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Community, connection and a whole lot of veggies

With Felicia

Season 3 - Episode 9

7 Dec 2021
Podcast 25:56

Growing your own food has many benefits, including eating fresher and tastier food, producing less waste and saving money.

But sometimes, it can be tricky to even know where to begin. In this special episode we talk to one of our Future Healthy Community Champions, Felicia Lau, and discuss the journey of starting a veggie garden from scratch, which grew into a shared venture with the whole community.

  • Transcript

    VicHealth ad: This series is produced by the folks at VicHealth, Victoria's health promotion agency.

    Felicia: Sometimes some of that barrier there, is that sense of failure. And what I like about the community garden is that it was shared. The successes are shared, and so that, the failures are also divided...

    Dr Sandro: The failures are shared.

    Felicia: Amongst us!

    Dr Sandro: Hello and a big welcome to In Good Health! I’m your host Dr Sandro Demaio. I’m a medical doctor, public health expert, VicHealth CEO and foodie. Well, for these last episodes of the season, we have some very special guests for you. 

    Dr Sandro: We’ll be talking to two of our fantastic Future Healthy Community Champions about how they’re impacting their community's health and wellbeing to create a healthy future for all. 

    Dr Sandro: Future Healthy is our latest initiative from VicHealth, a vision for Victoria where no young person is denied a future that is healthy, regardless of their postcode, bank balance or background.

    Dr Sandro: But we know we can’t do it alone. That’s why we are working with 14 incredible Community Champions – a diverse group of young people and parents from right across the state who are passionate about creating healthier communities. 

    Dr Sandro: Our first guest today is Felicia Lau. Felicia is a mum of 3 kids who is all about community and bringing people together. Along with her husband, Felicia started a veggie patch that turned into an ever-growing community garden, bringing with it stronger connections between her and her neighbours. 

    Dr Sandro: In today’s episode, we’ll call Felicia and discuss how she started cultivating food, as well as the importance of community, and the many benefits it can bring.

    Dr Sandro: Let’s give her a call. 

    Dr Sandro: So how are you?

    Felicia: I'm good!

    Dr Sandro: I'm super excited by this conversation because I am also a bit of a self-professed foodie, I don't know if you're allowed to do that. But I do love food.

    Felicia: Yep.

    Dr Sandro: I'm from an Italian family and I’m obsessed with food. Food was always the centre of everything. Is this, is this like a lifelong love for you as well?

    Felicia: I think more so when we've had kids, and we've been a little bit more conscious about what's being put on the table and yeah, and really growing and learning our kids in the process. So, I would say, like, we've always loved going out, but having like really good food on our home table, has really been a family thing.

    Dr Sandro: That's awesome. So, tell me about your kids.

    Felicia: Yes, so I've got three kids. My eldest, Jesse, he's in grade one. Then I've got two girls, I’ve got Elsa, she’s in kinder   , she's just turned five. And I've got our youngest, who's a busy two-year-old Aly .

    Dr Sandro: Awesome, and are they big foodies, do they love their food, too?

    Felicia: Yeah, they do. I think especially the girls, they really, they generally love their food. My middle one, she's so good, her lunchbox is always clean. It doesn't matter what I put in it, so it's so good.

    Dr Sandro: And so, food, food kind of changed for you when you had kids. Tell me a bit about that.

    Felicia: Yeah, I think especially when you first become a mum and you're in this journey of starting your baby on solids, and you're getting a fair amount of input from health professionals. Maternal child health nurses, what works with babies that age, what doesn't, what texture it should be. You’re a little bit more conscious about the nutritional value.

    Felicia: So, you're just a bit more conscious of food groups and then people are talking about it a lot more. So, then you have mum friends, and so there's a connectedness there in terms of food and everyone's talking about it. What are you giving your baby? It's a topic. It's a, it's a hot topic in motherhood, actually.

    Dr Sandro: Does it feel, I mean, I suppose there's a sense of, you know, were you kind of exploring and learning yourself as you were, as you were doing that? I mean, were these things that were kind of new to you, exploring kind of you know...

    Felicia: Yeah.

