Produce to the People

Words by
Sally Wilson
| June 3, 2016

Produce to the People is an social profit organisation with its headquarters spread across two acres on the grounds of Burnie High School in Cooee, north west Tasmania. Local resident Penelope Dodd founded the group in early 2009, when she was faced with an excess of ripe, backyard tomatoes.

Rather than waste them Penelope found a way for her produce to reach the tables of people who couldn’t source their own. Seven years later, Produce to the People operates a diversified, four-season farm and food hub, providing its community with access to fresh produce on a no-questions-asked basis. For our Community issue this month, we spoke to Penelope about food security, and how a backyard garden became an organisation feeding hundreds of people every month.

Please tell us who you are and about how plants feature in your life.
My ancestry is full of cooks and farmers, artists and sailors. Much of my childhood was spent in the veggie patch, in the kitchen cooking with the garden spoils, or hiding away in my bedroom reading, dreaming, drawing and writing (I’m a total introvert – I wish I had personality type knowledge much earlier!)

When I moved to Tasmania in 2009 I had a dream. I had purchased 16 acres in the divine North West, a house with a fire engine red Rayburn wood stove, and I was going to become a goat farmer. A goat farmer who grew all her own veggies. Self-sufficient.

The reality versus the dream may be revealed at some point in the future. Let’s just say that now I live in town with a view over Bass Straight, a manageable veggie patch, 2 dogs and 2 cats (my 23-year-old giant of a son having flown the nest).

What community group do you work with, where is it based, how many people are involved and what is the focus of the work you do there?
I spend my days with Produce to the People, a social profit organisation based on the farm at Burnie High School in north west Tasmania.

Over the past seven years I have helped develop a way for the most food insecure in the north west Tasmanian region to access fresh, locally grown vegetables.”

Some that might have gone to waste, some grown by local farmers and backyard gardeners.

We run the school farm, set on two acres, as an emergency food relief hub, teaching and community centre. It is super important to us that the most vulnerable in our community have access to fresh, seasonal produce and have the opportunity to see how it grows, which might lead to an interest in growing their own.

There is a part-time staff of three, two core volunteers, an additional 15 casual volunteers and the high school students in various shapes and forms. So add another 20 or so who spend significant time helping out.

Why and when did you start Produce to the People?
I founded Produce to the People in the summer of 2009 when I had a glut of backyard grown tomatoes – I couldn’t give them away because everyone I knew had heaps already, so I decided to investigate how backyard surplus could end up on the tables of people who couldn’t source their own.

It’s grown like topsy since then – from a backyard grower’s adventure to a fully-fledged social enterprise feeding hundreds each month.

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What’s special about the place where your group is based?
The school farm we work from has been around for 20 years or more. All sorts of people have used the space over the years, but when we took over no-one had really been giving it much love for a couple of years. It had turned into a bit of an animal sanctuary – free ranging alpacas, sheep, a ram, hundreds of chickens with nothing growing but plenty of weeds. There was a good amount of infrastructure – a hothouse, a big shed, chook houses – all in need of aforementioned love. While we got the animals under control we turned the ‘tunnel house’ – the only fenced-in section – into garden beds and started growing. Now we have around an acre under production with dreams of putting in another greenhouse to extend our growing timeframes.

We are very fortunate to have the amazingly fertile north west Tassie red earth and all that livestock poop has been great compost!

The food we grow goes into our food hub, where everyone in the community can come and access produce, no questions asked. In May this year we had 700 people come through the gate.”

Please describe one project that your group has undertaken recently.
We had noticed an increase in the number of elders in our community accessing produce each week in our food hub. Many told us that they are left with as little as $20 a week for food once their rent and utility bills have been paid and some were not buying medication, instead spending it on food. We decided to do something about that and organised a home delivery service.

We insist that elders have access to fresh produce. As a community we must do what we can to care for these important people.”

Each box we provide is filled with fresh, seasonal produce grown on our farm or donated by one of our partner organisations and team of backyard growers. As with our food hub – we never know from week to week what might be available, so there’s an element of surprise with each delivery. There may also be some pantry staples such as pasta, breakfast cereal and bread.

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Who makes the best morning tea or snacks in your group? Can you include the recipe?
The local coffee roaster makes the best coffee and we like to support local independent businesses!

We usually nibble on fruit grown on the farm or bakery goods, but one of our volunteers, Michelle makes the best chutneys and sauces from the produce we grow and gather. She takes ingredients home then returns with jars that go into our Emergency Food Relief hub and our homes as well.

One of my favourites is her Spicy Plum Sauce.

Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 1 hour

Ingredients

1 kg fresh plums, pitted and quartered
1 small onion
1 peeled garlic clove
2 cups sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon chilli flakes
1 teaspoon mixed spice

Method
Process the plums, onion and garlic in a food processor.

Transfer to a heavy based saucepan. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat and gently simmer for an hour or until reduced by half.

Cool then ladle into sterilised jars.

What lessons have you learnt since joining the group?
Food is great for breaking down barriers. Many a conversation is had in the hub about how you grow or cook a particular fruit or veg. We like to grow some more unusual varieties – celeriac, yacon – and the 13 types of heritage tomatoes we grew in summer were a big talking point.

Also – walking our talk. Being non-judgemental about the people that come through our gate has been an interesting challenge. I’ve learnt to focus on the fact that I’ve only walked in my shoes, no one else’s, and I don’t know anyone else’s circumstances. Getting to know the people that come through the gate, learning their stories once they feel comfortable enough to share, always answers lingering, unspoken questions.

We’re big on heart and that absolutely shines through.”

What philosophy or message does your group hope to promote?
Our ethos is “grow, gather, give and love the one you’re with”. We are on a mission to create a healthy and sustainable food system that benefits us all.

What projects do you have planned for the future?
Our future plans are a bit secret squirrel at the moment. We are waiting to hear if we have received support from a philanthropic organisation that would see us receive substantial funding over a three-year period, which would be a game changer for us. We are also waiting to see the outcome of the Federal election. Certain parties see the benefit of supporting grassroots, locally-based organisations over larger, city-based, overhead heavy organisations. Watch this space! In a worst case scenario, we receive no funding and we shut down. How sad would that be?!

How does being part of this group enrich your life?
The connections with people and the land, making a tangible difference in the community ticks all the boxes for me. I work with the most entertaining, quirky people who are full of love. It makes it a joy to go to ‘work’ every day.

How do you think individuals make a difference?
I strongly believe we can all make a difference. It can be big, like taking an idea and running with it turning it into a game changer in the community, or it can be as simple as a smile and a few kind words. Seriously, just smile at people.

Smile while you are driving, digging in your garden, doing the shopping, taking your dog for a walk…”

How can others get involved?People can head to our website and fill out a volunteer expression of interest, or come in and visit us. We’d love to show you around.

You can visit Produce to the People’s website and learn more about their work via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

All images provided by Produce to the People.

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