Opinion

Food as a Tool for Change in Troubled Times

We sit down with the FoodLab Sydney community to talk about connection, collaboration and how “the simple act of eating together at the same table can be one of the most profound ways to establish common ground while celebrating cultural and culinary diversity”.

Wain il Fatteh — also known as the deconstructed hummus plate; freshly cooked chickpeas, poured over baked bread, our famous tahini yoghurt, and pan fried snobar (pine nuts) garnished with cumin and parsley. Image courtesy of Khamsa Cafe, Newtown

FoodLab Sydney is a growing network of good food entrepreneurs, small business leaders, local government and community organisations working to make the City of Sydney an inclusive, diverse and vibrant place to live and eat. Now in our second year of operations, FoodLab Sydney is running an early-stage entrepreneurship start-up program offering our participants the tools for change – kitchen qualifications, entrepreneurship skills, mentorship opportunities and a myriad of post-program support pathways – to either start their own good food enterprise or be a leader within one.

The FoodLab Sydney team welcomed the new year with the third iteration of our food start-up program and eight new participants, each born in a different country with different culinary backgrounds, experiences and food business ideas to bring to the table. One participant is Blanca Perera, who emigrated from Mexico to Australia with a rich knowledge and love for food cultivated through an intergenerational history of family-operated food businesses. Blanca’s Mexican culinary heritage and passion for food helped her establish a network of social connections with small food businesses and other mothers in her surrounding Sydney neighbourhoods. Organising informal meetups after school at a local park, Blanca would bring plates of Mexican food to share with other mothers and children as they conversed, related, socialised and played, up to four hours at a time.

These informal get-togethers evolved into cooking classes that Blanca would host at her home once a month for other mothers to learn how to cook authentic Mexican cuisine. Beginning at midday, women would convene in Blanca’s kitchen, learn how to prepare a Mexican recipe and then share it together before picking up their children from school. Blanca’s kitchen became the space, and the sharing and teaching of traditional recipes the vehicle, through which women’s knowledge and friendship were cultivated and strengthened. In this way, food and its preparation held accumulated layers of meaning for Blanca as she passed on her traditional recipes to her circle of friends.

“I connect instantly through food,” says Blanca. “It’s a way to express myself, to share and create a community. I cherish the memories and the people that came into my life through those experiences; it helped me to create long-lasting relationships through very challenging times. I found connection and happiness, and I find that quite powerful”.

As Blanca’s story illustrates, food can be a symbolic resource mobilised by migrants to provide social and material support in the processes of adaptation to a new country. The simple act of eating together at the same table can be one of the most profound ways to establish common ground with one another while celebrating cultural and culinary diversity. Diversity is a central pillar of the FoodLab Sydney ethos: by cultivating a culture of collaboration and connectivity, FoodLab Sydney provides pathways to entrepreneurship and employment in food for people of all backgrounds and levels of education to help build a vibrant and diverse local food business ecosystem. Now, Blanca is looking to become part of this ecosystem by developing her small business ideas through the FoodLab Sydney program.

Another fundamental pillar of FoodLab Sydney is the desire to engage with a community of people working to make the city of Sydney a better place to live and eat. Here, FoodLab Sydney connects and collaborates with a growing network of good food entrepreneurs, other businesses and organisations who share our values and who want to support a more vibrant, local food economy in the city.

A key member of this network base is Khamsa, a Middle Eastern plant-based café in Newtown that has been one of FoodLab Sydney’s main caterers for events. Inspired by her Palestinian Jerusalemite heritage, animal activism, and love for community, owner Sarah Issa Shaweesh believes that formative experiences often unfold around the table. When Shaweesh was growing up in Jordan, she was the recipient of communal feasts cooked by her aunt and shaped by women in her family.

“I’ve always been around women cooking and experimenting with food together. The matriarchs in my family ruled the kitchen, and often the kitchen in the Palestinian household rules the home. We’d speak about Middle Eastern politics, family and communal relations, whilst stuffing, frying, sharing and enjoying food”.

These memories are celebrated all over Khamsa, with Sarah’s belief that FoodLab Sydney is an important arm in a flourishing family food network that promotes sustainable culinary ethos grounded in human and non-human forms of social justice.

“For me as a vegan Palestinian, you cannot fight for sovereignty and independence over a group of people’s autonomy and sovereignty without equally speaking out for the systemic mistreatment of the non-human world. FoodLab Sydney is a fresh reminder that there is a network of food activists, entrepreneurs and aspiring foodies from all walks of life who share the same ethos as Khamsa willing to question our broken food system.”

“For me as a vegan Palestinian, you cannot fight for sovereignty and independence over a group of people’s autonomy and sovereignty without equally speaking out for the systemic mistreatment of the non-human world.

FoodLab Sydney is a fresh reminder that there is a network of food activists, entrepreneurs and aspiring foodies from all walks of life who share the same ethos as Khamsa willing to question our broken food system.”

— Sarah Issa Shaweesh, Khamsa Cafe Newtown

FoodLab Sydney’s second year also boasts a wanted welcome of new program initiatives that support graduated entrepreneurs, including mentoring, as part of the organisation’s next phase of growth.

The mentoring program enables graduands to access a growing community of entrepreneurs and specialist experts who ‘live and breathe food’, and can provide practical expertise to help improve operations, scale or marketing strategies. Program Facilitator Jamie Loveday and Program Officer Catriona Macmillan are currently meeting with last year’s cohorts to better understand their needs to guage which mentor might be suited to their unique goals. In Jamie’s words, “having a support system around you is fundamental to climbing that mountain in the early stages of start-up growth. You need trusted guides that can help take off your blindfold, keep your ego in check and act as a sounding board for developing innovative ideas”.

FoodLab Sydney is also undergoing an innovative educational reform as the team develop a suite of new online resources for its entrepreneurs to feel as supported as possible. Gateway is one of them: an online interactive map of the growing good food network in Sydney, helping participants find partners, suppliers or even to get their bearings in the sector. The team are also developing a series of mini-documentary ‘case studies’ taught throughout the program with local organisations, as well as transferring its curriculum into online video learning modules. Participants and alumni can continue to learn outside the classroom and hone their skills on critical topics like ‘using PR to attract attention to your business’ or ‘how to recruit the right staff for your business’.

 

A note from the editor: During these uncertain times, never has the power of community been so important. Over the past week, Sarah and Khamsa Cafe have been offering free meals to people in the Inner West who have found themselves unemployed, going absolutely above and beyond in a time of crisis to look after their community. Please consider supporting Khamsa if you are in the position to do so by ordering something to take away

As 2020 unfolds, FoodLab Sydney will continue to evolve to become even more creative in delivering its program and providing support to its participants, alumni and network of good food businesses. To find out more about FoodLab Sydney, visit our website.


Eva Perroni is a doctoral student at FoodLab Sydney, an interdisciplinary project supported by University of Sydney’s Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) and UNSW Canberra, in partnership with the City of Sydney, and TAFE NSW addressing local food insecurity through participatory social enterprise. Her research will assess opportunities and processes in building a participatory culture to effectively address food insecurity and social exclusion within local communities in Sydney.

Omar Elkharouf is a PhD student with the Department of Government and International Relations and an SEI Research Assistant for Foodlab Sydney. Omar holds a Bachelor degree in Arts/Sciences with Honours in Human Geography from the University of Sydney. Omar gained field-based experience through several merit-based scholarship programs across the Asia-Pacific region, including Indonesia, China and Singapore. Omar was awarded First Class Honours for his research that investigated the ways that civil society actors based in Myanmar conceive, describe and address the food problems in their rural agrarian communities.