sustainable communities Feed

Would you like to live in a Transition Street?

Transition Streets participants from Fitzroy Road, Lambton. Tricia Hogbin

There are few opportunities to connect with neighbours these days. Children play in backyards or are busy with after-school activities. Families arrive and leave in cars, rarely bumping into their neighbours. But in Newcastle there are exceptions – they are called 'Transition Streets'.

Neighbours in transition streets know each other. They work together to build their community and help each other make positive environmental change.

I really like the idea of change happening at the street level. Attempts to influence change at a city, state or national level often fail. The problem seems too big and complicated. But if we consider the changes we can make within our own homes and our own streets, change seems less overwhelming. Success seems possible – partially if households come together and support each other.

Eleven streets and more than 80 households have already participated in the Transition Streets program. Co-ordinated by Transition Newcastle, the program helps neighbours support each other to reduce their energy and water bills, learn how to grow food, reduce waste, and build a more connected neighbourhood.

Transition Streets participants from Fitzroy Road, Lambton. Little eco footprints 2

I recently visited one of the transition streets – Fitzroy Road in Lambton. Julie Harding moved into Fitzroy Street just a few weeks before signing herself up as 'street contact' for the Transition Streets program. "It was a great way to get to know the neighbours. I met people who I would not have otherwise gotten to know," Julie said. "It’s incredible what a difference it makes when you know your neighbours. To be able to say hello to a familiar face."

The program has changed the street for the families involved. The street feels safer for the kids. "We used a letter box drop to connect with neighbours initially. Seven households signed up. We hold regular get-togethers, involve the kids, and make it fun. Our ages range from 10 to 88."

The Transition Streets manual produced by Transition Newcastle. Little eco footprints

A practical workbook, developed by Transition Newcastle, guides participants through the program. The workbook includes chapters on water, energy, food, waste, consumption and transport. "Each month we focus on a different chapter in the manual," Julie said. She especially enjoyed the transport chapter. "A few of us got panniers for our bikes and are riding to the supermarket and farmers markets."

For Fitzroy Street, the Transition Streets program is about to end. "But we’ll definitely continue to do things together beyond this year. We’re about to start a healthy cooking group, and will continue riding our bikes together," Julie said.

Are you interested in helping your street become a Transition Street?

Transition Newcastle are on the look-out for 'street contacts' for the 2015 program. You’ll be supported by the Transition Newcastle team and be trained as a facilitator. More information here, or phone William Vorobioff on 49673231.

You don’t need to live in Newcastle to create your own Transition Street.

You don’t need to live in Newcastle to create your own Transition Street. The program was initially inspired by the successful UK Transition Together program, and has in turn gone on to inspire the establishment of other Transition Streets programs across Australia, including Melbourne and Lismore. The manual, a key component of the program, is being revised so that it can be easily applied anywhere in Australia. Contact Transition Newcastle for more information. 

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 22nd December 2014.

The Commons Sustenance project - healthy, sustainable & frugal cooking classes

Healthy and sustainable food doesn't have to be expensive – as long as you know how to cook from scratch. After a couple of generations of convenience food, weaning ourselves off processed and packaged food means learning a few new skills.

There’s plenty of food-related workshops helping to restore wholesome cooking skills. Sourdough bread baking, cheese making, food fermentation, and seasonal cooking workshops are relatively common these days.

But many of these workshops are beyond the financial reach of those that could benefit the most. So I was pleased when I heard about The Commons Sustenance project and its efforts to make lessons in wholesome cooking accessible to everyone in Newcastle.

Nissa Phillips, Common Sustenance project coordinator at The Commons Cafe. Little eco footprints

The Commons sustenance project is delivering 10 affordable food and well-being classes at The Commons cafe and community space in Hamilton.

"At only $5 per class, we aim to make healthy food and health education accessible for all," says project coordinator Nissa Phillips. Classes are open to anyone, but particularly target international students, young families and the socio-economically disadvantaged.

"Our classes are all about cooking good food with great people and having lots of fun."

Nissa speaks passionately about helping people realise that healthy food doesn’t have to be expensive. "You can buy a small jar of sauerkraut from a health food store for $13 – or for only a few dollars, you can buy a cabbage and make a huge container of it yourself.

