Elizabeth Collins and the Future of Community-Based Food Production

An interview with Elizabeth Collins the founder of Connect the Plots & Project Green Plot. Project Green Plot started in 2020 to supply seeds, seedlings, and fresh produce to the local Foster & Corner Inlet community.

3 months ago   •   7 min read

By Mark Pearton

As COVID-19 shakes the world to its core and climate change gets harder to ignore, people around the world are hungry for sustainable foods and community-based distribution. As the founder of Connect the Plots and Project Green Plot in Australia, Elizabeth Collins embodies the solution.

Connect the Plots started in 2019 in response to the growing challenges of climate change, and Project Green Plot started in 2020 to supply seeds, seedlings, and fresh produce to the local Foster & Corner Inlet community.

Connect the Plots

The birth of Connect the Plots was driven by political inaction and inspired by the book Drawdown by Paul Hawken. In an effort to address climate change, Elizabeth connected with her friends on a local level to share food, ideas, and inspiration. Connect the Plots is about bringing people together to connect the dots and respect the bigger picture. Initially coming together around a potluck lunch, this project highlights the value of like-minded people working in unison for the greater good.

According to Elizabeth, it's the power of community that inspires her every day:

"That's the really important thing. And in all of this stuff that I've done since then, it would appear to me that it is simply the face-to-face conversation between two or more people. That makes shit happen. It is the absolute bottom line of stuff getting done. And that, to me, is never a piece of paper in a window. It's not advertising or promoting a thing. It's always about the conversation."

Project Green Plot

Like many things over the past year, Project Green Plot was influenced by the onset of COVID-19. Connect the Plots was unable to meet as a collective due to the lockdown, but the ideals of sustainability were suddenly more important than ever. People across Australia and the world were developing new priorities, many of which aligned with the core ideals of the group. Seeds were flying off the shelves, sourdough bread was a rising trend, and people everywhere were developing an interest in sustainable food production.

During this time, Elizabeth was given a small bag of sprouting garlic to grow for the local community centre. In an effort to bring people together and maximise production, she asked her friends to put aside a square metre of their gardens to help her grow more garlic. Project Green Plot developed naturally as people shared the load to make more fresh produce available. Despite the simple nature of this premise, the project comes from a deep realisation that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.

Local Food South Gippsland, Victoria
Elizabeth with Andris of Franklin River Garlic who donated the first garlic corms. This little donation sparked the beginnings of Project Green Plot.

Elizabeth Collins on the future of social enterprise

Project Green Plot is currently operating as a non-profit auspice under Manna Gum Community House. In the future, Elizabeth would like to develop the project further as a social enterprise. Elizabeth has always been a community-minded individual, a trait she also recognises in her grandfather and mother. More than that, however, she attributes the success of her many projects to her social personality.

While lots of people care about the environment and share Elizabeth's lofty ideals, not everyone has the drive and motivation to make things happen. Along with her outgoing personality, Elizabeth understands the importance of communicating ideas through design and marketing. She has developed these skills working on a number of creative and sustainable projects, including the Melbourne Design Market.

Over the years, Elizabeth has used the power of networking and self-motivation to drive projects forward. During the early days, she was surprised how simple it was to inspire people with new ideas:

"And I could see that you can build something up that can become quite significant. Just through emails and phone calls and site meetings, but you can make stuff happen... You have the vision, you make the list, you make it happen. It's something I had experienced before. The trick is to just begin, you know, you just put these things out there and then they naturally start to unfold," said Elizabeth.  

Elizabeth is beginning to develop a deeper understanding of the social enterprise sphere, which, in essence, is the alignment of sustainable social and environmental ideals with practical business value. As more companies and non-profits look to invest in social enterprise programs, opportunities for funding and development are opening up across Australia. Whether it's improving communities, tackling social problems, or helping the environment, the government and private sectors are both willing to get involved.