    Dr Sandro: What foods are high in what, what sort of nutrients and particularly for young kids at that age?

    Felicia: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I had to learn everything as I went along. I hadn't taken so much conscious notice. And yet as a mum, you kind of do. And I think in the age of social media, it made it a little bit easier as well. And even with my third child, I was still learning and following like people on Instagram, dietitians on Instagram, things like that, changing up variety, ways to present food to your baby. So yeah.

    Dr Sandro: Because it's not, I mean, it's not just about the food itself is it as a parent, it's also about the things you do with the food, the way, you know, interacting and touching it.

    Felicia: Absolutely.

    Dr Sandro: And experimenting with it, and was that, was that kind of...

    Felicia: And exploring, exploring food.

    Dr Sandro: Yeah, I was always told that as a kid, you know, don't play with your food. But actually, then I went to med school and realised that absolutely kids should be playing with their food, it was like...

    Felicia: Food is fun until one, don't stress out about it. Food is fun until one, I'm like, Oh okay yeah.

    Dr Sandro: Just enjoy it. And so...

    Felicia: That’s right yeah.

    Dr Sandro: How did you explore those like the things around food? You know, the cooking, the sharing? I mean, did that come naturally to you with your kids? Was it easier or harder with the first or the later kids?

    Felicia: No. I still have to do a lot of learning through my support networks and my sister, my older sister, she had already had kids. That helps a lot, the maternal child health nurse has little booklets they’ve got posters up. And then the friends who are just journeying with you, that’ve got bub’s, mothers' group, whatever, and just learning together. No, I totally had to learn everything from the start.

    Dr Sandro: When did the growing food, because for you it's not just about eating food or preparing food, but growing produce is also a big thing for your family. When did that start? How did that start?

    Felicia: Yeah. Well, that's a, that's a newer thing. I mean, we've always tried to grow things along the way, but it was really lock down last year when we entered that hard lock down, that kind of gave us that impetus to do it, partly because we were restricted in a number of activities we could do.

    Felicia: And my, my husband sort of drove elements of it and I drove other the elements of it to make it a family thing. So, you know, we needed to get out. My husband lost all his sporting activities. So, it was a really good way to get out.

    Felicia: We wanted to do something that could involve all three children, and they're at different developmental stages. And then I was really keen to incorporate it into our family life in that we were already doing juicing as a family, we've gotten into that a little bit before.

    Dr Sandro: Juicing things, making juice out of things?

    Felicia: Yeah, so cold pressed juice. We inherited one. My, my mum, my mother-in-law, passed away a couple of years ago and she, she was doing a lot of juicing. That was kind of her thing. And so, when she passed away, we inherited this amazing juicer and it was kind of a legacy for us that we could kind of keep this going. This really nice family thing

    Dr Sandro: That’s so nice.

    Felicia: And the kids loved it, the kids loved it. They loved putting all the veggies in, the fruits in and then we get juice coming out, because they're part of the process in that way. So, it's really nice.

    Dr Sandro: That’s so nice. So, like, it's not only tradition, it's something that's passed down...

    Felicia: Yes.

    Dr Sandro: Which is so, I mean, there are so many, I think for me as well thinking about my own childhood, there are so many kind of, you know, whether it's the, whether it's the pasta making machine, that kind of smooshes the tomatoes.

    Felicia: That's right.

    Dr Sandro: And the juice comes out very similar. And my Nonna gave it to my, my parents and I've got one given to me and you can kind of take it with you.

    Felicia: Yeah, that’s so nice.

    Dr Sandro: It's such a nice part of the tradition, but also getting involved as a family, it's like something that represents not just food, but also, you know, common activity and even, I suppose, love and family and connection in many ways.

    Felicia: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. It’s done that for us, and this was kind of an extension of that juicing. At the time, so my, my second child’s got a disability. She's got a diagnosis of Down Syndrome and we integrated everything in there.

    Felicia: She was doing sort of vegetables and fruits with her speech pathologist. We were helping her categorise and we were helping her with language, her speech, so language, actually knowing what the items were and then actually expressing it. And we were sort of helping her categorise things like vegetables grow in the ground.

