Setting up a sustainable food system in suburban Melbourne

By Pamela Jolly 20 November 2023

In the outer east of Melbourne, on Wurundjeri land, a team of volunteers is gathering to tend to a food garden behind the local cinema. This dedicated group took over the disused block of land in 2021 to set up Belgrave Food Garden. The garden provided a space for locals to heal and learn new skills during a difficult time for the community.

That year, Belgrave was rocked by a severe storm that saw many people rebuilding their homes and, like many other places around the world, was suffering from the impacts of successive COVID lockdowns. Motivated to find a positive outlet for locals, Ellie McSheedy decided to put her research skills to use by setting up a space where locals could connect. 

“I had seen how community connectivity or resilience can really help people get through these sorts of events,” Ellie says. “And I really wanted to create a group in a space that brings people together to form those bonds.” 

Ellie has a background in health research. Through her work, she became aware that food security – the ability to access sufficient affordable, nutritious food – was an issue of concern in her local area. She was also familiar with the health and wellbeing benefits of community gardening, that include physical, nutritional, social and psychological factors.

Armed with this knowledge, Ellie saw the potential for a community space that could address food security and boost self-esteem. The Belgrave Food Garden was born with the goal of giving locals access to a sustainable food system. Ellie describes the garden as a living classroom that teaches the community about the shared benefits of growing food locally.   

Today, Belgrave Food Garden is a thriving community hub where locals learn how to grow, harvest and cook healthy food. For those who want to broaden their skills, the garden runs regular workshops on everything from permaculture, soil health and composting to pickling, leaf mould bins and gardening with kids.  

Locals are encouraged to pick fresh produce from the garden and any excess is donated through partnerships with charities like the Dandenong Ranges Emergency Relief Service, which distributes food to people in need.  

With many schools nearby, Ellie hopes to expand the garden’s education program to primary school students. She has already seen the beneficial impacts of nature care in high school students from Mater Christi College who weed and tend to the garden.  

The Seedling Bank is supporting this grassroots effort with funding to plant 600 seedlings on the vacant land surrounding the food garden. On National Tree Day, volunteers will replace weeds and blackberry shrubs with edible natives that will bring more biodiversity to the area.  

What started as a balm for loneliness has grown into so much more. The Belgrave Food Garden is increasing food security, boosting health and wellbeing, and providing practical education in a safe and inspiring outdoor space. The edible natives planted on National Tree Day will further establish this once-barren patch of land as a beacon of community resilience. 

This story is part of this year's Tree Talk: Stories from Planet Ark's Seedling Ban.

Pamela Jolly
Pamela is a Marketing Communications professional with over 10 years experience working for both agencies and organisations in communications, travel, finance and retail industries. Pamela loves to be in nature riding a bike, skiing, appreciating the trees at her local park or exploring wild places abroad with her family.