A lack of food is one of the biggest health challenges facing the world – and it’s only likely to get worse. But one innovative new social enterprise may have developed a way to curb this trend.
Hungry for Change
Imagine trying to teach when you have a classroom full of starving students. In many communities around the globe, this is the daily reality. According to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, one in nine people worldwide are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Their recent report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018, reveals that world hunger has risen for three consecutive years, with almost 821 million people facing chronic food deprivation in 2017, rising from 804 million in 2016.
Climate change is expected to further increase this number. Hunger is one of the most urgent challenges to global health – yet the world currently produces more than enough food to feed everyone. So how do we create a world free from malnutrition?
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) explains that farming systems must be viable to secure the long-term livelihoods of rural populations, and help reduce poverty in developing nations. Sustainable food production can offer pathways out of poverty, by connecting farmers directly to higher- value export markets, for example. But this necessitates the development of sustainable food value chains – which are highly complex systems. Breaking the poverty cycle requires cooperation between agribusinesses, governments, farmers and community groups.
Globally, various public, private and non-government organisations are all collaborating to design and implement sustainable food solutions. The UNEP’s Sustainable Rice Platform, for example, promotes sustainable rice cultivation through a global alliance. Partners are working to drive resource-efficient rice production and improve livelihoods for rice growers, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the environment.
Food Ladder is another such organisation. This not-for-profit social enterprise uses hydroponics and environmentally sustainable systems to create food and economic security for communities that are otherwise dependent on outside aid. Their environmentally-controlled growing systems have been designed to work in extreme climates and withstand weather variations associated with climate change.
One system can produce enough food to supplement the diet of 250 people, and – when operating at full capacity – is five times more efficient than traditional farming methods.
Each system features a galvanised steel structure encapsulated in a shield of polycarbonate. Inside, a variety of growing systems can be installed, such as vertical towers designed for growing herbs like coriander. Solar panels with battery storage power – coupled with water treatment technologies – enable Food Ladder systems to operate even in the most isolated, inhospitable and arid places on Earth.
Much of the technology is automated and computer-integrated, allowing it to be monitored remotely and adjusted to minimise risks to food production from weather changes.
Social enterprises are businesses that deliberately tackle social problems and help communities, deriving their income mostly from trading instead of government funding. When Food Ladder started 10 years ago, they were forerunners in the social enterprise space, says CEO Kelly McJannett, who had previously worked in Indigenous education in remote communities.
Food Ladder’s founding chairman, Alex Shead, wanted to use his business background to generate social change. When they started working together, McJannett says “it was a marriage of experiences and ideas”. Shead had already created social enterprises that provided jobs for the long-term unemployed, including three cafés in Melbourne that employed homeless young people. When he and McJannett discovered they had a shared passion for food security, they thought his business model could be replicated and then used on a global scale in communities tackling malnutrition.
McJannett had seen first-hand the effects of malnutrition in remote and poverty-affected communities, where people don’t have the financial means or access to obtain nutritious produce.
TACKLING THE ISSUE
“It was unacceptable that in a first-world country like Australia, you have the same … food security-related challenges in remote Indigenous communities as you do in some places in India,” McJannett says.
The 2018 Review of Nutrition Among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People found that a large number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people suffer from poor nutrition. Very few meet the dietary recommendations for intake of healthy foods – with 41 per cent of their daily energy intake coming from unhealthy ‘discretionary’ foods and drinks that are high in saturated fat, added sugar, salt and/or alcohol. This is compared to 35 per cent of the energy intake among non-Indigenous Australians.
To address these issues, Food Ladder works with select community groups, providing a growing system and training local people how to use it. Wesley Blacksmith is one such participant. Originally from Lajamanu, Blacksmith started at Food Ladder two years ago doing work for the dole – and he has since been promoted to a supervisory role. “I like doing work,” he says. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else, [I wanted to] stay at Food Ladder.”
He says that working sets a good example for his children. “They like to come and help me down here, putting [in] all them seeds.” He adds that Food Ladder is a good place to learn about growing healthy food – a skill people can take back to other communities.
“I come to Food Ladder, I get more experience,” Blacksmith says, “and I’ll come back [to Lajamanu| and show them how I done it here … I wanted the supervisor job so I can go back there and teach them.”
FOR THE YOUTH
The project also trains young people from Katherine High School. Skott Statt – a school vocational trainer – works with Indigenous students on Pathways programmes. These are alternative education pathways for “children that have not had the opportunity to get to the same level of education as their peers, through whatever circumstances,” Statt says.
Statt adds that, “We try to use methods that incorporate a practical element into the literacy and numeracy of the students. When we’re looking at planting, we get them to read the back of the seed packet and work out what distances they have to put between the plants, how long it’s going to take to get produce and what sort of yield they’re going to get. Pathways is about learning by doing.”
The students visit Food Ladder each week and participate in tasks like setting up the greenhouse, planting out their own gardens and harvesting the produce. This complements what they are learning at school. “It shows them that what we are teaching has real practical application and it’s not just a waste of time,” Statt says. “They can see that real food can be produced, and that it has potential to be a form of employment.” Several students are even interested in working in food production once they graduate.
They also love using the food they’ve gathered from Food Ladder in home economics classes. Statt says that it’s the paddock-to-plate principle, but “in this case, it’s Food Ladder to the kitchen and then their stomach – that’s what they find the most satisfying”.
They can also take home fresh produce and seedlings to start their very own gardens. In the future, it’s hoped that the programme can be expanded to include student gardens at school and Food Ladder, and also to provide students with vocational certification training.
Another Food Ladder project, at Ramingining in Arnhem Land, is creating sustainable Indigenous employment and opportunities for school children to grow their own produce. A nutritionist provides advice on healthy eating, and there has been a notable increase in sales of the fresh produce through local stores.
In India, projects focus on early childhood health, which is inextricably linked to the long-term economic GDP of third-world countries. The systems are set up in schools and on village rooftops, feeding more than 5,000 people and providing employment and education opportunities.
The latest project is based at a rural Ugandan school, and is run by Australian not-for-profit organisation School For Life. Faced with an annual food bill of a staggering $100,000, the school approached Food Ladder to install a system. It now provides 680 students and 120 staff members with three nutritious meals per day.
Additionally, the system provides education opportunities for students and parents, centred around nutrition, agriculture and STEM subjects. School for Life aims to sell any excess produce to local retailers and hotels in the nearby capital, Kampala – with a view to becoming self-sufficient.
THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS
McJannett explains that having strong partnerships is vital to every project’s success, especially during early stages when they are earning a community’s trust. “Having that mutual objective is what gets you through,” she says.
With every project so far being successful, their model seems to be working. They are now partnering with the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney to conduct a seven-year study into the impacts of Food Ladder on community health.
With the issue of food security getting worse, they are concentrating on going global. “There is no reason why any community anywhere in the world shouldn’t have a Food Ladder,” McJannett says. “It’s hard to know where it will end, but we have very high hopes.