    Felicia: Fruits grow on the trees. So, this was a really nice way to integrate it all. I realised through lockdown, actually that she learned way better and actually a lot of children do, but because she's got developmental disabilities, it sort of was a little bit more pronounced - I think with her learning, we realised that she learned way better hands on. So doing the veggie garden was an extension of that. It was about getting out, mental health, fresh air, family connectedness, actually you know, producing something together and having that sense of success and working together as a team.  

    Felicia: And then there was sort of speech therapy integrated in there. And then it, a lot of that flowed into the legacy as well, we could integrate it. So, there were lots of little bits that came together, really, that made our family go, yeah, let's do this. Because that initial set up is a bit of an investment.

    Dr Sandro: Yeah. So, tell me. I mean, I just think you've described so well, like all of the things that we often forget, come with really great food and we often think about, you know, food is kind of something that takes time. And if we're lucky, we get some energy or calories or something tasty back. But all of the things that you described along the way, not just for little ones, but for big ones as well like you and I as well. I mean, you know, connecting, learning, being outside, you know, history, connection, family, you know, all of these pieces that come with interacting with food.

    Dr Sandro: And kind of growing and preparing and even, you know, touching and smooshing and kind of, yeah, you know, coming in contact with food is as young ones develop. And I just think it's so yeah, it's amazing how much you manage to kind of get out of that experience for your kids and with your kids.

    Felicia: Yeah, absolutely. And because we got so much out of it, we then went to further extend it.

    Dr Sandro: Tell me about your own backyard so let’s, take me to your backyard for those of us who can't make it. Describe for me what I see if I'm, if I'm in your backyard, you know, visiting your veggie garden.

    Felicia: Okay, well, what it looks like. Okay, so we go, we go out our side door into the backyard. It's nice sort of rectangular backyard and right bang smack in the middle against the wooden fence. We've got a bit of a veggie patch there.

    Felicia: It's got a cute little white border picket fence because that was my thing, I wanted to make it look pretty.

    Dr Sandro: Awesome.

    Felicia: And so, we've had peas in there, we've had lettuce in there, we've got kale, we had cherry tomatoes in there, we tried to do pumpkins, we got baby pumpkins, just little small ones there. We've had carrots in various locations. It's not all nice and neat, but the kids did label them, so we got the kids to, and that was one of the ways we got them involved. They made little placards, illustrated it, we laminated it and then put it on the back of a chopstick, and it went into the ground.

    Felicia: So, there are little like cute labels that the kids could get involved in, helps to keep track, yeah.

    Dr Sandro: Growing your own food can bring many benefits, including eating fresher and tastier food, producing less waste and saving money. It can also be a great way to spend more time outdoors, keep active and even help us to connect with our local community and neighbours.

    Dr Sandro: In fact, a recent survey on pandemic gardening, by the Australian food network Sustain, found that 72% of people reported that gardening greatly improved their mental health.

    Dr Sandro: But when it comes to growing food, sometimes it can be tricky to know where to begin, let alone getting other people involved. So how do we look at making those first important steps?

    Dr Sandro: Felicia is here to share her story and answer these very questions.  

    Dr Sandro: This sounds amazing. And so, if I'm, if I'm listening and I want to start a veggie patch at home with my kids or my partner, or even in a share house. Like what, what would be, what are the kind of practical first steps that you would recommend from your own experiences?

    Felicia: Yeah. Well, I'll have to admit, Peter, my husband kind of did a lot of those initial first steps. And...

    Dr Sandro: So, have Peter as a husband, got it okay.

    Felicia: Yes, yep. First step! So, look, a lot of it was support online actually. There are some pretty good kind of gardening groups on Facebook. He joined that. And then there's an app that he used, which really helped him out as well, Plant Mate    or something like that. There's a lot of trial and error. And that's why I say that initial set up is a bit of an investment because when you're starting out, there's going to be a little bit of trial and error and I think people can get put off because of that.

    Dr Sandro: What were the initial setbacks that you had that you, you don't want people to be thrown by or you want to warn people of?

