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Kale as old as time

CRATES OF SUPER-RIPE tomatoes are stacked high, softening in the sunshine. The red fruits are passed through timeworn contraptions, a crew of hands circling their levers over and over to crush them into a juicy pulp. It’s funnelled into tall glass bottles, and sealed firmly. Another group flattens out rounds of sunny pasta dough with rolling pins, splicing the sheets into strips of tagliatelle on a flour-dusted wooden table. It sounds like a gathering of elderly nonnas prepping Sunday lunch in countryside Tuscany, but we’re in a backyard in inner-city Sydney, where Youth Food Movement Australia is hosting a workshop for a group of forty or so twentysomethings on the art of making traditional Italian passata. The produce at the ‘Passata Day’ event is peak-season – so close to bursting, most vendors would have deemed it ready for the tip – and ideal for transforming into the simple preserved tomato purée.

Youth Food Movement Australia was co-founded five years ago by Joanna Baker and Alexandra Iljadica, who at the time were studying undergraduate nutrition at the University of Wollongong. Iljadica had increasingly come to believe that the problems being faced within and as a result of the food system couldn’t be answered with dietetics alone – the global, modern food landscape presents the paradoxes of widespread obesity and malnutrition, and of extensive food oversupply and waste alongside hunger.

‘[These issues] were not going to be addressed by understanding the chemistry of my body… I wanted to understand why supermarkets were deciding to pay farmers pithy rates, why we had bananas out of season that were expensive, but we were still producing way too much food,’ she says. ‘All the things I didn’t understand about food, I didn’t want to learn on my own. I wanted someone to teach me and I wanted to learn with a friend.’

YFM started out as an informal, twenty-strong gathering of like-minded youngsters, all friends of friends with a curiosity about food beyond taste alone. ‘There was a resounding [sense of], “We’re not being heard, our views and ideas don’t have a place to live, we’re young and we know that politicians aren’t going to listen to us, so let’s make some noise but have fun along the way”,’ says Iljadica. YFM has now spread to four states, with eight different chapters responding to local food issues by designing relevant programs and activities. Whether it’s visiting an urban rooftop beehive, foraging for wild mushrooms in the forest or meeting a broccoli farmer in a pub, there’s one thing their events all focus on – building food literacy.

According to research carried out by NewsLifeMedia in 2011, almost half of all Australians consider themselves ‘foodies’ – and in 2015, the group discovered that people were increasingly turning to online videos to learn new food skills. YFM tends to attract those from Gen Y and Gen Z – arguably the most digitally savvy groups around – to its events and as volunteers. But there are some things that simply can’t be learnt on YouTube.

‘I know your behaviour is going to change if you meet a farmer face to face and you touch his potatoes, rather than if I show you a photo of it. The impact of experience is so much greater,’ says Iljadica. Workshops like their Passata Day, which aim to pass on almost-lost preservation skills and highlight the seasonality of produce, offer the chance for young people to step away from their screens and connect in real life. Plus, you get to eat your rewards at the end of the day; those tomato-juicing punters each walked home with a bottle of homemade sauce and a belly full of freshly prepped pasta.

This slow-paced scene is a departure from the typical portrayal of millennials: a flighty bunch with a penchant for drone delivery, smartphone apps for every service imaginable and cold-pressed juice bars. This being said, recent surveys conducted by consumer brands into the culinary habits of this group in Australia reveal a much more complex picture. Gen Y is at once to blame for billions of dollars of food waste, and frequents restaurants and cafés the most out of all age groups, across all mealtimes. Yet they are also the most likely group to spend big on gourmet – and therefore, perhaps, high-quality – ingredients, and also show a keen interest in home cooking. They are digital natives who are highly influenced by their peers and the media, and while that means the latest cronut/pop-up burger bar/plant-based milk craze spreads fast, it’s also led to a small but impassioned crop of millennials emerging who want to be more engaged with the passage of what ends up on their plate.

 

‘FIVE YEARS AGO, hardly anyone even talked about bloody green drinks,’ says farmer Matt Purbrick, who runs the Grown & Gathered project with his wife, Lentil, in Victoria. Back in the pre-paleo era, they were leaving Melbourne to set up their farm on six acres of his family’s winery property in Tahbilk, about an hour and a half from the city. They’d both grown up in rural areas and were returning to the country to pursue ‘ecological farming’ – a style that isn’t organic agriculture per se, but ‘puts the health of the ecology of the environment first,’ as Purbrick explains. At the time, the median age of Australian farmers was fifty-three and Purbrick’s farming ideas were seen by many as experimental. Now, he says, ‘all these things about health and wellbeing and sustainability are totally popular and understood by the masses’.

That rise of awareness about those topics, especially in relation to food and agriculture, has been helped in part by the broadcasting power of social media. Purbrick opened an Instagram account when starting out, as a platform for sharing their idyllic way of life and environment-centric practices. ‘We wanted to bring that voice to people and provide a bit of clarity around a lot of those ideas.’ Five years later, some fifty thousand followers are privy to their posts on the visual platform. Their knack for capturing beautiful images is surely part of the reason for amassing such a hefty fan club, but the authenticity of the project is palpable: there are snaps of sourdough bread made from scratch; kitchen shelves packed with homemade pickles; thriving, verdant growing beds. These are scenes that can’t come together without a good deal of hard work.

