Our columnist on the highs and lows of the island's cuisine
If you’re even slightly interested in food, you’ve probably been paying attention to Tasmania recently.
Earlier this month, eighty of the world’s most influential chefs, food writers, photographers and bloggers congregated in the state as the guests of Visit Australia, who have recently launched their $10 million Restaurant Australia campaign.
Photos of Tasmania and its produce were all over social media for the week. We saw Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor posting selfies on Instagram from Wineglass Bay. AA Gill spent a morning doing television interviews on the Hobart waterfront, and later proclaimed Australian cuisine to be ‘the most exciting, innovative and coherent new food anywhere in the world.’ Masterchef Australia judge Matt Preston was spotted wearing a cravat covered with maps of the island. And Heston! Even Heston came to town!
The gala event – Invite the World to Dinner – saw 250 guests slurping down oysters and sparkling wine at the Hobart docks, before sweeping up the Derwent River in a convoy of boats. They stopped off at the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture park for charcoal grilled abalone and wood roast Tassie lobster, before hopping on another boat and finishing the day with a multi-course, sit down dinner including red kangaroo, confit pig jowl, and grilled sirloin at the Museum of Old and New Art. The whole thing looked incredible.
Certainly the abundance of good food has been one of my favourite things about living here. There are berry farms, small cheese producers, fresh-shucked oysters and boutique wineries everywhere you look. If you like to gather your own ingredients and cook a great meal at home it’s an easy and pleasurable thing to do.
There are also plenty of options for eating out. Every December the Taste of Tasmania Festival takes over the waterfront for a week, and dozens of stalls showcase the finest food, wine, beer and cider from around the State. It’s a great way to discover new restaurants that you might want to visit over the course of the next year. For a small city, Hobart has a lively culinary scene: from the chilli braised lamb at the Taco Taco truck to a dirty great Winston burger, from pulled pork at Crumb St Kitchen to tempura blue eye at Fish Frenzy, from a ten dollar bag of fresh cherries, to a nine course degustation menu at The Source. There is plenty here to keep your taste buds happy, and it was great the other week to see the world’s food and wine influencers talking about that.
But there is another important conversation taking place around food in Tasmania, and unfortunately it’s getting nowhere near the same level of attention.
Research published earlier this year by the University of Tasmania and the Heart Foundation suggests that maintaining a healthy diet would cost some Tasmanian families more than 40% of their household budget. The Healthy Food Basket Survey also found that only 5% of shops selling fresh fruit and vegetables are located in low-income areas, and that less than a quarter of Tasmanians eat the recommended five portions of vegetables a day.
That research followed on from the Food for All Tasmanians report – a sixty-page document published in 2012 by the Tasmanian Food Security Council – which stated that ‘more than one in ten children in Tasmania live in households with incomes less than $40,000 per year and where food insecurity is experienced on a regular basis.’
Those figures bring with them all the health issues you would expect, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. How can that be possible that in a state which has been called the ‘food bowl’ of Australia?
The answer, of course, is accessibility. While fresh food is readily available in Hobart, some of the more rural areas of the state – even those in regions that have rich, fertile farming land – are food deserts. There are small settlements with few shops, which may not be easily accessible to those relying on public transport. The shops there are don’t stock a lot of fresh produce, and if they do it is beyond the budget of most people, so there is a reliance on packaged and ready made food with lower nutritional value.
So what is being done? The Healthy Food Access Project began with data gathering but is now moving onto phase two, which aims to link growers, producers, retailers and wholesalers with local communities and those in the social services sector. They have almost $500,000 to spend on addressing the findings of their initial study, and have called on community groups to put forward suggestions.
There is also excellent work being done already by groups like Produce to the People, which operates in Burnie, in the North West of the State. Since they were established in 2009, Produce to the People have grown from a back-yard vegetable gathering project into a community-wide food distribution network that gathers an average 25,000 kilos of fresh, locally grown produce that would otherwise have gone to waste, and distributes it among vulnerable people. As well as offering emergency food relief through a free food hub, they deliver fresh food to local service providers like Burnie Community House. They deliver to 20 schools in the North West, and also run a vegetable garden program in seven of those schools.
Despite the work that they are doing, Produce to the People lost 100% of their federal funding earlier this year. They receive some state funding, but never on a guaranteed basis from year to year, so they are reliant on in-kind and business support, and the work of volunteers which, if costed at $20 an hour, would equate to over $100,000 of value. They are currently working on a veggie box scheme, in an attempt to develop their fiscal independence and sustainability.
I have not seen anyone say that Restaurant Australia is a bad idea. It is right that we should invite the world to dinner. It Is right that we should celebrate the many beautiful ingredients that Tassie has to offer, and the superb work that is done around the state by small producers. Let’s listen to the excited voices of those who attended that gala dinner at MONA.
But let’s also listen to those schoolchildren in Burnie who had never tasted broccoli or avocado or mango until Produce to the People delivered a box to their school. Let’s listen to the researchers who worked on the Food for all Tasmanians report, and argued for action on food security at all levels of government.
Let’s make sure the ‘food bowl’ of Australia has enough in it to go round.
Header image from Produce to the People.
Ruth Dawkins is a writer, editor and campaigner, originally from Scotland but now living in Tasmania with her husband and son.
She is a columnist for The Island Review, and will be contributing to the site regularly.
You can find her blog here.