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Jacqui van Heerden stands outside in her backyard

How one Bank Australia customer helped build Melbourne’s first food forest

March 5, 2024
June 7, 2022

Whether she’s running women’s circles, planting food forests or facilitating bicycle and clothing repair hubs, Bank Australia customer Jacqui van Heerden is taking climate and community action on her Kensington doorstep. And her work is far from over.

The Melbourne suburb of Kensington has long been known for its community spirit. It’s more like a little village, really. Bank Australia customer Jacqui van Heerden, who’s lived in Kensington for the last 23 years, epitomises this spirit.

“Kensington’s always been really community-focused,” says Jacqui. “We’ve always done things like fight to keep our primary school open, fight to keep the park from becoming a highway. […] Those are the things that Kensington has been doing for a long time. I'm just one of a number of people in the community who've been doing this kind of work.”

With a background in strategic corporate comms, and a permaculture diploma under one arm, Jacqui began looking for ideas that would have a positive impact in her community. One of those ideas was to build a food forest within the grounds of the nearby commission flats. A true community space, founded on scientific permaculture principles, that would feed and support the people of Kensington and perhaps inspire change across the city. And so the Kensington Community Food Forest was born in 2017. It became Melbourne’s first official food forest.  

“What I wanted to do, there was no job for it,” Jacqui says. “There was no advert which said, ‘We’re looking for permaculture to increase food security in the city’. I knew I had to make moves, and there wouldn’t be any money involved, which was fine because there was purpose in it.”

Jacqui van Heerden sits in her living room on an arm chair smiling

Jacqui was also spurred on by the climate crisis. And though she knew the work she was doing in her community was small in the grand scheme of things, she recognised how taking action on her own doorstep could have a ripple effect that went far beyond the 3031 postcode. “I'll get down [about the climate crisis] too, but I've learnt that little things can make such a big difference,” she says. “[…] I get angry and I get upset and I go, ‘OK, what's the best use of my energy, to spend my time getting angry or to go, what can I do here? What can I do for my community? What can I do for me? What can I do for my family, my friends? What message do I want to emit? What energy am I putting out?’”

Jacqui used that energy to pick a site within the Kensington housing commission. It wasn’t much to begin with – just a barren patch of grass, caught in shade for most of the year and underutilised. “It took us 18 months to get approval from the state government for that piece of land,” Jacqui says. “It was just grass before. We applied for the City of Melbourne Grant and got that, too, and then we were able to start and pull in the community.”

Today, the Kensington Community Food Forest is a self-sustaining ecosystem, home to 90 different plant species and 27 fruit-producing trees, tended by families and individuals who live in the flats. Jacqui describes it as a “closed loop system”. Locals plant the plants, harvest the food and even collect the seeds, which go into packets and get distributed (for free) for people to use at home. Even the compost waste from the commission housing goes back into the garden, feeding a regenerative crop of spring onion, kale, bok choy, fruiting trees and other vegetables. And it really works. During the first year of the pandemic, Jacqui and the team managed to share 500 kilograms of surplus food with vulnerable families around the estate.

“In a real forest, no-one goes in and mows, no-one goes in and prunes,” Jacqui says. “The idea of a food forest is that it manages itself in terms of nutrients, pest control, food, canopy and all that kind of stuff. It also sinks carbon, because the soil is so fertile. Together, we brought a bit of wildness back into that space.”

Jacqui tends to her garden

When it comes to Jacqui’s work, Kensington Community Food Forest is just the tip of the iceberg. Under the banner of Living Learning Australia, a business and consultancy she founded with Andrew McSweeney, Jacqui also started another community garden, the Eastwood Street Garden; then there was a cultural flower garden, full of blooms from Africa, Australia, Europe, Asia and India; a repair hub for local bicycles and clothes; a women’s circle and meditation course; and the Kensington Seed Savers, a community marketplace for heirloom and heritage seeds, many of them sourced from the food forest.

Jacqui says anyone can change the world if they “go small and slow”, which could mean starting a neighbourhood garden, or a local support group, or simply switching our everyday finances into something more sustainable. “I started looking at everything and going, ‘Where's my money? Every dollar I spend, is it helping the planet or not?’,” says Jacqui. “And so we shifted to Bank Australia.”

“It’s so important that individuals realise they can and do make a difference,” she adds. “And one of the things than people can simply do, one little thing, is take their money out of the bank that’s supporting fossil fuels and unethical businesses and put it into Bank Australia. If 40% of Australians did that tomorrow, we could totally shift the power.”

Read about more inspiring Bank Australia customers right here.

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