We are so thrilled to speak with Cassie Duncan (pictured on the left), the Co-Founder and General Manager of Sustainable Table – a truly incredible not-for-profit inspiring Aussies to Give a Fork about where their food comes from and how to source it most sustainably. From supporting projects in developing communities that help restore the natural environment and improve food security to producing The Sustainable Table cookbook – a collection of recipes and stories from notable environmentally-minded Aussies – Cassie has campaigned continuously to help us all eat seasonally, shop locally, buy organic and reduce food waste. Read on to find out more about Cassie’s work and food philosophy…
Tell us a little bit about you – who you are, and what you do
My name is Cassie Duncan and I am the Co-founder and General Manager of Sustainable Table, a not-for-profit organisation that empowers people to use their shopping dollar to vote for a food system that is fair, humane, healthy and good for the environment. With up to 60% of our personal eco-footprint embodied in the food that we buy, I believe there is no better place to start.
What was the ‘uh ha’ moment that made you get into health and wellbeing?
I had always taken a keen interest in the environment and enjoyed being outdoors, whether it be swimming in lakes as a child or hiking with friends in my teens. I resisted getting my license for years, rode my bike everywhere, made a challenge out of having short showers and switching off lights wherever I went. But it wasn’t until my late twenties that I really started to connect the impact that my food choices have on the environment, on our food producers and on the welfare of animals.
This light-bulb moment was when my life’s passions aligned and everything fell into place. I have been a passionate foodie for as long as I can remember, meals were and are the highlight of my day. I use cooking as therapy and relish knowing the detail of how food came to be on my plate.
When I connected my love of food with my love of the land I wanted to share what I was learning with the world. Caring about our planet had always been accompanied by a sense of overwhelm or frustration at the inaction of the Government of the day, however, changing the way I eat to improve my own health, the health of the environment and to advocate for the kinder treatment of animals has been hugely empowering.
I had finally found something I had personal control over and something that could make a real difference. Where we choose to spend our shopping dollar is hugely powerful, it’s how companies turn a profit. As consumers, if we start to demand a more ethical system, using our wallets as a vote then we become far more powerful than we could have ever imagined.
How important is our relationship with food?
Food is intrinsically linked to all that we do. It fuels our bodies, it brings families and friends together and it defines our cultural identity. It has the power to keep us well and out of hospital, yet is also has the power to make us very sick.
Our regional communities will remain vibrant if we support our food producers and pay them a fair price for their hard work. The more we know about food and how it is produced the more willing we are to pay for food that has been produced with the environment and animal ethics at the forefront. If we purchase within the seasons, when food varieties are abundant and cheap, then ultimately we can save money whilst also supporting a local food system. We can live without the latest mobile phone or Friday night drinks. We can’t live without food.
What does a typical day on your plate look like?
I don’t often follow a recipe; instead I cook up whatever looked delicious at the farmers’ market that weekend.
For breakfast I will normally have toast or a poached egg or vegetable frittata, followed by a coffee mid-morning.
For lunch I normally have last night’s leftovers which might be a vegetable stir-fry or mixed salad with lentils, quinoa and some chilli and lime to pack a punch. I also love a noodle broth, pasta or simple veggie soup during the cooler months.
Dinner is normally vegetarian; however, I do eat some meat. Again, it is often similar to my lunch, unless I have done a big cook up on the weekend and then it is more likely to be a curry or veggie or goat casserole.
I’m not really a snacker, but if I do get a craving I’ll have a piece of fruit, some nuts or the occasional square or two of good quality chocolate. I’m also a sucker for a cheese platter.
What inspires you and keeps you motivated each day?
I think my mother engrained in me a deep sense of social justice and because of this there is a lot to keep me motivated. I want to do my utmost to preserve the environment so that it can be enjoyed and shared by all species, not just humans.
I’m motivated by conversations I imagine I might have with my son when he grows up about the things we did or could have done to preserve our forests, to maintain biodiversity within our food system and to protect the vulnerable from human rights abuses. Making decisions that I am able to live with is a huge motivating factor.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
My mum lived by one motto, “be true to yourself” and this has stayed with me since her passing. If you can get to the truth of what makes you happy and what drives you then I believe that only then can you be content. When we go against what we know is right or what we truly believe in then we can feel compromised, which leads to feelings of stress, resentment and other negative emotions. I am still learning to live by this motto, but this is the saying that I keep coming back to when I need centering.
What are the top 3 foods you can’t live without?
Pumpkin, homemade pasta and eggs.
What are some cafes in Sydney (or wherever you’re based!) that you are loving right now?
I’m based in Melbourne – Mixed Business is my regular local café and I just love it. The staff are warm, the coffee is delicious and the menu is creative enough, whilst still being comforting. They also have some fabulous vegetarian options.
I also love Second Home in the leafy suburb of Eltham. The cafe is housed in a beautiful warehouse-style building with lots of light streaming in and a delicious menu. What better way to spend a weekend morning.
What is your life motto or mantra you live by?
What is it that you wish to achieve by entering the health industry – what do you hope to change/improve?
I hope to see a resilient and well-supported local food system that is owned and supported by the communities it serves. I would like to see an increase in low-chemical/organic agriculture and the removal of factory farms, which see 500 million animals housed in appalling conditions each year in Australia alone.
I hope that people begin to value food in the same way they value their health, because you can’t have one without the other. I would like to see a food system that supports our farmers, rather than sends them broke or into crippling debt, one that regenerates the environment and support biodiversity.
I believe we can achieve this if we start to grow some of our own food in urban areas, we buy direct via farmers’ markets or ethical box systems and we reduce our packaging waste by seeking out bulk food stores. I know this isn’t achievable for everyone, but if more of us made a conscious effort to do at least some of our shopping outside of large retailers then I think we would see more money reinvested into regional communities, more diversity in the fresh food on offer and more ethical and environmentally sound farming practices. It would also support better systems to provide healthy, affordable food to low income families. Is that too much to ask?!
Any tips or advice for those just starting out on their health journey?
Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and start conversations with people who may have inspired you to enter into the space. Collaboration is so important and so inspiring. It’s also ok to acknowledge that you’re not perfect, expressing vulnerability or imperfection is ok and it is something we need more of in a society where much of our image and sense of identity is conveyed via social media.
To find out more about the Sustainable Table, head to http://sustainabletable.org.au/