After garnering an audience, a deal to publish their ideas in print resulted in Grown & Gathered: Traditional Living Made Modern (Pan Macmillan, 2016). ‘We literally put everything into that book,’ Purbrick says. ‘The whole point was to document everything we’ve learnt, everything we know, to save people a lot of the mistakes we’ve made. There’s so many people trying to make this move and it’s a scary thing.’ And indeed, an increasing number of young people appear to be aspiring towards Purbrick’s choice of career: while agriculture degrees have been out of favour for some time, Australian universities have seen a spike in enrolments in the last couple of years.

When it came to their own farming practices, Purbrick looked to the past for knowledge: ‘A lot of the stuff we’ve developed ourselves, just using intuition, and taking old ideas, researching some of the super traditional ways things were done in China, Japan and Korea.’ A key element of their farm is its closed-loop system: any organic waste is turned into homemade compost, effectively feeding the land again with its own nutrients. They even collect produce scraps from their city customers who’ve bought fruit and vegetables from them, which are then added to the compost. Few off-farm inputs are needed.

Their techniques may have ancient roots, yet their sources were gathered online. ‘The internet these days – you just find what you can and order those books,’ Purbrick says. But speaking with neighbours who shared similar ideals was another important means of insight: ‘I picked up contacts locally of old gardeners who were growing organically, had been doing it for years and years, and they just took me under their wing and started teaching me things.’

Though Purbrick was keen to tap into that time-worn knowledge, Alexandra Iljadica points out that millennials are set to inherit much more than that: ‘We are going to be the ones who will have to feed everyone, and then pay for the mess that generations before us have created.’

The modern Australian food system was significantly transformed over the course of the twentieth century: Coles and Woolworths moved into food retailing in 1958, spurring the growth of supermarket shopping, and fertiliser use in agriculture increased steadily from the 1950s. More recently, the 2005 Productivity Commission research paper ‘Trends in Australian Agriculture’ stated that ‘the last twenty years have also seen a shift towards more intensive farming’ in Australia, reflecting ‘the adoption of more intensive production techniques (increased use of feed, chemicals and irrigation)’.

That said, Purbrick notes that sustainable farming has gained traction in recent years. ‘It’s because of a hell of a lot of people who are leading this shift in agriculture, which is really a shift backwards,’ he says. Indeed, according to an industry report commissioned by Biological Farmers of Australia, in 2012 Australia had the largest surface area of certified organic land in the world, yet the industry still only contributed around 1.2 per cent to the total value of agriculture. Meanwhile, the 2015 consumer survey Australia’s Kitchen Revolution, conducted by Mitsubishi Electric, showed 22 per cent of gen Ys interviewed believe that ‘buying organic is “extremely” or “very important”’.

However, Purbrick explains that while today’s urban consumers may have ideas about how they would like food to be produced, in practice the transition from conventional to other forms of agriculture is a difficult task. ‘Because so many successful examples [of sustainable farming] are from so long ago, we’ve just lost that connection... A lot of farmers these days, whether they’re young or old, don’t know any other way, except for using chemical fertilisers and pest control.’

 

REBECCA SULLIVAN LOST her great-grandmother in 2008, who was a hundred years old at the time. ‘Turns out she was this award-winning baker. I was really heartbroken that I didn’t get to learn to cook directly from her… I’d never bothered to ask her,’ Sullivan says. That was the start of Granny Skills, a program she piloted from 2012 to 2014 in primary and high schools across Victoria and South Australia. Five older women visited classes throughout a term, teaching students to pickle vegetables and make jams from scratch, as well as helping them to enter their conserves into an agricultural show and taking them for lunch at local aged-care facilities. ‘That taught [the students] about community, seasonality and agriculture,’ says Sullivan. ‘We trialled this to see if it was just this warm fuzzy idea of granny skills, or whether it was a real thing… It was ah-mazing.’

Sullivan explains the decline of these kinds of skills is linked to the fact that home economics isn’t being offered as a subject in schools these days, and because elderly family members no longer live with their family during old age. ‘They get put in a nursing home, and so there’s no elder figure that would normally have taken on that role and responsibility in the home,’ she says. According to the 2011 census, only around 8 per cent of Australians aged sixty-five and over lived with relatives. Sullivan says those trends were compounded by the Industrial Revolution: ‘Things became modern – microwaves and canned food and all that sort of stuff. Convenience food took over and we stopped cooking as much from scratch. Technology won and it’s progressively gotten worse.’

Granny Skills now offers once-off workshops that focus on passing on those preservation skills – bottling up the likes of cinnamon-spiced pickled cherries and garlicky lacto-fermented green beans. Sullivan says that millennials are ‘the ones who take the action, who seem to be most heavily involved in grassroots movements, who will volunteer and pay for the workshops… I think they’re more politically involved in it.’

Sullivan attributes the traction of her program to the exposure offered via digital platforms. ‘There’s no way I would’ve had the capacity to do that without social media – no way. It’d still probably be an idea with ten people sat around a kitchen table.’ Those novel networks may have meant more eyes on Granny Skills, but it seems the universality of the connection with senior family members – and the feeling of losing of their food knowledge – is the fundamental drawcard. ‘People in the audience [at my workshops] start crying because they’ve had the same moments where they haven’t kept that scribbled down recipe or they didn’t ask those questions.’

If wisdom grows with age, will young folk like Iljadica, Purbrick and Sullivan be ready to tackle these complex food issues spanning industry, agriculture and health? Iljadica, having just launched a youth leadership training program for food-loving pupils at YFM, thinks so. ‘I want to share [the] value that is conscious millennial thinking,’ she says. ‘I don’t believe we need formal training and years of expertise to have a voice. Our experience of the food systems, the problems as we see them and the solutions we want to try are as valid as someone who has been around the block for years.’

 

References

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From Griffith Review Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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