The project is an extension of the work that The Commons is already doing to foster a culture of skill sharing in the Newcastle community. The Commons is a not-for-profit organisation that provides a space and opportunities for people to meet, share skills and work for change. 

Four of the 10 workshops have already been held, on topics such as cheese making and healthy cooking on a shoestring.

Nissa has been particularly pleased with the diversity of participants. "For the recent cooking on a shoestring workshop we had 24 participants from a broad range of backgrounds, including university students, hearing impaired, and single parents."

I really like the sound of the next class – intercultural teatime. Sharing a cup of tea is a wonderful way to bring people together. This Saturday, September 27, Amelia Koh-Butler will lead an exploration of teas and tea ceremonies. Participants will try three different teas: south-eastern tea, Mediterranean mint tea and Anglo-Celt tea. They will also learn how to make scones, summer rolls and life-changing crackers.

Other workshops will cover Mediterranean cooking, food for fussy kids, preserving and seasonal cooking.

Find out more or register here

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 22nd September 2014.

New directory makes roadside stall shopping easier

Roadside-stall-shopping. Little eco footprints

Farmer's gate roadside stalls are my favourite place to shop. Buying direct from the farmer is a great way to source local seasonal food. The produce is typically super fresh and costs far less than what you would pay elsewhere. I especially love the unpredictability of roadside stall shopping. For me, stopping at a stall or two adds a sense of adventure to an otherwise boring car trip.

Roadside-stall-shopping-corn. Little eco footprints-002 Roadside-stall-shopping-pumpkin. Little eco footprints-002

Walk into a supermarket at any time of year and you can predict what produce you’ll find. In contrast, roadside stalls evolve with the seasons.

I used to zoom past roadside stalls. I focused on the destination and didn’t like the idea of adding a few minutes to my trip. I have since embraced the idea of slow travel and consider farm gate shopping an opportunity to support a farmer and grab a bargain. I now stop at most roadside stalls I pass at least once. Some stalls are a disappointment and aren’t visited again. Others are a delightful surprise and are revisited every time I pass by.

Roadside-stall-shopping-Tourist Route33-1. Little eco footprints  Roadside-stall-shopping-Tourist Route33-2. Little eco footprints

My favourite farm gate trail is Tourist Route33. When travelling home to the Hunter Valley from Sydney, my trip is punctuated with frequent stops and I arrive home with a haul of produce. My first stop, not long after turning off the freeway at Calga, is at an avocado farm where a bag of avocados costs only $5. A little further along Peats Ridge Road is the honey farm and then the strawberry farm. Tucked down a driveway in Kulnura is my favourite stall of the route. The contents of this small honesty stall changes with the seasons and I never know what I’ll find when I pull open the curtain. Last visit, I was excited to find giant cabbages for only $1 and limes, lemons and chokos for just 20¢ each.

Roadside-stall-shopping-flowers. Little eco footprints  Roadside-stall-shopping-manure. Little eco footprints

When travelling along unfamiliar roads, I keep an eye out for stalls. I have often wished for a map of roadside stalls. Much to my delight, my wish has been granted.

Sonya Yell recently launched – a directory of roadside stalls. Sonya has "always loved buying from road stalls" but found that even she was zooming past them. "I wanted to provide a reliable way for people to find stalls" Sonya says.

Sellers list their stall, outlining what they sell and opening hours. Buyers explore a map to find stalls in their area.

The directory is not restricted to farmers. Urban gardeners can also list driveway stalls to sell their excess produce. Even if it’s "just a bucket of chokos" suggests Sonya.

The web-based directory was launched only a month ago and already 300 stalls are listed. I’ll be using the directory when planning car trips from now on.

I have already started selecting stalls I would like to visit. Next summer on my way to the south coast, I’ll be detouring slightly to pick up prickly pear fruit and figs from Leppington Valley Farm in Western Sydney. I also hope to find a reason to be travelling along Bucketts Way near Stroud on a Saturday morning so that I can visit the Two Men & a Pumpkin Roadside Stall.

I’m looking forward to watching the directory grow and hope that encourages more people to buy direct from farmers.

To find a stall near you, or to list your own roadside stall, visit

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 16th June 2014.

