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Adamstown Uniting Church is "Sustaining Our Suburbs"

Permaculture Hunter and Adamstown Uniting Church's “Sustaining Our Suburbs” initiative has established five community gardens in the Hunger area and reached hundreds more people promoting a message and building skills in edible gardening.

“Sustaining Our Suburbs” is a community partnership of Permaculture Hunter and Adamstown Uniting Church, helping low-income people sustain themselves and our biodiverse earth by growing their own fresh food organically.  It is supported by funds from UnitingCare Ageing’s (Hunter, New England, Central Coast) Innovative Community Grant.

The current global corporatised food system, including its distribution powered by massive fossil fuel use, comprises 40% of our  total human ecological footprint.  Food security experts also predict global food supply crises soon, as a the oil supply graph goes down sharply from its peak, and prices escalate.

By helping to develop local organic gardens and foster ecological skills, Sustaining Our Suburbs (SOS) aims to provide alternatives in the Hunter context.  It is driven by the three ethics of Permaculture (which are close to Christian ethics) – care for the Earth, care for people, and share the surplus.  Social inclusivity is central to the project, which reaches people from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds, such as the aged, tertiary students on Austudy often paying impossible rentals, single parents, people living in public housing, and immigrants.

The two main strands of the project focus on community-centred food production in community gardens, and food growing in individual household gardens. 

Since the project commenced in May 2008, five community gardens have been established, with others in the pipeline with designs presented.  Three are in schools in low income areas – Adamstown, Cardiff North, and Mount Hutton Public Schools.  Each garden is creative and different, tailored to the local school and community.  Students, staff and parents were consulted on their needs and ideas, and have been involved in the design and establishment of the gardens.  There are also new gardens at Lambton Multicultural Neighbournood Centre and Beresfield Childcare Centre, created by the Hunter Permaculture"Blitz" team, while a disabled-friendly garden design has been submitted to Elermore Vale Community Centre, keen to start after Council approval.  The Awabakal Indigenous Pre-School is also keen to start gardening.

The individual household gardens side of the project has faced more hiccups.  Over 20 disadvantaged and low-income households were visited and aided to begin edible gardening.  They included students, Indigenous folk, refugees and pensioners.  The drop-out rate has unfortunately been high, mostly for reasons beyond residents’ control, such as a landlord deciding to sell the property, illness, and possum attacks (but in the last case, residents are determined to renew efforts, using netting barriers).  Further volunteers are also needed to help follow up and support the households on an ongoing basis.

SOS has also held a series of Permaculture workshops  with internationally renowned Permaculturists Robina McCurdy and Geoff and Nadia Lawton, reaching hundreds of people in total, from northern Newcastle to southern Lake Macquarie.

SOS coordinator Tom Toogood, a Permaculture teacher and past Chairperson of Permaculture Hunter, and a member of Adamstown Uniting Church, sees this project as a  "holistic model of community outreach for churches, that's perceived by the community as highly practical and beneficial.  By getting involved in community food projects, churches can live out their values.  Adamstown Uniting is building relationships with the community, extending compassion and support to the disadvantaged, and helping to foster and develop skills for a sustainable future.  And people outside the church and the media are taking notice.”

Tom said, "I was formerly involved in more conservative denominations, including a few years as a  Pastor.  But I sought a better balance between  their "pie in the sky bye and bye"  eschatology emphasis, and "lets share the pie right now - God's creation has an abundance".  It's surely possible to help folk get a good taste of heaven on earth now, as Jesus said the Kingdom has arrived in Him, so let's grab it."

The Hunter Presybtery has certainly been inspired by SOS, and is promoting the initiative to other churches in the area.  For example, Mayfield Uniting Church is considering SOS's design for a church and community garden to help supply their free “Lunch on Sunday” church outreach to poverty-affected people in the area.  Wallsend Uniting Church is considering starting a joint community garden on the church land.  They are hoping to involve as partners some young people from the Islamic Centre in their street.  The Margaret Jurd Learning Centre for youth is also keen to start a garden at their new site at Shortland.

Sustaining Our Suburbs continues into 2010, with plans to establish further community gardens and to redouble efforts with the individual household gardens.  There are also aspirations to develop a sustainable lifestyles board game, and the project team is keen for any creative input to help make this happen.

Permaculture Hunter has also received separate smaller funding from UnitingCare Ageing to help run an economic and social justice expo and workshops, called the "Fair Share Festival".  Tom says, "It's aimed to explain and promote community and family-friendly alternatives (like co-ops, community barter, micro-business loans, community banks and mutual aid societies) to the current "greed is good" economic skullduggery that produced the GFC - global financial crisis".

To enquire about, or offer support or resource ideas to SOS or the Fair Share Festival, please contact Tom Toogood on ecoed "at" dodo.com.au.