320 kilometres southeast of Darwin, is the regional town of Katherine. For a long time, the town has relied on produce being freighted from the southern states at a high fee and at a cost to quality, something which has only be exasperated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Katherine is also seen as a town centre for residents of remote Northern Territory communities stretching from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Western Australia border, meaning the ramifications of expensive and poor-quality produce runs wide.
It was for this reason that Food Ladder chose Katherine as its first site. In 2016, in association with Katherine Indigenous Women’s Association and Katherine Town Council, Food Ladder established a site in the centre of town. Today, it is home to a hydroponic greenhouse (33m x 10.5m), a seedling greenhouse and a thriving community garden on a 4000 sq/m site. As a healthy hub of community engagement, local residents grow fresh produce and undertake training and education programs.
In partnership with job service provider RISE Ventures, Community Development Program (CDP) participants attend Food Ladder four days a week and undertake meaningful work, including planting and harvesting produce, garden and greenhouse maintenance and general operations around the site. They also get to take the produce home, to be shared with their family. There is an average of 10 – 15 participants a day, making it the most sought- after RISE activity in Katherine. Over 100 people participate in CDP activities at Food Ladder each year.
Engagement in education activities and programs is an important aspect of the Katherine Food Ladder. Since the project’s inception in 2016, Food Ladder has engaged with the six primary schools and three secondary schools in Katherine, as well as schools from surrounding communities.
- Customised programs delivered to Katherine High School’s Pathways Program and Kintore Street School.
- Up to 20 middle school students from St Joseph’s Catholic College visit Food Ladder once a fortnight, for a sustainability education program.
- In partnership with the NT Farmers Association, Food Ladder has developed a customised introduction to hydroponics education program, which will be delivered to 300 upper primary school students in both Katherine and Tennant Creek over the next two years.
- Commencing in Semester 1, 2021, Food Ladder will be contracted by the NT Education Department to deliver the nationally accredited qualification, Certificate 1 in AgriFood Operations (AHC10216), for students from Katherine High School.
- Since establishment, over 500 students in the Katherine region have been engaged in activities at the Food Ladder project
There is also great interest in Food Ladder from tertiary education institutions, with the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences visiting as part of their annual immersion program for students undertaking units in Indigenous Land Use and Management. Food Ladder is also engaged with the University of Western Sydney, where students are undertaking trial based research on Indigenous bush foods suitable for greenhouse hydroponic production.
Many members of the Katherine community are regular visitors to the Food Ladder site, whether it be to attend the produce markets, take part in nutrition and cooking workshops, attend industry forums, or just drop in to have a look and discuss the project. Since 2018, over 350 people have attended the Food Ladder site for community-based activities.
The produce grown at the Katherine Food Ladder is helping to meet both local and interstate demand for fresh produce and Indigenous bush foods. Local residents are able to purchase produce directly from the site via produce boxes, and there is also a foraging wall surrounding the Food Ladder project allowing passers-by to pick a piece of fruit and enjoy a nutritional snack.
Food Ladder supports local charity organisations with the donation of fresh produce that helps support the most vulnerable people within the community. Organisations such as Salvation Army, Australian Red Cross, Sisters of Mother Teresa, Save the Children, and the local Stolen Generation group have all been able to donate Food Ladder produce to those in need. Food Ladder was also able to support Australian Red Cross with produce at Katherine’s cyclone emergency evacuation centres, when surrounding communities were evacuated.
Produce is sold to local businesses and cafes in Katherine and neighbouring communities, including The Finch Cafe, Pop Rocket Cafe, Black Russian Cafe, Burunga Community Store, and Marksies Stockmans Camp Tucker Night.
Native food and medicine products are grown and distributed locally and interstate. Since the beginning of 2019, over 30kg of dried native
foods have been sold to food suppliers and manufacturers. Medicine plants grown on site are accessed by local people and health groups including Wurli-Wurlinjang Aboriginal Health Service, Banatjarl Strongbala Wimun Grup and Sunrise Health Service.
The greenhouse is able to produce a consistent amount of fresh vegetables. An average weekly harvest includes: 1kg dried native herbs, 100 heads of bok choy, 2kg of mixed salad leaf, and at least 15kg of tomatoes. This is supplemented by a large range of other annual and perennial produce grown in the gardens surrounding the greenhouse.
Seedlings of food plants are also grown as part of the Food Ladder project, to be distributed to families and communities for planting in home gardens. This was particularly important during COVID-19 restrictions in the Northern Territory, when many people in outlying communities were unable to travel to access fresh produce.
Food Ladder has partnered with food relief charity Foodbank NT to act as the Katherine hub for the distribution of food relief to local charity and aid organisations. Monthly deliveries are expected to increase to fortnightly in the coming year, with the long term goal to have a Foodbank store located on site.
Food Ladder also partners with other not-for- profits in the development of community projects including the establishment of purpose- built garden plots on the Food Ladder site. These plots are a safe space for vulnerable people to meet and learn about the benefits of growing fresh produce, whilst also getting to take it home to eat. Food Ladder is also working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to develop bush food and medicine gardens to be used as a educational resource for Elders, as well as develop social enterprise around cultural tourism and bush medicine products.