Matt Donovan – Food for Change – Ep 23

Matt Donovan, Founder & CEO at Food for Change

In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, we’re joined by Matt Donovan, from Food for Change, who we will be talking to about how his Australia-based, Not for Profit, is helping fight national food insecurity through both growing and rescuing local food items.


[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hello, and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain.

Today on our show, I’m joined by Matt Donovan from Food for Change, who I’ll be talking to about how his Australia-based not-for-profit is helping fight national food insecurity through both growing and rescuing local food items.

So with no further delays, let’s get started.

Well, good afternoon Matt, how are you?

[00:00:27] Matt Donovan: Yeah, I’m good thanks Mitch, yourself?

[00:00:29] Mitchell Denton: I’m doing pretty good myself. Before we get into it. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and what you do and while you’re at it, maybe just a fun fact about yourself that most people don’t know.

[00:00:40] Matt Donovan: Yeah, no worries. So, um, my name’s Matt Donovan, I’m the founder and CEO of the Food for Change foundation, which is a charity, um, primarily based out of Melbourne, but we operate in SA and New South Wales and Queensland as well, and we um grow food on unused farmland. 

We rescue food through, the IGA network, we have a partnership with them and we support other charities with food boxes and parcels. Um, and basically everything we grow and rescue and provide to the organisations goes out free of charge to feed hungry Australians. 

[00:01:13] Mitchell Denton: That’s awesome. Do you have a fun fact for us by any chance?

[00:01:17] Matt Donovan: Fun fact, um, fun fact. Oh, I guess I could probably, yeah, I’m a bit of a LEGO nerd, I guess. Um, we’ve

[00:01:24] Mitchell Denton: Oh, nice.

[00:01:25] Matt Donovan: I kind of gone away from it when I became a teenager and discovered girls, um, then my, um, my son’s now he’s fully into it, so it’s kind of, um, we’ve got a designated LEGO room and we’re pretty much doing that non-stop on the weekends, which is a lot of fun. 

[00:01:42] Mitchell Denton: I’ve definitely had a resurgence of LEGO in my life. My, my nephew is obsessed and, um, now they’ve got like QR codes on the boxes and he can get all the digital build instructions and all those types of things. And, I’ve just, I’ve become obsessed with LEGO all over again. So I’m right there with you, I get it. 

 but before we get completely bogged down in LEGO talk, let’s talk farm to fork. So continuing on from you telling us what you do, would you mind telling us a little bit about how Food for Change first came about?

[00:02:14] Matt Donovan: Yes. It was a little bit of a story, obviously um. Anyone that starts a business or a charity, there’s a lot of factors that lead into it. For me, a couple of key factors was my mom’s influence uh we had a restaurant on Kangaroo Island when I was young and she’s an amazing cook and, um, very food focused. 

Another main contributing factor was my father was homeless for a period in his life, and obviously received a lot of help from a lot of organisations. So they were kind of the two contributing factors and I’d always sort of loved food and grown food and been around that kind of environment.

Then in 2016, I found myself in Melbourne, um, in kind of a fortunate and unfortunate place at the same time where I was going through a divorce and had to shut down the company I was running and basically focusing in on my son for that period of time. 

Which was lovely. It’s a real privilege to be able to spend so much time with him.

And he’s sorta started going to daycare, and I was starting to get a bit bored after going from organising the company to pretty much looking after him. So I started volunteering in the food relief sector and was really shocked around the statistics around food relief. So this is back in 2016, the stats are unfortunately a little bit worse after COVID now.

But this year alone, we’ll probably see about 3 million people seek food relief. Up to a hundred thousand people each month actually get turned away. So you hear all about these amazing organisations that are feeding people. Um, but they actually run out of food and, and turn away over a hundred thousand people a month.

And one third of them are children. So, where previously I’d just kind of lumped hunger into homelessness. I was really, really shocked at that. 

And for me, the galvanizing point was. Um, been shopping, it was definitely a Wednesday I picked up my son from daycare. Thursday, we were going out, um, wherever, somewhere for lunch and he’s like, “Dad, I’m hungry”.

I’m like, “Yeah mate that’s fine. Just jump in, grab some fruit. We’re about to head out for lunch”. And he’s like, “There is none.” 

I’m like, “What do you mean? We just went shopping yesterday”, and he’d eaten like, I dunno the number’s always getting bigger but its something like 8 bananas and a whole heap of apples and just, it was just a phenomenal amount of food.

