Where does your food come from? Will it always be there?

By Dr Catriona Nguyen-Robertson MRSV

This article revisits a presentation to the Royal Society of Victoria on 23rd of September 2021 titled “Foodprint Melbourne: building the resilience of Melbourne’s food system”, delivered by Dr Rachel Carey (The University of Melbourne).1

Have you noticed that food prices have gone up? Food supply chains are being affected by a combination of local and global shocks, which are contributing to rising food prices.

We have had many wake-up calls in recent times. Bushfires, floods, war, and the COVID-19 pandemic all exposed the cracks in our food supply systems. More Australians have experienced food insecurity in the past few years than ever. Crops, livestock, and produce were lost – or simply could not get to us. Dr Rachel Carey wants to make our food supply chains much more resilient to future shocks and stresses.

We tend to think of Australian cities as food secure. Across the nation, we produce enough food to support 60,000,000 people – more than double the population (albeit a large portion is exported). But during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw supermarket shelves barely stocked, farmers leaving their produce rotting in fields or dumped, and students queuing for food vouchers and parcels.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted food supply chains in several ways. It shut down major cities, and state and international borders, caused labour shortages on farms and processing centres, increased waste of farm produce with the shutdown of the hospitality sector, and created surges of consumer demand.

Rachel leads the Foodprint Melbourne project,2 which investigates the resilience of Melbourne’s food system. The pandemic exacerbated weaknesses that were already there due to a changing climate: more frequent and severe fire, drought, and floods. She now wants to leverage lessons learned over the past few years to transform our food systems.

All Australian state capitals have city foodbowls – city-fringe farmland – that are a vital source of fresh food. But as our cities rapidly grow, their food bowls are under threat as farmland is cleared to make room for more houses. Urban sprawl encroaching into the fields that supply our food will mean that we might struggle to feed the growing population. Melbourne’s dwindling foodbowl currently grows enough food to meet around 41% of the Greater Melbourne population’s overall food needs – but how do we get that 60% more?

Urban farming is one solution. There are many green spaces in the city, including parks, median strips, golf courses, and rooftops, that we could be utilising to grow edible produce. CERES, a non-for-profit community-run environment park and farm, saw a high demand for its food boxes as lockdowns forced people to shop more locally than ever before. On a 250 m2 patch in the inner city, urban farmers grew a multitude of fruit and vegetables for nearby residents.

On the banks of the Merri Creek in Brunswick, Victoria, CERES is a great example of how we can use our green spaces for urban farming. Photograph: CERES

Rachel advocates for cities to increase their urban farming capacity as an “insurance policy” in the event of natural disasters or pandemics. Local food production, while not sufficient to be our only food source, can be a buffer against future shocks that disrupt supply chains to fill the gaps.

We can also rethink how we deal with waste to create circular economies. Cities have access to waste streams that can be reused within the system. Food waste, for example, could be converted into compost so that nutrients in organic waste are returned to the soil. City wastewater can provide a relatively secure source of water for food production in a drying climate.

There is also a financial benefit to the closed loop: keeping money circulating within our own economy when we purchase food from local farmers and suppliers and give resources back to them.

We similarly need greater diversity within the system. In addition to a variation of scale – from urban plots and small community gardens to large enterprises – we also need geographic diversity in the locations of our food source in the case of rerouting like with bushfires. Farmers should also vary their types of crops and livestock so that there is also a backup if one is impacted.

If your pantry and fridge stocks remained unscathed during the COVID-19 pandemic, then perhaps you are among the more fortunate. One of the biggest victims of supply shocks is not the food quantity, but the equity of food distribution. A combination of local and global shocks, and additional pressures of the cost-of-living crisis, can lead to spikes in food prices. When this happens, people on low incomes and those already food insecure are most affected, and households with children are being hit harder than others.3 Only 55% of Australian households had high food security in the last 12 months (i.e. they had no anxiety about sourcing adequate food), while over 2 million households (21%) sometimes had to skip meals or go days without eating because they did not have money to buy food.3

Importantly, an increasing number of people are unable to afford enough nutritious food – it is not merely about sourcing something to eat, we need adequate nutrition too. As it is, fewer than 7% of Australian adults eat the recommended number of fruit and vegetable servings daily.4 If everyone did, we would not have enough to go around. Foodprint Melbourne therefore aims to increase equitable access to fresh, healthy foods and promote sustainable production for current and future generations of Australians.

Based at the University of Melbourne’s School of Agriculture, Food and Ecosystem Sciences, Rachel’s team works with a range of stakeholders to ensure that their research has great impact. The team is planning interventions and collaborating with local councils and management bodies to enact cross-sector and collaborative approaches to food policy.

An equitable, food secure future is possible. By strengthening local and regional food supply chains, maintaining city-fringe farming lands and developing urban farming approaches, creating circular food economies to minimise waste, and adopting greater flexibility, we can build a resilient system. Rachel is paving the way forward now to ensure access to food for generations to come.

You can watch Dr Rachel Carey’s 2021 presentation for free on Youtube at youtu.be/pxaGhEL0Eow


    1. Foodprint Melbourne: Building the Resilience of Melbourne’s Food System (Full). (2021). The Royal Society of Victoria. Retrieved September, 2023, from youtu.be/pxaGhEL0Eow
    2. Nicholls, N. (2023, August 24). Foodprint Melbourne – planning a resilient city food system. Foodprint Melbourne. science.unimelb.edu.au/foodprint-melbourne
    3. Foodbank Australia. (2022). Foodbank Hunger Report 2022. reports.foodbank.org.au/foodbank-hunger-report-2022/
    4. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2023, May 19) Data tables: Diet. aihw.gov.au/reports/food-nutrition/diet