During the summer of 2009, Penelope Dodd grew a bumper crop of tomatoes. And so it seems did many in her corner of the world. She tried to give some tomatoes away but her friends couldn’t take any more. “What happens to all the excess backyard produce?” she wondered.
She began gathering excess fruit and vegetables—not only from household gardens, but also from local farms and processors—then gave it to people in her community who needed it most.
Thus Produce to the People was born. Over the next few years, the organization redistributed up to 25 000 kilograms of produce annually that would have gone to landfill, equivalent to 16 829 litres of fuel and 16 cars off the road.
Keenly watching from afar, I witnessed the many highs and lows of running a social enterprise. In 2012 she won the Solved competition held by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. She also won the community award at the Delicious Produce Awards and was a finalist in the Telstra Business Women’s Awards.
Yet due to funding cuts, the key distribution program of her enterprise was wound up.
If you think that would stop the irrepressible Penelope, think again! Some exciting news trickled into my Twitter feed, so I asked her to share her food community and the latest from Produce to the People.
Where were you from originally, and why did you move to Tasmania?
I grew up in Adelaide, and as many young folk do, moved away as soon as I could. I spent many years in Sydney living quite the wild life, before moving to the Blue Mountains. We’ve just celebrated our eleventh Tasmanian anniversary and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. In fact, I’ve just been told I can officially call myself Tasmanian!
One of the prompts to move south was the ideal of living on the land, being as self-sufficient as possible, with no mortgage. I also had a hankering to have some goats. I found 16 acres in Yolla so I came for a look and fell in love: fire engine red Rayburn cooker in the kitchen, conservatory with pond separating the main bedroom from the rest of the house, and all that land. Some cleared, some natural bush. Spring fed dams.
The total package.
Yet reality is so much different than the dream. Work is really hard to find in rural Tasmania and the cake mix business that I brought down just wasn’t working. I was physically distant from my customers and reliant on one awesome, but other not so good distributor. Also, the handsome farmer riding over the hill on his tractor to help with the land didn’t materialize. I stuck it out for five years but now live in SoBu (South Burnie) with amazing ocean views.
What makes the North West unique?
North West Tasmania is often overlooked but it is has the most delicious landscapes I have ever seen. And if you check out the real estate prices here you’ll go ashen-faced. Serious ocean views, produce on your doorstep, and an hour from Melbourne all for $200 000—a little bit more or a little bit less—depending on the town.
Burnie is a fabulous place to live. It gets a bad wrap being one of the 10 most disadvantaged places in Australia, but seriously there is so much good. It actually has some of the highest income earners in the state as well, so there’s an interesting mix. It kind of reminds me of Glenelg (in South Australia) with its seascapes. We have a campus of the University of Tasmania. We also have the luxury of being surrounded by top notch farming land.
There’s also a vibrant cafe scene; not as much variety as interstate but there is always somewhere for fabulous food and good coffee. There’s Bruce’s in Wynyard, Secret Buddha, Delish and Palate in Burnie and Thirty Three Cups in Ulverstone. We do however have a lack of evening dining options. Total dearth.
I think most Tasmanians eat local produce most of the time; there is just not a push to advertise it as such. Campaigns like the Tassievore Challenge and the number of fine Farmers’ Markets help make the connection.
The North West seems to be blossoming. Can you share your food community?
There are so many fabulous producers in the North West! The Thomsons on Black Ridge Farm at Milabena, Marji and Alan at Blue Penguin wines, Twelve Acre Wood Raw Honey in Melrose, Old School Farm in Preston, Red Cow Dairies in Oldina, Guy at Mount Gnomon Farm in Penguin, Va at Laos Fresh Farm in Forth just to name a few. Graeme at Thirlstane Gardens does fabulous hydro greens, Henry’s Ginger Beer, Spreyton Cider, and of course our friend Ben Milbourne has been cooking up a storm for all of Australia to see on Ben’s Menu—a real North West food hero using his profile to promote the place he grew up in and chooses to still live.
The Cradle Coast Farmers’ Market is a great place to visit on a Sunday to get to know your local producers.
What’s happening now with Produce to the People?
Produce to the People has seen so many incarnations since its inception in 2009. Most of the changes have been funding driven. It’s an insane circumstance that you need to change your program dependent on funding cycles and the government of the day. Luckily for us we have now found a base on The Farm at Burnie High; we’ve been happily ensconced on our two-acre plot for six months now.
We have a free food farm hub three days a week where donated produce—home grown, farm grown, supermarket and bakery donated—is available to anyone who might need it. No questions asked. We see an average of 40 people per day and it is a cross section of the community. Although we are seeing an increase in the working poor coming through. We’ve had women in tears because they had been turned away by other agencies, people with substance abuse issues taking greens home to juice, and we are blessed on a daily basis by the people who come to visit so grateful they can access fresh produce. It’s community in action looking after each other.
We’re also involving the school kids from Burnie High. They volunteer in the hub or on the farm, the science class will be using the farm as a basis for experimentation, and the “Happy” class will be raising rare breed chooks for us. The Traineeship and Apprenticeship Program class takes whatever veggies we have left on a Thursday afternoon and turn it into veggie soup we can then redistribute through The Free Food Farm Hub.
The Farm itself had seen no love for four years so one of our first jobs was to find homes for the many, many animals that had taken up residence. It had become a bit of an animal sanctuary—nice for the animals, not so nice when you are trying to grow food! We now have 160 metres of beds under veggie production and a hothouse full of seedlings. Some will be used to regenerate the land while others will be sold in our nursery.
We will earn our own keep by selling plants grown in the hothouse and we are thinking of a “pick your own” set up for veggies rather than a veggie box scheme as such. We will also run workshops teaching people how to grow their own.
We are totally underfunded for what we do. Our Federal funding was cut 100% when the Abbott Government came to power and we had to fight for continued State government funding. We now have guaranteed funding from the State for the next three years but it is such a small amount we have to supplement it.
We plan on being around for a while yet. Realistically there will always be people who are unable to make ends meet and there will always be food waste.
We will happily be a place where people can come and feel like they are being looked after. Our ethos is after all…… “Grow, gather, give. Love the one you’re with!”
Produce to the People connects the community with food. If you believe everyone should have access to healthy food, you can volunteer, donate funds or if you live locally, produce. Alternatively you can buy seedlings, a market bag or vege crate. Visit Produce to the People for more information.