Cafe scraps grow ideas (and compost)

David-Sivyer-fedback-organic-recovery-hessian-planters. Little eco footprints

Kitchen scraps and coffee grounds - I can't get enough of them. The coffee grounds are fed to my acid-loving blueberry bushes and the scraps go to the chooks and worms, who convert it into delicious eggs and fantastic compost. I've considered asking local cafes and restaurants if I can have their kitchen scraps, so I was interested when I discovered a Hunter Valley business doing exactly that. Feedback Organic Recovery collects waste from cafes and turns it into compost.

David Sivyer collects coffee grounds and food preparation waste from cafes in and around Maitland and takes it to his family farm where it is composted. The compost is used on the farm, in the kitchen gardens of participating cafes, and can also be purchased by the public.

The number of cafes involved in the project is growing. David lists Seraphine Cafe at Maitland Regional Art Gallery, Reader's Cafe at East Maitland library, and the Commercial Hotel in Morpeth as his "champions". "They didn't hesitate and enthusiastically jumped on board straight away," David said.

David tells me his partner cafes typically save about half a cubic metre of food waste a month from going to landfill. "Depending on the type of waste, this can be almost half a tonne," he said.

The benefits don't stop there. David maintains a kitchen garden at each of the cafes and promotes their sustainable waste management efforts through a feedback loyalty card. Each time someone buys a coffee or meal at a participating cafe they get a stamp. Collect 10 stamps and you can collect a "budding hessian planter" from the Feedback market stall at the Newcastle City Farmers Markets. The hessian planters are made from used coffee sacks.

Picnic-blanket-made-from-recycled-hessian. Little-eco-footprints.

David, who only recently learnt how to sew, also makes cushions and picnic blankets from the reclaimed hessian.

Educating the community about food waste and gardening is another benefit. Ben Dennis, a student from Newcastle East Primary School, enthusiastically visits the Feedback market stall week after week. Ben developed an interest in gardening and yesterday he and David gave a market stall demonstration on how to grow herbs in "hessian herb hangers".

I love that this business is growing so much more than compost. It's also inspired me to finally find the courage to ask some of my local cafes if I can have their scraps.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 12th May 2014.

Favoring family farms - International Year of Family Farming

I love knowing where my food comes from, partly for environmental and ethical reasons, but mostly because it adds joy and meaning to my life. My Gran used to delight in starting every meal with a tale of where the food came from. “The beetroot and beans are from our garden and the mushrooms are from Uncle Bernie”, she would say. I hear myself telling similar tales before our meals these days. “The lamb is from Tom, the corn from Mick, and the pumpkin was grown by Dennis.”

I’m able to connect with the farmers that grow our food only because they are small-scale family farmers. Farmers markets, food co-operatives, and being able to buy direct from farmers online, make it possible for us to know the farmers that grow our food. Greengrocers and butchers are also often happy to tell you about the farmer behind their produce. On the other hand, we have no chance whatsoever of knowing the farmer behind the produce sold in supermarkets and grown by big agribusinesses.

Given my preference for buying food from family farms, I was excited to learn that 2014 is International Year of Family Farming. The year was declared by the United Nations to highlight the important role that family farms play in improving food security and preserving natural resources. Family farmers are being acknowledged for their vital role in sustainable food production.

David-and-Kim-Barnes-of-the-Little-Black-Cow-Farm-are-passionate-about-helping-people-connect-with-their-food. Little eco footprints

I recently visited one of my favourite family farms – the Little Black Cow Farm near Branxton in the Hunter Valley. David and Kim Barnes grow grass-fed beef, run a farm stay and grow much of their own food. They are typical of many of the family farmers that I know - they are passionate about the land, the welfare of their animals, and the quality of their produce.

David and Kim are working towards gaining more control over the welfare of their animals. Up until now, their cattle went off to a sale yard, from where they may have spent their last few months in an intensive crowded feed lot. David and Kim can now sell direct to the public so that they can ensure their cattle are humanely treated for their entire life. If you are interested in more information you can contact David and Kim.

I’m going to embrace International Year of Family Farming and do my best to buy mostly from family farms. Would you like to join me? All we need to do is steer clear of the supermarkets and instead, shop at the greengrocers, butchers, farmers markets, food co-operatives and direct from the farmer. Sounds like fun to me. 

Originally published in my Newcastle Herald column 'Less is More' 28th December 2013.