Changing the Culture of Food: The Open Food Network

By Sally Stead

Australia’s food retailing sector is one of the most concentrated and centralised systems in the world, with eighty percent of food retailing taking place within the fluorescent-lit chambers of Coles and Woolworths. Many of us have watched on anxiously as their power has continued to grow unobstructed, with inevitable consequences. The increasing prevalence of big-name brands in supermarkets has pushed smaller, independent food manufacturers off the shelves and out of the market. Farmers are also wrestling with the big two for fair prices, but under the duopoly regime they have little choice but to accept what’s offered to them. Brian Wilson, a cattle farmer from Queensland reveals that many farmers dealing with the supermarkets are forced to sell their products at a loss. There seems to be no end in sight for the power grab with the big two moving into the petrol, insurance and health sectors.

Deeply concerned about this concentration of power within our food system and its impacts on farmers and eaters like you and me, Kirsten Larson and Serenity Hill decided something needed to be done. After much careful research and strategic networking, the Victoria-based pair created a revolutionary piece of software which will provide producers and consumers a way to bypass the supermarkets altogether: the Open Food Network.

The Open Food Network is an online platform where farmers can sell their produce to consumers, either directly or through local food distribution enterprises such as community hubs and independent retailers. Co-founder Serenity Hill summarises their mission as “supporting a distributed system that can scale – to help people/independent businesses doing great stuff producing and distributing food to find each other, connect, and collaborate to make a bigger collective impact”.  The website connects farmers with local distributors and customers, and streamlines the administrative aspects of tracking inventory and managing orders. Without this software the administrative barriers to both farmers and distribution hubs can be crippling to any local food enterprise.

Shorter, localised supply chains mean more of the food dollars reach the farmers and stay in local economies, rather than ending up in the hands of big business. This means justice for farmers and more local jobs. Eaters also stand to benefit – from greater accessibility and affordability of local produce. For a long time the public has been encouraged by supermarkets to spend more and more of their food budget on packaged and processed food, but this stuff is making us sick. In time, with the aid of the Open Food Network as a tool, communities will be able to establish independent supply agreements with local farmers, making fresh, local food available to everyone, not just inner-city types.

One of the Open Food Network’s core values is to be open-source and entirely not-for-profit. This allows communities all over the world to access the Open Food Network software, adjust it for their needs, and use it to aid their own efforts, whether they be in inner London or rural India. While the open-source and not-for-profit character of the Open Food Network is great news for farmers and communities globally, unsurprisingly it doesn’t make the project particularly appealing to venture capitalists!

To raise the funds which are required to complete software development and take the website public, a crowd-funding effort has been launched. To date over $13,000 has been raised towards a $25,000 tipping-point goal. The Open Food Network team is calling out to anyone who believes in the values of fair, sustainable, local food to jump on board and contribute what they can to change the culture of food.

Interested in finding out more about how you can connect with your local food economy? 

Check out this short clip describing the problems with our current food system. 

Find out more about the Open Food Network crowdfunding campaign – the goals, perks and benefits.

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