity and expertise, the project involves strategic enterprise support for the 4 partner CFEs, as well as support to create opportunities for collaboration between those CFEs, other CFEs and other organisations in their regions.
Some early shared outcomes
To enable enterprise support, the RFAOs have had access to support and coaching from Open Food Network resources (e.g. enterprise development, marketing, grant development, people management). RFAOs have been working in their regions to connect more producers to their CFEs, supporting CFE operations and build their understanding of the CFE & regional context. In some cases this has looked like CFEs having increased resources to adapt to changing circumstances or manage their individual scale jumps.
As a collective, we’ve been working on establishing our team of people to work well together, and create fertile ground for collaboration and brokering to occur. By having representatives from enterprises working in the same region, and resourcing to work together, there has been scope for greater collaboration in sourcing, moving and distributing food. In some cases this has looked like linking and engaging with multiple CFEs and producers in a region to participate in collaborative logistics together.
Now that we’re underway, the project is moving into a phase where we’re working on more collective action to pursue funding opportunities as a sector.
Building capacity for the whole sector
What we’re seeing from the project is that now is a make or break time for community food enterprises, as we navigate increased uncertainty about customer demand and preferences during the second year of COVID-19. Last year’s events led to many CFEs needing to act fast to respond to rapidly changing customer demands – whether this was expanding their operations, moving farmers markets online, shifting premises or taking on new staff. All whilst navigating big shifts in volunteer base and capacity. It has been challenging in many ways.
As restrictions have eased (and tightened again), customer behaviour has shifted, and some enterprises have experienced difficulty in navigating what this means for their viability. Combined, these stressors have put pressure on decision-making, volunteer capacities, and governance structures across the sector. But, each enterprise is not alone in this. All enterprises in the project (and others outside of it) are having to navigate these challenges right now. Any fractures at the intersection of viability, physical infrastructure and people-management are being tested and stressed.
At the same time, there is a great opportunity in the sector to take advantage of the shift in attitudes and desire to support local food. So, retaining the new customers gained in 2020, and finding ways to continue building the viability of individual CFEs is a key piece. Again, all CFEs in the project are navigating this in common. In the next phase of the project, we are keen to nourish a community of practice in the sector, to develop collective diagnoses and collective solutions.
Resources and opportunities to engage
Our current activities are intended towards supporting communities of practice to enable cross-pollination of these solutions and build the sector as a whole. They include a series of webinars and resources to support capacity in the sector, and our recently launched Australian Community Food Enterprise Network Facebook group.
In future, we are looking at expanding the peer-support coaching tested through this project, to more enterprises, and further developing the community of practice to deal with common challenges.
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