Bringing nutrition to the table

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Australian social enterprise Food Ladder is improving the health and livelihoods of remote and disadvantaged communities around the world by training people how to grow fresh produce with sustainable agricultural technology.

Article by Imogen Brennan for Australia Unlimited
Photography by Food Ladder

Australian social enterprise Food Ladder has provided fresh, nutrient-dense produce to thousands of people in disadvantaged communities around the world since its inception in 2014.

The Sydney-based not-for-profit (NFP) has taken its unique business model to remote and needy communities throughout India, Afghanistan and Australia, with its most recent project in Uganda.

By using commercial-grade agricultural technology, Food Ladder systems grow consistent supplies of fresh, healthy produce, which is otherwise difficult or impossible for disadvantaged communities to access because of distance, climate and cost.

“What we’ve done has never been done before,” Food Ladder CEO Kelly McJannett says.

“We’re the only not-for-profit using a commercial growing technology to address food security.”

Food insecurity and malnutrition

The Food Ladder system uses a combination of climate-controlled greenhouses, hydroponic growing systems, water purifiers and sustainable power, including solar power, to grow high yields of fruit and vegetables.

“Food insecurity and malnutrition is a challenge we see in communities with people from low socio-economic backgrounds, people in very remote communities, or simply people who can’t afford fresh, nutritional produce,” McJannett says.

“It’s a multifaceted issue and we wanted to come up with a solution which fundamentally addresses the provision of nutrient-dense food for a community. 

“We created a kind of cookie-cutter solution, rather than having to re-invent the wheel every time we’re engaging with a community in need.”

A key factor in ensuring Food Ladder’s success as a social enterprise, is by designing systems that are easy to use. 

After a greenhouse solution is installed in a community, Food Ladder works with local partners to educate the community about health and nutrition, as well as training people to grow produce and run the system.

The sale of the produce then funds the payment of the workers.

“We’ve created well over 300 jobs already through the life of organisation,” McJannett says.

The hybrid solution

In Afghanistan, at least a third of the population is unable to access nutritious food because of environmental degradation and ongoing insurgent activity.

The Food Ladder team is working to change this by partnering with another Australian not-for-profit in Afghanistan, Mahboba’s Promise, which provides aid to orphans and widows.

Kabul, for example, has a temperature range from 40°C to -5°C, meaning that food can only be grown five or six months a year with regular farming methods. The Food Ladder method enables more food to be produced for a longer period.

“They have a desperate need for food for their orphanages and their widows,” McJannett says.

“Now they have a number of gardens and hybrid Food Ladder systems and they’re currently at the point where they’re fundraising to buy more land to support that.”

In India, Food Ladders that are set up in schools and on village rooftops have managed to feed more than 4,000 people around the country.

The social enterprise was the recipient of Direct Aid Program (DAP) funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2016, which is helping to microfinance 20 new systems for slum communities in India.

“And Uganda is just kicking off,” McJannett says.

“That’s going to be in partnership with another Australian NFP organisation called School For Life, which builds schools in rural Uganda. So we’ll be working with them to install a Food Ladder in one of their school communities.”

Remote access

One of Food Ladder’s biggest footprints so far is in East Arnhem Land, in Australia’s north, where they partner with Aboriginal corporations in Katherine and Ramingining to establish growing systems, then train the local community to take it over. 

They’re currently fundraising for a third Food Ladder system for the indigenous community of Yirkalla.

“In the far northern community of Ramingining, they only have one shop in that community, so our system now specifically supplies produce to it,” McJannett says.

“Previously food was coming from 3,000 kilometres away, which is a huge distance to travel and it affects the cost and quality of the food.”

The Ramingining community is now able to eat all sorts of nutrient-dense produce, including leafy greens, cucumbers, cabbage and capsicum.

“A big part of our community consultation is figuring out what are the vegetables people want and what’s going to sell well to create an income. We also grow native bush food as well and that’s something which has organically evolved from communities telling us what they want to eat,” McJannett says.

Health workers are already noticing improvements in the health of local people, with nutritionists in Ramingining saying within six months of Food Ladder’s implementation, there was a five per cent increase in the consumption of fruit and vegetables – an increase they’d never witnessed before.

“This is evidence that we have communities crying out for fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s about getting back to the basics – healthy food needs to be made available to them.”

Global goals

Kelly McJannett’s realisation of how difficult it was for indigenous communities to access fresh produce came while she was working as the head of communications and marketing for an indigenous education initiative in remote communities across Australia. 

She met Food Ladder’s Founding Chairman Alex Shead in 2008, when he was working to solve unemployment in disadvantaged communities through another NGO. 

It was a natural transition for McJannett and Shead to start working together in 2014 to establish the social enterprise Food Ladder, which solves both those issues.

There’s certainly no slowing down for the small Food Ladder team, which is busy building capacity and seeking funding to build more solutions in disadvantaged communities.

Currently, more than 45 Aboriginal groups in Australia are calling for a Food Ladder in their communities, as well as many more villages in Africa.

“It’s an organic process,” McJannett says.

“The communities approach us – we only go where we’re wanted.”

 Find out more about Food Ladder.

Source: Licensed from the Commonwealth of Australia under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence.  

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