According to Elizabeth, however, even the newest avenues for change are rooted in traditional values:

"But really, I think we just have to kind of go back to my grandfather's time, in a way where people had their chooks and their veggie patch, and shared their lemons and did that community sharing thing. I think we've come away from that kind of life where people are less likely to ask for that cup of sugar."

The endless benefits of local food production

Local Food Boxes South Gippsland
Local Food boxes that are brought into the Manna Gum Community House every fortnight offer the disadvantaged community members access to locally grown produce.

Growing and distributing food locally offers a range of benefits, some of which are more obvious than others. Climate change is already causing havoc on sensitive global ecosystems, and local solutions are the most direct way to circumvent the problem and promote a new way of living. Sustainable food production also provides health benefits, with Project Green Plot helping people to eat seasonally, grow their own fresh food, and improve soil conditions for future harvests and generations.

Along with key environmental and health outcomes, Elizabeth's projects are very much about developing and fostering a sense of renewed connection and social responsibility within the wider community. People can get involved in many ways, either plotting part of their own garden for community production, sending in their own excess produce, or growing specific produce for the Manna Gum Community House.

Community Based Food Solution
This is Hege with some fresh seedlings that later she will return to Manna Gum Community House with the full-grown version, ready for a fresh box 

Along with growing food, people can distribute food directly to people in need and help to support other growers with their expertise, equipment, or time. Elizabeth would like to see more growers and gardens in the program, and she looks forward to setting up a mentor system to help spread gardening knowledge. Becoming a proficient gardener can take lots of time and more than a few headaches along the way, which is why these community-based initiatives are so important.

Local Food Boxes at Manna Gum Community House
Rosemary pictured here helping out distribute and pack the vegetable boxes 

Project Green Plot helps to promote healthy foods and social connection, which, along with shelter, represents our most basic and pressing human needs. Instead of people being afraid to collaborate or ask for help due to societal pressures, Elizabeth wants to normalise a growing sense of sharing and community connections.

The evolution of Project Green Plot

Project Green Plot Local Food Solution
Project Green Plot's Plot Count

Project Green Plot has seen tremendous growth over the last few months. There are currently around 80 garden plots dedicated to the project, and Elizabeth looks forward to welcoming more people to Project Green Plot. Food is harvested and distributed to the Manna Gum Community House fortnightly, with fresh food dropped at multiple locations before being delivered to the centre. Each delivery includes at least 20 different foods, with produce changing with the seasons to ensure peak variety. From growing and cooking to eating and sharing, the project is constantly moving in partnership with Manna Gum Community House.

According to Elizabeth, "You're not just always going to get potatoes, pumpkin, onions and broccoli in the box. It's going to be shifting all the time. Part of what we do, I think will need to be around education, as you said, you know, how many ways can you cook a zucchini?"

All in all, Project Green Plot represents an exciting new way to grow fresh local food and share it with a vibrant local community. While backyard family plots and community gardens have their place, this project highlights the great things people can achieve when they come together and create value through social cohesion. Instead of individual people suffering because they're time-poor or living without a garden, the collective fills in the gaps and the entire community reaps the rewards.

In the township of Foster, Victoria, vegetables and herbs already grow freely on the kerbside, thanks to a local shire initiative. Conversations and connections have developed, thanks to the novelty of this initiative, and Elizabeth is inspired to continue the great work with Project Green Plot.

"We as a community need to rethink how our public spaces work. I mean, the main street of Foster obviously is a fabulous thing, because it's got all that edible food in there that people are welcome to take. And if I can expand that idea further down the streets and have more public spaces used for growing local food, that would be great," said Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and her edible gardeners continue to embrace a green and delicious vision for the future, as Project Green Plots hopes to inspire more small towns across Victoria and Australia. Whether it's a backyard plot growing fresh produce for people in need, free herbs by the roadside, or young people learning about horticulture on unused land, Elizabeth looks forward to engaging with communities across Australia through the intersection of food production, environmental sustainability, and good old-fashioned community values.

To find out more about Project Green Plots' activities you can reach out to Elizabeth via her website: https://www.projectgreenplot.org

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