Anyone who is a parent knows what that’s like when it kid is going through a growth spurt. And it was fine for me, I’d just go to the shops and buy some more food, but if you’re in that situation where you’re like, “That’s it, I’ve got no more money. That was part of my food budget”. What do you do? 

And then if you’ve got the courage to go out and seek food from these amazing organisations we hear about and get turned away even then. I couldn’t imagine what that must feel like as a parent to have to look your kid in the eye and basically say, you’ve got no food or, you know, go without yourself or not pay power bills or not pay medication and all sorts of things. 

So I was kind of like, well this is not quite good enough in the country that we live in and just wanted to, you know, take the position I was in and the time that I had to give a little bit back and, you know, the original concept was, we’ll just find some open land, there’s plenty of it about, we’ll pop some seeds in the ground and we’ll grow some food and we’ll give it away. 

And out of that, we’ve sort of spawned this amazing charity that we have now. 

We’ve delivered over 1.5 million meals in the first five years. About a million of them last year, actually. So it’s sort of trending upwards, which is good under the current climate. So Yeah. that’s kind of the rundown, I guess. 

[00:05:30] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Wow. I had no idea about those food insecurity statistics in Australia. That’s um, that’s quite alarming actually. So with that in mind, Food for Change’s mission statement is to, “Help alleviate food insecurity in Australia”. 

What does that look like being practically rolled out?

[00:05:49] Matt Donovan: Yeah. So I guess, um, The one thing we realised when we did a lot of research before starting the organisation was, one organisation is not going to solve the problem, it’s gotta be a collective effort. 

And that’s why our mission is really about helping to alleviate, so it’s making sure we’re part of the solution and not to the detriment of the other amazing organisations are out there? 

So for us, we saw a real gap in the fresh food side of things, as much as you know, the IGA, Coles, Woolies are donating food across the network. A lot of it is not high quality nutritional food, a lot of the time.

And a lot of the fresh stuff by the time that goes from the farmer to the warehouse, into the IGA stores and then back out into say a food relief organisation, it’s quite old to be honest. 

So we decided to grow food, so we’ve got quite a bit of land that we grow food on in harvest and usually we harvest in the morning and it gets to people’s tables the following day so that’s quite fresh.

We then built a bit of technology, which we use with IGA to manage their food rescue program. So that’s rolling out across the country now, which is amazing. 

Um, and they’re kind of, I guess that’s kind of how it looks for us. And then whenever we get any excess funding, we’ve got a food box program where we sell food boxes to raise funds. We redirect all that excess funding into purchasing additional boxes and giving them directly to people who need it. 

[00:07:13] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Great. So across both growing your own food supplies and food rescue, what do you think is the biggest challenge you have within your organisation currently?

[00:07:23] Matt Donovan: Uh, it’s always funding. Like any business, I mean a charity is fundamentally run exactly the same. One of the tricky parts is there’s a lot of grant funding around, but there’s only certain things that it can be used for. So then we have to, you know, work out and that’s why we have our food box program.

We sell seeds and we partner with other organisations that fundraise with us to cover off. I mean, it seems silly, but you know, paying insurance bill, if we get a great grant from the government to, you know, help with food rescue or growing food, we can’t use it to pay our insurance. 

So it’s sort of that fundraising side of it is definitely the critical aspect.

[00:07:59] Mitchell Denton: So the term local produce is thrown around a lot these days. And I previously asked guests what the term means to them. What does local produce mean to you and how pivotal a role does it play in your operations?

[00:08:14] Matt Donovan: Yeah. So it’s, um, obviously local is a term that can be, I mean, what are we local to? We’re local to our country, our state, our local city, um, so it can be thrown around in a whole heap of different ways. So it’s, it’s a really good question. 

For me locally sourced, I think I’d probably go down that way is the key. So getting it as close as possible. Sometimes it’s not realistic, right? There’s certain things in food, if you want to tin of tomatoes that are not gonna come from your country town, you’re going to buy them in the shops and they’re coming from elsewhere. But obviously there’s a lot of great, fresh produce you can buy locally and, um, sort of trying to focus in on that without being too stringent.

From us local is actually one of our key values. So it’s one of the things we look at in regards to distribution. So always making sure that food that we grow is servicing the local community first. Um, and then we partner with larger organisations like SecondBite. 

