Earlier this year I came across a very inspiring program being piloted by the Australian Red Cross called ‘Putting Down Roots’. It teaches organic gardening to newly arrived asylum seekers in Melbourne, Australia. Many asylum seekers experience food insecurity from a lack of funds, as in Australia they are often not permitted to work while their case is being processed, and there may also be a lack of access to culturally appropriate food. The program was initiated to address food insecurity at the grass roots level and does so in what I think is an innovative way. For me it seems to apply permaculture principles, not just to food growing, but to the way the program is structured — it was adaptive to each individual’s needs. It wasn’t just a hand-out of food, or knowledge even, but helped develop what would be the best sustainable solution for each person — both physically in the built gardens and in connecting to the new place people have arrived at.
The program began with a course on organic gardening that was designed specifically by CERES environment park for people new to gardening in Australia. Some participants had a background in agriculture but things we take for granted, like knowing the seasons of where we live, new migrants might not be aware of — they don’t have winter in the tropics for example.
Kim Hutchinson, the manager of the project at Red Cross, says they were “trying to make it sustainable in the long run, not just saying here’s a handout, but connect them to what they could do in the local area so hopefully they could continue.”
Kim explains it had an “individual focus. Participants went along for 8 weeks to CERES and did the training — that was learning something different every week, and they were paired up with a volunteer. The volunteer then worked with them in their own environment to help partner with what would be a good solution for them for gardening. Whether that would be connecting to a community garden, because not all of our participants had space in small apartments to garden, or whether they were going to take over their whole garden or have a few small beds.”
Another partner organization, Cultivating Community, visited each participant’s house and came up with a design and provided materials for how they would grow their own food at home — from raised beds, to balcony pots, to more market garden style gardens overtaking the lawn. Seeds and plants were donated from the wider community. For me a highlight in the program was that it helped participants set up gardens at home and provided equipment that will definitely assist the long term sustainability of the skills they learnt — it was not just doing a course and leaving then to their own devises. This style could also be successful with other groups facing food insecurity and a lack of resources.
I found it interesting that teaching organic gardening was seen as essential, as it was considered “best practice” (which Red Cross aims for) as apposed to mainstream agricultural teachings. I think it can be useful to know some of the professional lingo that could possibly be used by other grassroots organizations hoping to get funding for other permaculture projects.
Working with volunteers also helped form connections with the local community and assisted participants to feel more at home. Anyone who’s been involved in community gardening knows the power of gardening to transcend cultural and age barriers. This pilot program was successful in improving food security and also lessening social isolation.
Participants also spoke about feeling at peace, that they could relax as gardening was taking away other pressures by connecting to something natural and real.
One person used to be a beekeeper and after a call out though social media had a hive donated to his home and connected in with local apiarists.
Participants also found connections with each other — from diverse backgrounds but all with similar experiences. Kim says it “Didn’t matter if the person was from Thailand or Afghanistan — it was all about chilli… that’s not what I do but that’s a good idea. It enabled them to open their eyes to other possibilities.”
It would be great to see further programs with this kind of long term outlook, providing skills and resources to empower people to improve their own future food security.
The Australian Red Cross is currently seeking funding to continue the program.
To read more about ‘Putting Down Roots’ check out their blog.