To a lot of people, the word 'sustainability' sounds like effort; it's an idea that freaks people out. I don't like to use the term much as I think it's been watered down by too many people but the idea is still relevant and worth participating in, perhaps even more so.
For a long time there's been a stigma attached to 'being green'; it's an image that's been hard to shake. But Cassie Duncan of Sustainable Table has actually done it. Along with business buddy Maria, she has managed to get the word of environmentalism out in a way that relates to everyone. And boy is it catching on!
This week I had the opportunity to chat with Cassie about their mission, environmentalism's image problem and bringing sexy back (to caring). Woo woo!
Can you tell me about you and your history with food?
I didn’t grow up in a particularly ‘eco’ family, Mum ate out of necessity and was all too happy to confess to being an average cook. Money was often tight, so we shopped at our local market just before they closed on a Saturday to scoop up the bargains. By nature of this we ended up eating seasonally and I was also exposed to the vibrant culture, smells and tastes of what a market has to offer (as opposed to the supermarket). This set me up well.
At what point did you see a need to address the problem of food sustainability?
I had always considered myself a bit of a greenie. I rode my bike everywhere, kept lighting to a minimum, had super short showers and loved to get out and about in nature. But it wasn’t until my mid twenties that I connected what I put in my mouth with the impact I was having on the planet. I started Sustainable Table (formerly Yaubula) with a school friend Hayley and we initially set out to educate people on climate change issues. This generalist approach was failing to gain the traction we had hoped, then one day we hosted a session on food. The whole mood in the room changed and we realised that if we could utilise people’s passion for food to have a broader conversation around sustainability, then this would be a powerful thing. Hello Sustainable Table!
Why do you think there has been a stigma attached to environmentalism?
I think there is a general misunderstanding that to be an environmentalist you have to be anti-capitalism or anti-corporation, when in actual fact caring for the environment and ensuring resources for generations to come makes good business sense. There’s also a fear, like anything, that if you’re not perfect all of the time, then you don’t belong or cannot give yourself the title of being a greenie.
There are so many schools of thought about whether we can or can’t eat meat and dairy and be sustainable, whether driving a car, even a little bit of the time is hypocritical; or if you indulge in the the odd luxury clothing item or accidentally accept a plastic bag then you’re ruled out from ever flying the flag of environmentalism. We’re all a little scared of being shot down, or at least I am at times.
We have to stop giving each other such a hard time and start celebrating the small wins, the changes in our daily lives that add up to a lot, like saying no to a disposable coffee cup, or having meat-free days.
Tell me a bit about the Give a Fork! campaign and what you’re trying to achieve?
Give a Fork! is Sustainable Table’s way of encouraging small changes amongst a large group of people, which we hope will amount to a significant environmental benefit. It’s also our major annual fundraiser to enable us to continue our important food education and awareness work (we receive no government funding).
We coined the term #grexy (sexy greenie) to spark an online conversation and to show people that associating with environmental causes isn’t all doom and gloom, it can be empowering and fun whilst totally elevating your look!
We believe that the hospitality sector is crucial to shaping a healthy food culture here in Australia and can set the standard for how we should be eating at home. Due to their buying power, it is also an industry that has incredible power to shape how our food is grown and raised as well as minimise how much good food is wasted. We’re thrilled to be partnering with venues all over the country to develop a Give a Fork! specials dish that adheres to our 4 Food Rules, with a donation from each dish supporting Sustainable Table. We hope that it’s the start of something big.
It definitely is! Tell me more about the #grexy challenge and how people can participate?
The 30 Days to Grexy challenges are designed for beginners, right through to the fully-fledged environmentalist. It’s about committing to something for the month in the hope that the idea sticks and people start to build the simple action into their daily lives. We send daily emails to support people along the way, as well as provide eBooks and other educational and useful content.
People can engage in the campaign by ordering the Give a Fork! Special at a participating restaurant or by taking on one of three 30 Days to Grexy challenges.
There’s #Grexy Teaser, which is committing to carrying your own drink bottle, ordering your coffee in a reusable cup and saying no to straws.
Halfway to #Grexy is going meat free from Monday-Friday.
Drop Dead #Grexy is a crash-course in sustainable eating and waste reduction. Participants must try to contain their landfill waste to just one container for the month of April.
What remain some of the biggest challenges we have in our food system?
1. The way we farm animals for cheap meat
There are over 500 million animals housed in factory farms each year in Australia alone. We’re chomping through over 100kg of meat per person and it’s wreaking havoc on the environment and causing immeasurable suffering. This is all happening behind closed doors, which makes it easier to switch off from, but if we’re going to eat meat, we need to support genuine free range farmers who look at the whole farm ecology. We need to reduce how much we’re eating and be prepared to pay a little more for it when we do. The same goes for seafood.
2. Lack of transparency
Our food system is now largely owned by a few global players who don’t seem to have society’s best interests at heart. Food needs to be affordable but it also needs to keep us healthy and out of hospital. We’re no longer invited into corporate farms to see the farming practices for ourselves, food labels are confusing, products have ingredients lists full of words that are foreign to us, it can sometimes be hard work just to find out if the produce has been grown locally. That’s why I find it far more enjoyable to shop at a farmers’ market, where I can have conversations and chat to the people who grew my food.
3. Education and equality
We often look romantically at French and Italian culture, where such pride is taken in what each region has to offer. We have that same regionality here in Australia, however, it’s not celebrated in the same way. We need to get back to basics, get to know our food producers, understand the seasons, and accept that things may not be available all of the time. We need to grow a little of our own so we can appreciate just how much time and energy goes into food production. We need to learn to eat mainly wholefoods and avoid the processed stuff that lines the supermarket aisles, and we need to equip everyone with the skills to eat in this way. We must support people from low socio-economic backgrounds to have access to good food. We need to sit down to dinner as a family and reconnect over nourishing, wholesome food. When we feel connected, we begin to care and we begin to support the people and the system that supports us to live well.
How do you think Australia's food attitudes have changed and where do you see it going?
There is definitely a growing awareness of the issues amongst segments of the population, just look at the rise in popularity of farmers’ markets over the past decade. There is also a far bigger conversation happening about food waste and food-related diseases that are on the rise such as obesity and heart disease. Where I think there might still be a rather large gap is in how we’d like to purchase food and how we end up purchasing it. People get busy and resort to take-away or highly packaged food rather than making their weekly shop a priority. We spend proportionally less on food than previous generations, yet the food we buy isn’t as nutritious. We need to focus the conversation on fresh seasonal food whilst enabling the people who grow our food to have a decent livelihood out of doing so. Let’s make farmers the new rock’n’roll!
Sign up period for the #grexy challenge ends midnight Friday 15th April