When we have like a huge crop, we might have a couple of ton of carrots. Then they’ll distribute that to a wider area for us. Um, definitely making sure all the food that we rescue goes to local organisations. It doesn’t go out to warehouses and out across to areas, it stays inside of those local communities. 

[00:09:29] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Yeah. So what’s the biggest surprise you’ve found with giving fruits and vegetables a second life through food rescue?

[00:09:37] Matt Donovan: Probably the amount of food that actually gets thrown out in the store. Um, that’s, that was probably the biggest shock on that side of things. And there’s a whole heap of various reasons and we could spend days obviously chatting about it. 

Um, but the first time we did our first rescue was at a Meadowbank IGA. And we went through with the staff about the process and not putting it in the bin and all that sort of stuff.

At the end of the rescue, so this was just one day, like an hour going through the shop, this is what they do every day. The dollar value of the food, including fresh produce and non fresh produce set at about $2,000. And I was just like, “Wow, that is a lot of food”, not to you know, mention the environmental cost just to get it to store and everything like that.

Um, that’s heading back out in the waste stream. So, um, probably, well a hundred percent the biggest shock. 

[00:10:29] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, absolutely. Are there any preconceptions that Aussies have towards not-for-profits that you’d like to clear the air on?

[00:10:37] Matt Donovan: Probably not a huge amount. I think um there’s definitely. A growing concern among the population as to how donated funds are used and rightly so, on that side of things and what they go through, so that social impact tracking and auditing, and making sure it’s quite visible, um, I think is becoming more and more key.

We have our trackers on our website, live for people to see the impact, um, for us effectively one dollar allows us to grow or rescue five meals for hungry people across the country. And for us, it’s very easy to track. Um, Yeah.

[00:11:14] Mitchell Denton: Did you say $1 for five meals? That’s a, that’s amazing. That’s fantastic. 

So, From where you stand, what would you identify as being one of the biggest pain points or blind spots when it comes to food loss and waste in Australia?

[00:11:31] Matt Donovan: Um, I think one of the biggest things, and this might be a little bit controversial, but it doesn’t really get talked about is on-farm food waste. And having worked on farms through university and at various points in my life, had my own farm at one point. Um, I think the main problem and the reason there is so much food waste on the farm has a lot to do with greed.

And greed might not be the right word, but farmers, when they’re having a good season, you want to make as much money as you possibly can. So you’re going to plant as much as you possibly can, so you can generate enough revenue to look after your family, right? 

And every farm is doing that. So when there’s a bumper season, like we’re seeing with the avocados this year, you’re going to have a huge amount of waste and you can’t really take that away from people, like, that’s their business. 

They’ve got to make money, right? But that is, what’s generating a large proportion of the waste you have in the network. As far as the solution, I’ve got no idea, but it’s something that I’ve noticed. Um, and have encounted, you know, I’ve worked on strawberry farms and grapes, mandarins, all sorts of different scenarios, and it’s all the same.

Like, they plant enough trees that when it’s a bad year, they can still survive and feed themselves effectively. And when it’s a good year, they make good profit. But when it’s a bumper year, the food waste is out of control. 

[00:12:52] Mitchell Denton: Totally, yeah. That’s um, I’ve never really considered that part of the, uh, food supply chain really. Obviously there’s a big problem with beauty standards, cosmetic look of fresh produce all those types of things, but I’ve never really thought about just the initial farming process. So… 

[00:13:08] Matt Donovan: Yeah. 

[00:13:08] Mitchell Denton: That’s um, quite alarming.

[00:13:10] Matt Donovan: Yeah, the stuff that’s, you know, that’s bad is obviously gets a lot of publicity at the moment as far as new standards. But a lot of that does go into other products, like baby food and things like that when it gets rejected. 

So, like there’s a lot of other products, soups and things on that side of things. So while it is a problem, it’s not the biggest problem across the network. 

[00:13:32] Mitchell Denton: Definitely. Definitely. Has the COVID pandemic for better or worse, had any effect on your day to day operations?

[00:13:39] Matt Donovan: Probably. Overall, it just kind of flipped a few things around. It didn’t really affect us per se. Thankfully down in Victoria, as much as we were locked in as everyone else, um, because we’re in agriculture all our volunteers had work permits. We could go about business as normal, which quite fortunate.

What we did see on the volunteer front was, um, pre pandemic corporate groups every week, 20 or 30 people and just a few individual volunteers, uh, during the pandemic that kind of flipped.

