Sustainability, Ethics and Community in the Food Industry
Date Posted:10 February 2016
Merriweather Cafe’s Community and Sustainable Vision
By the Urban Food Project
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a fantastic event about a “sustainable, ethical and community orientated approach to… food consumption”, hosted by a collaborative called the Urban Food Project. The event held at the wonderful Merriweather Cafe in South Brisbane had four speakers:
- Bec Edmonds, the Manager of Merriweather and a student of Horticulture;
- Mairi Mackinnon, one of the owners of Merriweather and its partner cafe King Arthur (Fortitude Valley), and founder of a project called Shared Harvest which aims to support and promote local suppliers and producers;
- Jarrod Huey, also owner of Merriweather and King Arthur cafe’s, and executive chef at both venues; and
- Phil Garozzo, founder of Not Waste, a community focused venture which connects small-scale food growers and urban restaurants/cafes.
So what is the Urban Food Project?
To quote from their website: “The Urban Food Project hopes to bring together industry professionals, thinkers and do-ers, with students and interested members of the community to discuss ideas and new ways of designing and living in our cities for a sustainable, ethical and community oriented approach to our food consumption.” As chef Jarrod succinctly stated during the evening, “We need to set an example in this country of how we feed ourselves and how we control our land”. What I found refreshing about listening to them speak is that they weren’t trying to preach a certain lifestyle, and certainly didn’t have all of the answers. Rather, the community at Merriweather and King Arthur had recognised that they were participating in a food industry which is very broken, but importantly they weren’t content to simply accept the status quo. Instead they actively sought out ways to minimise their waste, while supporting a ‘shop local’ ethos driven by sustainability. This is what the evening was about, an open conversation about how a broken system can be made less so.
The impression I got from these guys, particularly from Mairi as the founder of Merriweather, and Jarrod who has a background in fine-dining, is that they had in their pasts grappled with an internal conflict. On the one hand, they were passionate about working in an industry that could enable their creativity and that had the power to enrich lives and build community by bringing people together over food. But on the other hand, they had to contend with the knowledge that the food industry can be a horribly wasteful and ruthless one, driven by bottom line profitability with a disconnect between the source of the food and the plate it is served upon.
From there they chose a brave path. I think many of us have a gut feeling that the systems we are forced to work within aren’t quite right, maybe even harmful, but not many of us actually step back from those systems and try to find a different way. This is what Merriweather and the Urban Food Project have chosen to do. They have found that, through lots of hard work, trial and error and experimentation, it was possible to run a food service venue without having to be wasteful, and without having to participate in a damaging food production and delivery system which did little to support local farmers and producers.
Currently 90% of their menu is sourced through Food Connect, a social enterprise which only partners with local growers who produce fresh food in season, and pays them a fair market rate for their efforts. They get their meat from a butcher in Gympie, and list all of their suppliers on the cafe menu so you actually know where you food is coming from. Over the last twelve months they teamed up with Phil Garozzo from Not Waste, and now all of their biodegradable waste is turned into compost instead of going to landfill. Recently, Phil has even set up a rooftop garden above Merriweather, which includes three worm farms that help break down things like coffee grounds, vegetable scraps and egg shells into compost. This in turn is used to grow vegetables, which can be fed back into the cafes and their ever-changing menus. The aim is what they call a “closed loop system” of agriculture which closely replicates how a natural ecosystem would operate.
Local initiatives like Urban Food Project and Shared Harvest aren’t on their own going to change our food system, but ‘from little things big things grow’ as the song goes. Through necessity we are becoming an increasingly urbanised country, which unfortunately has exasperated the disconnect between our food producers and food consumers. Many of the attendees at the Merriweather evening were students of design, urban planning and agriculture, which I think shows great foresight from the organisers. These students left the event inspired by what Urban Food Project were trying to achieve, and some of those ideas will hopefully become standard considerations when they are graduates in our community and designing Brisbane’s next urban development.
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