I'm reading
The Open Food Network
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The Open Food Network
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The Open Food Network
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
15 July 2020

The Open Food Network

A network of farmers and community groups are building a new food system that is fair, local and transparent.

Written by Jen Sheridan

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Discussed in this Story

In 2011, Kirsten Larsen and Serenity Hill were working in food systems policy in Melbourne, and wanted to find a way to connect farmers and city eaters to overcome some of the problems they were seeing in the sector. They started with a van, and some keen farmers and willing customers, but quickly realised that the challenge wasn’t just how to run food from farms into the city; it was also how to coordinate moving enough food, from enough farmers, to make a significant impact. In their quest to find a way for farmers to collaborate, share logistics and sell in one place on their own terms, the idea for Open Food Network was born. 

Since the beginning, Open Food Network was built on a different set of values to most online platforms. For one, it is open source, meaning anyone can contribute to the project, and everything that is built into it is part of a global, shared commons. This ethos has drawn people from all over the world to it.

You can’t build a new system without doing things differently from the foundations up. We use distributed, non-hierarchical governance principles and structures to make decisions effectively and quickly. Our successful (and ever-evolving) implementation of these ideals has led numerous researchers to focus on our way of working as an example of new, regenerative systems. Our organisational structure has roots in permaculture principles, with each person having multiple roles, and each task able to be done by multiple people. The outcome has been an elastic, resilient system able to accommodate shocks. As COVID19 hit, most existing Open Food Network shops’ turnover increased threefold, sign-ups increased tenfold, and turnover through the platform overall increased tenfold across our local and global networks. Through that growth, the platform didn’t slow or falter, and our weekly releases of new features continued.

We’ve never accepted investment that asked for a return to be made from the pockets of farmers. It goes against the organisation’s mission to push the full costs of building a new food system onto farmers. Instead, by pooling funding around the world we’ve managed to keep the cost to farmers at one percent of their sales, and have financed development work by fundraising and cross-subsidising the platform’s costs through our other work. We’ve also been a place where people can pour their passion for change into a tangible outcome, and as a result thousands of volunteer hours have been spent on this project. Our paid staff operate on a sustainable livelihoods model, in which we each set a manageable livelihood and an ideal livelihood level for ourselves and as finances ebb and flow we all maintain the same proportion of livelihood. 

Much is being written currently about the pandemic being a moment to pause, and to reset the course society is on—to create the world that we want to exist when this is over, and to support the initiatives that create it rather than putting another few billion in Jeff Bezos’s pocket. 

For those looking to support the farmers building a healthier, fairer food system, the opportunity is there to buy their food directly. Each dollar spent through this platform goes back into developing this piece of shared digital infrastructure enabling new systems around the world. 

For those who want to start their own food hub or buying group, it’s easy. Every example on the Open Food Network was started by a person who cared enough to start creating change—and we can help you. The Open Food Network is an invitation to you to participate in building the food system you want to exist.

The driving force for a lot of people creating community food enterprises—be it local food hubs or Open Food Network—is the knowledge that our current food system is hugely vulnerable and destructive, both on an environmental and a human level. In Australia, a supermarket duopoly pushes farmers to the brink as they dictate prices that don’t allow for fair livelihoods or farming practices that benefit the environment. Crops are monocultures, reliant on chemical inputs that kill the natural functioning systems in soil, forcing increased dependence on these inputs.

In this healthy food system, farmers receive the lion’s share of the end price. It differs between food hubs and markets as they each find their own relationships and ways to build a food enterprise that works for their local community and farmers. Farmers are able to use this money to do things differently—to farm with environmental benefits, and to participate in their regional economy rather than the money heading offshore to a multinational company. Young farmers abound on the Open Food Network. They can see a path to making a living doing the thing they most love doing: feeding their community, while caring for the environment. 

THE NETWORK IN ACTION

The Prom Coast Food Collective sees 20 small-scale Gippsland farmers banding together to sell through one online shop, ready for delivery across Melbourne. By pre-selling everything online, they have removed the need for expensive infrastructure like coolrooms, storefronts, or warehouses. Instead, farmers and eaters come together to hand over the produce to their local eaters, and to aggregate for their deliveries to Melbourne. 

Westies Dry Goods Buying Group are suburban eaters working together to source organic produce in bulk to make it affordable. Through organic wholesalers and direct farmer relationships, they buy food at bulk prices and then pack it into individual orders as a community. 

Baw Baw Food Hub started as a couple of organic farmers making sure their local rural community could access the type of produce farmers in their region were trucking into urban markets. They’ve since evolved to a full-service, locally-sourced, not-for-profit grocery hub open six days a week in Warragul. 

Nambucca’s North Arm Farms is a collective of three young farming families working together to grow complementary crops in order to provide an extensive local range for their shared customers. Similarly, the Harcourt Organic Co-op is finding new ways for young farmers to access land, share resources and begin farming. 

Farmers markets—from Willunga to Wangaratta to Melbourne—have set up market hubs to secure pre-market sales for farmers or to take their market entirely online during social distancing. Each of these enterprises is using Open Food Network to coordinate the complex logistics of sourcing from multiple farmers and selling through a single online shop for eaters. 

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.