Growing Community at the Blackheath Vegie Patch

the vegie patch in blackheath

Mel Michael at Blackheath Vegie Patch with kale from a local’s garden.

Story and photos by Hamish Dunlop

Mel Michael is the newish owner of the Blackheath Vegie Patch. We talk about making lemonade from local lemons, a philosophy of abundance, and how businesses can help make communities more resilient.

Key Points:

  • The Blackheath Vegie Patch recently changed ownership and direction.
  • New owner, Mel Michael, is passionate about food and takes a community-minded approach.
  • To reduce food miles, support local food security and provide the freshest food possible she sells produce grown by locals and farmers as well as food sourced from Flemington Market.

In just a few months Mel Michael has transformed the local Vegie Patch into a community-engaged enterprise that honours the produce, the producers, and the power of connected community. “We’re not individuals on islands,” she tells me as we sit out the back on milk crates. “I just want people to be more in touch with their food, that’s my driving force.”

As well as a full array of fruit and vegetables, Mel sells seedlings. She also donates seedlings to the community gardens in Blackheath and Blackheath Public School on a fortnightly basis. This stems from her philosophy of abundance. “Someone said to me, ‘If people buy seedlings and you give these plants to the community gardens, you’ll get less sales. My response is, that’s not what’ll happen. What will happen is that we’ll be a healthier community and more people will eat good food.”

seedlings at the vegie patch in blackheath

Seedlings and herbs outside the store

Affiliate Growers Program

The Affiliate Growers Program Mel runs speaks volumes about how she sees herself and the role of the store in the community. Community members can bring in produce and exchange it for store credit. “All people need is a few square metres of garden and they can register with us,” she says. “I don’t mind if it’s six bunches of basil a year, or five kilos of tomatoes. Affiliate growers also get discounts on seedlings.”

Mel says the program has social and economic benefits. “I hear a lot of older people say they used to have food gardens, but they don’t now because it’s too much. When the gardening stops though, so do the other benefits of having fresh food to hand, moving about, being outside and getting your hands in the dirt.”

The other day, one of the resident growers came into the Vegie Patch with a few bunches of kale. Kale was in short supply, so it helped the store out and supported local cafes in the process. The man who grew the kale decided to use his credit to get Black Cockatoo Bakery sourdough. Mel grins, “He’s made it his mission to get free bread for a year from his little garden plot.”

local lemons at the vegie patch in blackheath

Lemons grown locally

Lemonade from lemons

She tells me about a local man who came in and mentioned he had a lot of lemons that were going to end up rotting on the ground. Mel bought 47kg in total. “They weren’t perfect lemons, but they were local. I put a sign up saying, ‘Steven’s local lemons’ and they flew off the shelves while the glamour lemons from the market didn’t move.”

“He was really chuffed to see people buying his lemons,” Mel says. “We had number of conversations too, which was great. When you live alone for example, that kind of contact is precious. I’ve been on the hard end of isolation and at those times, you just want someone to talk to you. Blackheath is amazing like that. If you watch the street, there are always people about. People that you can strike up a conversation with.”

Locally grown food security

One of the interesting things about locally supplied fruit and vegetables is that it makes communities more food resilient. Weather events in different parts of the country and other factors can affect supply. When Steven came in with his lemons, the price at Flemington Market was $180 per box. His supply meant that Mel was able to keep the cost of lemons at a reasonable price for another five or six weeks. “It’s a benefit to the community,” Mel says.

Having just started the business, much of the produce Mel sells comes from Flemington Market. However, her aim here as with everything, is to buy locally and buy ethically. She’s talking with Lot 101 in the Megalong and is interested in any other local growers. She’s also keen to make ethical choices when it comes to purchasing. “I’ve found a farmer who is going to grow all my potatoes,” she says. “My commitment to him is that I will buy all his potatoes at a good price. I won’t chop and change, or not commit to how much I will purchase.”

All service, no waste

Nothing is wasted in store. If the community gardens need cardboard to suppress weeds, then that’s available. Food that is no longer shop-ready but perfectly edible, goes to a cook who makes soups for Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre. People collect older produce for their chickens and what’s left is composted. Blackheath Community Farm is one of the benefactors of compostable material.

Cooking bananas on sale outside the shop

Mel sells stir-fry and soup packs and bananas labelled for cooking. She’s created a juice bar so excess berries and other fruit can be frozen and used when needed. She tells her staff that the store can be a place to engage with the community. “If someone’s got lemon grass in their basket and potatoes and onion, I might ask if they’re making a curry of some kind,” Mel says. “Even if they’re not, we’ve exchanged some words and interest. It’s fleeting, but it’s connection.”

Mel thinks this is what real service looks like. “If I notice an older person pausing in front of the pumpkins, maybe their arthritis is stopping them making the purchase. I have one lady who comes in and we cut half a pumpkin into five pieces. She gets me to leave the skin on because she bakes it in the oven. You can’t get anything cut or peeled at Woolworths, but we can do that.”

Heirloom tomatoes at the Vegie Patch

A gardener’s life

Following the birth of her now ten-year-old daughter, Mel suffered serious postnatal depression. One of the ways she dealt with it was maintaining 12 garden beds at home. She tells me that before buying the Vegie Patch, she wrote court and sentencing reports for judges. She says this bureaucratic work didn’t feed her soul. “It wasn’t fulfilling,” she says. “Some days I go home and I’ve peeled potatoes for someone or cut up a pumpkin. What I do now makes me feel better than I ever have before.”

Christmas cheer

I’d heard that Mel had helped out with Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre’s Christmas Day lunch, so I rang Jade at BANC to ask her about it. “What didn’t she do!” Jade exclaims. “She planned the menu, donated all the fruit and vegetables and other supplies. We went down to Penrith in her van to shop and collect catering equipment. One of her friends cooked in the days leading up to the event and was there on the day. Mel was too. She’s incredible. I’d agreed to organise it, but Mel made it happen.”

volunteers at the blackheath Christmas Day lunch

Volunteer chef Xavier and volunteers Max and Bridey making trifle at the Christmas Day lunch. (Photos supplied)

A way of living

When I first went to the Vegie Patch and sat with Mel out the back next to the cool room, I’d felt right at home. We laughed about the desiccated rogue turnip we’d both noticed as she was telling me how everything gets used one way or the other. I’d watched the way she interacted with her staff and the delivery man who came to drop off apple juice. She spoke to me in the same way: clearly, matter-of-factly, and from the heart.

“I do as much as I can,” Mel says, but she stresses that no one has to do everything. “We can all just do little things. At the end of our lives, I always say, especially to my staff, it doesn’t matter what you did in your life, it’s how you did it. Did you do it well? Did you care about what you did in that day? Change comes for us and the world when we put our best foot forward.”

Take Action:

  • Support Mel’s vision and the community by buying local.
  • Join the Affiliate Growers’ Program.
  • Grow your own fruit and vegetables for health and wellbeing.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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