Food Ladder showcased in Pro Bono Australia’s monthly Spotlight on social enterprise

By Maggie Coggan

Fresh produce is hard to come by in the most remote parts of the country, and it’s causing serious health problems for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It’s why Food Ladder is working alongside communities to grow their own fruit and veg, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise. 

The dusty, hot and dry weather conditions of remote Northern Territory communities such as Tennant Creek, Katherine, and Ramingining, are not what most would consider ideal for growing food.   

But Food Ladder’s programs, run out of greenhouses specially designed to withstand challenging weather conditions, are helping remote communities take back control of the food they put in their mouths, creating sustainable job opportunities, and shifting attitudes around healthy eating. 

Hydroponic systems (a way of growing plants with minimal water) and renewable technologies are used to grow a mix of native bush foods, such as rosella and saltbush, and western plants such as tomatoes, basil, and cucumbers. 

Kelly McJannett, Food Ladder’s CEO, explains the technology used in their greenhouses has been set up to be as sustainable and culturally appropriate as possible. 

“We have solar panels that run the fans inside the greenhouses, and we use a hydroponic system because it’s really conservative on water,” McJannett tells Pro Bono News.  

“Another important consideration in our tech is that communities often need to leave for various cultural events. So we needed to make sure that when they come back their system is still operating and the food is still growing.”

At full capacity, a Food Ladder system is five times more productive than traditional farming systems, and is able to supplement the diets of 250 people.

This is important considering how hard it is to get fresh produce into the most remote parts of Australia. Food trucks might make it to a community once a fortnight or even once a month depending on how remote a community is, and when they do arrive, the food costs far more than processed and unhealthy alternatives.  

And poor diets are causing major health problems, with Indigenous Australians living in remote areas much more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic kidney problems. 

It’s the community in control 

Food Ladder is a not-for-profit organisation working with local communities to help them create their own social enterprises, also called a Food Ladder.   

The head office doesn’t run any of the social enterprises or make a profit from them. Instead, the communities have total control over each project, which is an important facet of the organisation. 

“Any community that we’ve worked in has approached us and has initiated the program because they’ve been wanting to do something about food security,” McJannett says. 

“We sit down and begin a consultation to understand the unique situation in that community and how it would work best.” 

Funding for the Food Ladder head office comes from a number of long-term philanthropic partners, while each social enterprise is financially supported by selling its produce on to local shops, restaurants, school canteens, on-site markets, food boxes, and health stores. 

The enterprises also receive money from the government to fund specific education and TAFE training programs.    

Each program is tailored around the needs of the community. In Ramingining for instance, there is a focus on job creation and healthy food production, and in Tennant Creek, it’s education programs for school-aged kids and growing food native to the region. 

Results from the other Food Ladder programs are also positive, with nutritionists in Ramingining recording a 5 per cent increase in fruit and veg consumption in the first six months of the program.  

“Our role is to facilitate that process, work with the community, make sure they have everything they need in terms of resources and knowledge so that they are able to go from breaking ground to having a successful social enterprise,” McJannett says.  

Since establishing the first project in Katherine, Food Ladder has expanded nationally and internationally. 

In late 2019, a Food Ladder was launched in partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency to provide nutritional food and job-ready skills to Aboriginal Victorians. There are also systems in India and Bhutan, run by local communities to address issues of severe food and economic poverty.     

McJannett says they have been able to maintain impact with growth because of the organisation’s hands off approach. 

“We basically make ourselves redundant over a three-year period from the inception of each project, because we want each community to have the confidence and the knowledge to be independent,” she says. 

“And it then becomes our legacy rather than our responsibility.”

More than just the veggies

To date, more than 600 jobs have been created, and horticulture and STEM training opportunities are offered to school students across all of the programs. 

McJannett says that by focusing on education, employment and health outcomes, long-lasting, behavioural change is easier to achieve. 

“Whether it is the kids coming through to do STEM lessons with their teachers, adults that have received a Cert One or Two in horticulture or found employment through the program, right through to being able to purchase the product these people have had a role in growing,” she says. 

McJannett says the programs are also developing and growing all the time, like in Katherine where kids taking part in horticulture programs are taking seedlings home to start their own garden. 

“It means they are taking that knowledge back and wanting to share that with the rest of their family and become the advocate for healthy eating, which is really powerful,” she says. 

A model for all remote communities

As the world grapples with the burgeoning effects of population growth, climate change, and the aftershock of a global pandemic, food security in vulnerable communities is only going to get worse. 

In an ideal world, McJannett would like to see every remote community in Australia that has issues with food security equipped with the knowledge, skills and resources to meet their food needs. 

And it’s a dream she says might not be too far away. 

“We are already under way with a strategic move to significantly increase our scale which will allow us to basically work with any remote community in Australia that needs us,” she says. 

Read the full story here.