Why Australia should be proud of its food culture

Why Australia should be proud of its food culture
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Ask most people buying their morning coffee, gnawing on a goji berry, or visiting Sizzler on a Tuesday night, what their definition of Australian food culture is, and you’re likely to attract blank stares…

In our part of the world where food is plentiful and we can invest time and editorial weighing up the relative benefits of kale and cauliflower, it may appear that our tastes are more magpie than maven.

But beyond the argument that we eat more sugar and fat than we should because it’s cheaper than fresh produce, there are stronger trends around food, particularly in regards to category growth, that have really only hit their straps in a post-GFC economy, and which have strong potential for a key new stream of content production.

Food not only makes up a big proportion of our household bills, upwards of $200 a week for the “average” Australian family, it also comprised a decent chunk of TV schedules throughout 2013 with 16 food-specific shows airing on FTA TV throughout 2013, up from 10 in 2011. Not only that, the category continues to bring in significant ratings, spearheaded by My Kitchen Rules.

So is it our fascination with food just another flash in the pan, so to speak, a way to fill the food culture void, or is there a broader trend at play that is prompting an unforeseen interest in our palates?

Research asking prospective visitors to Australia about their planned experiences yields little in the way of surprise. Food falls far down the list, particularly when compared to our most famous landmarks, of the hopping and coat-hanger varieties. Interestingly though, on departure the tourists had changed their tune, listing food high amongst other Australian experiences.

The first time Australians experienced their own shift in local food experiences was in the post-WWII period of immigration. Prime Minister Chifley’s ‘populate or perish’ program encouraged the arrival of over 1.2 million ‘new Australians’ primarily from Europe and Asia in the ten years between 1949 and 1959. While it certainly didn’t occur overnight, our largely British-based diets grew exponentially across not only food and beverage, but our experience and expectation of dining, too. As we begun to enjoy much greater varieties of wine, cheese, and coffee; to name but a few modern-day staples. Aussies were also starting to innovate on their own, such as the birth in 1951 of the Chinese-inspired Chiko Roll (check out meandmybigmouth.com.au for a comprehensive history of Australian food).

The tantalisation of our tastebuds over time has certainly given credence to the idea that curiosity and the search for what’s new is a major driver of Australians’ culinary preferences. Professor Barbara Santich, author of Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage argues that far from having zero food culture, Australian cuisine is distinctive for its innovation.

A mix of native ingredients and global influence has largely defined ‘modern Australian’ menus for the past decade, and along with this ongoing culture of invention, the importance of origin has become an almost unnoticeable part of our foodie fabric.

If where our food comes from has always been a defining characteristic of our gastronomy, then this trend has never been more apparent, and yet it is so frequently missed in editorial and discussion. It may surprise some to find that the fastest growing sector in the $43bn Australian food manufacturing industry is organic produce, reporting a growth rate of 12.1% over the past 5 years, with a further 8.4% in growth expected every year for the next five. The data says that despite the GFC, and tighter purse strings, more and more Australians are spending more of their money on higher priced produce.

Is this simply a happy accident for Australia’s 2000+ organic farmers, an anachronistic event whereby organic produce stands alone with double digit growth at a time when almost every other retail headline signals saving over spending since the GFC?

It is a fragmented industry, with an equally fragmented marketing budget, at a higher price tag than mainstream food brands, let alone private label, increasing demand domestically and for export every day. The obvious answer seems to be a correlation with the growth of the health and fitness categories. Without even looking at the statistics, instinct dictates that if you’re genuinely interested in your health, you’re doubling down at the gym, and at the supermarket, or the farmer’s market as the case may be. However this doesn’t explain the rapid rebound in organics demand we exhibited immediately following the GFC.

The more closely correlating stats actually belong to an industry known more for “reality” TV than the sensory feast of a farmer’s market. DIY, like organics, is expected to continue to grow at a rapid rate over the next five years (16% according to IBISWorld), and with it an individualistic approach to our history of food innovation via the humble kitchen garden.

As Australians started to take a closer look at their pantry shelves and garden patches with both shovel and wooden spoon in hand, our renewed love affair with the veggie patch has taken on new meaning.

Dozens of cafes and restaurants now utilise their own kitchen gardens, with the popularity of cafes such as The Grounds, attracting hundreds of posts when its farmyard residents Kevin & Bradley were kidnapped last year. Comprehensive education programs such as Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden speak to a growing gardening movement that is attracting as many farm fresh foodies as diehard DIY-ers. Hard evidence on the absolute number of backyard veggie patches nationwide may be anecdotal, but when we consider the concurrent growth of DIY and organics, a new dynamic around Australian food trends starts to emerge.

As our hip pockets were hit by economic uncertainty, our flight to safety encompassed a ‘home first’ trend that extended beyond cooking at home, to home grown. Instead of a negative impact on the organics industry, our lifelong fascination with the origins and sourcing of our food was made tangible in our backyards, our neighbourhood gardens, our schools, and cafes and restaurants both city-side and country-wide.

If the futurists are right, and our manufacturing future truly lies in food, can we expect spin-offs such as The Crop, Gardener Wants a Wife, or even a My Harvest Rules? We are innovators, after all.

Bronwyn Cooper, Strategy Group Head, OMD

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