And because I think we can issue work permits. We had a lot of individual volunteers coming out because they couldn’t go to work or were you know, out of jobs or something like that.

Um, And now everything’s kind of settled back and starting to get back to normal. It’s kind of flipped around again. So we’re back having all the corporates out volunteering with us and just a few individual volunteers. 

[00:14:33] Mitchell Denton: That’s great. That’s great. So at what point does an attempted food rescue lose its value or become more trouble than it’s worth?

[00:14:42] Matt Donovan: Uh, anything under $200 value. 

[00:14:45] Mitchell Denton: Okay. Okay, that’s interesting. 

[00:14:47] Matt Donovan: That’s for the amount of time it takes for the volunteers, cost of fuel, all that sort of stuff. When we rescue in store with IGA, it’s always, and the IGA stores are fantastic, they’re such a great organisation. They always make sure that there’s, you know, They don’t initiate a rescue scenario unless there’s at least that amount of food available. 

And we realise we’re not going to get everything, like that’s an unrealistic expectation. So. 

[00:15:15] Mitchell Denton: Okay. That’s interesting. When it comes to the future of combating food loss and waste and creating more sustainable systems, what has your attention, what are you researching the most right now?

[00:15:27] Matt Donovan: Um, the main thing for us is the regenerative agriculture side, um, with our farms, making sure we’re on top of that. Making sure our farm is zero waste, on that side of things. 

So there’s a lot of research going into that for us, um, and kind of really entrenching into that local food system and making sure we’re a part of that, um, is where we’re kind of at. 

[00:15:52] Mitchell Denton: Continuing on that question, is there a particular group or innovation within the industry that you’re excitedly keeping a watchful eye on?

[00:16:00] Matt Donovan: Um, I think the use of potatoes as plastic is an interesting one. Um, it’d be interesting to see how that affects shelf life of products moving forward. Um, But, yeah, there’s also talk about using seaweed in a similar manner. Um, so yeah, that would be quite interesting to sort of keep an eye on. 

[00:16:21] Mitchell Denton: Wow. This is the first I’m hearing about this, but it sounds very interesting. 

[00:16:25] Matt Donovan: Yeah, basically it just, it looks like plastic, but it’s made from potatoes or seaweed. 

[00:16:30] Mitchell Denton: No. That’s great. So what’s one thing you wish you’d known when you first created Food for Change?

[00:16:37] Matt Donovan: Oh, I get asked this a lot. Um, and to be honest, if I’d known what I know now I probably wouldn’t start it. So it’s better. I like being a little naive and biting off a bit more than I can chew and going “Okay, we’re kind of we’re in it now, so we’re just going to deal with it”. 

Um, sometimes I think you can have analyse and find a lot of problems. Um, so yeah, I tend to just jump in and go that way. 

[00:17:04] Mitchell Denton: No, that’s great. Well, Matt, we are about to come to a close, but before we do, I just wanted to ask you, what is the number one takeaway you really want the listeners to absorb from this episode?

[00:17:16] Matt Donovan: Um, I think at the moment its, like you said you were quite shocked around the statistics around food insecurity and having the pandemic so fresh in our mind that feeling of walking into a supermarket and going, “Oh wow! There’s nothing on the shelf. In the usual location where I go to”, is exactly what 3 million Aussies go through every year in their own house. 

And if you can just think about that little moment for yourself and just go, “Oh, well that’s fine, I’ll just go buy something else”. These people don’t, they literally have nothing there. And it’s not a, you know, one-off kind of thing for a lot of people, unfortunately. So just bear that in mind, um, have a little bit of humility, um, around homelessness, um, and not realising, you know, nobody knows everybody’s story.

So yeah, they’re probably the two, two things get to there. 

[00:18:09] Mitchell Denton: No, that’s great. That’s a good place to leave it. Well, that’s all for today’s episode of let’s talk, farm to fork. Thanks for listening. And thank you, Matt, for joining me today. 

[00:18:19] Matt Donovan: No worries. Thanks for having us Mitch I appreciate it. 

[00:18:21] Mitchell Denton: For any listeners who would like to know more about Matt and Food for Change, check out the link in the description of this episode. 

Make sure to subscribe to the podcast so that you never miss an episode and don’t forget to leave review and share with your friends. 

Until next time you’ve been listening to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork” a PostHarvest podcast.

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