    Felicia: Yeah, I think sometimes with like Peter was telling me with the seedlings that he tried, sometimes they didn't quite work out or like he’d, or he'd get advice online and then he'd try to accommodate it, like if people say, how do you grow seedlings and then his wasn't growing. And then they'd say, oh, you need a little bit more air, and then he'd drill holes into this carton and try and get more air in there, or he’d try and get more humidity in there and then things wouldn't grow. Then he'd put it in the shed and then try and grow it.

    Felicia: And then that grew too fast. So, there was a lot of like a little bit of back and forth, and I think that process. You've got to be okay with that process of not getting it right the first time. I think if you absolutely, you know and enjoying that as well, because he said, actually, it was kind of fun, like learning and experimenting. So going with like a bit more of a fun attitude then needing to have an absolute product from your first attempt.

    Felicia: Like it’s got to grow, it’s got to look lush like on Facebook.

    Dr Sandro: Just giving it a go.

    Felicia: Yeah, giving it a go and having fun in the process, the journey itself. Yeah.

    Dr Sandro: So, tell me, tell me about because, not only did the plants grow in this case, but the garden grew too, so the garden got bigger. In fact, it kind of took on its own life in your local community. Tell me a bit about that.

    Felicia: Yes. So, it grew bigger in the sense that we extended it into the community. So, this year with this lockdown, this hard lockdown, I just had this sense like, you know, we got so much back from it, it was hard to start. What can I do to get people on this journey with me?

    Felicia: So, I had this idea to do community garden. But then like, how? How do you start one? And we had to simplify it and make it accessible to people as well. So, then I had this idea of getting planters.  So, we had one. Actually, ours was growing well, ours was growing well. That's why I said we can do this as a community, because the planters were growing really well.

    Felicia: And so, the $29 planter, soil was $6. And you chucked it in there and it was portable. And I basically put a word out to our neighbours and I said, hey, let's start a community garden who would be willing to invest $35 and add to the community garden.

    Felicia: So, we've got 7 planters.

    Dr Sandro: 7 planters!

    Felicia: Yeah. So, we had 7 planters and I said the produce is shared.

    Dr Sandro: Yeah.

    Felicia: We're going to share in the planting. And then people came forward and went, well, I've got seeds for this. I've already got this in my garden. I can bring some seedlings and it sort of took on its own life, like people wanted to be part of this in different ways. And then it was great for the kids. It was hard lockdown, there were no playgrounds and basically how we set it up - we live on a corner, we're on a corner block - and we've got it just on that corner, which actually has quite a lot of foot traffic because it leads into a walking and bike path.

    Felicia: So, it was, we have to find somewhere to put it.

    Dr Sandro: Somewhere for people to access it easily.

    Felicia: Someone, yes somewhere that people could access freely and it didn't feel like it was just outside like we owned it.

    Dr Sandro: Sounds as though very quickly it became part of the community. Once again, food and growing food.

    Felicia: Yes.

    Dr Sandro: Created connection, and a sense of connection across the community. I mean did it, was that community there, did it create community in your street or was it already like a really close street and this bumped it along? Like how's it developed the relationships even in your local area?

    Felicia: So, it's a little bit of both. Basically, at the end of last year's lockdown and seeing how the lockdown sort of progressed. So, in that same corner, where now the community garden is, I used to put a teddy bear out there during last year's lockdown, so a lot of people had them in the windows. But mine was physically on that corner and the bear used to change outfits, according to season. So, people, people loved it.

    Dr Sandro: So, there was a sense of community already, but this sort of took it to that next level.

    Felicia: There was, right. And then last Christmas, I just went, Let's invite everyone to a Christmas party. We did a letter drop Christmas party. We started a Facebook group. So, in essence, there was a Facebook group for the neighbourhood, which now has about 130 people, 130 neighbours in it.

    Felicia: So, so there was a little bit of a connection there. And then this sort of took it, bumped it up even more during this lockdown. It gave, it gave people the ability to intersect with their community at whatever level they were at.

    Felicia: So, there were people who just wanted to kind of have a look. And they did. They'd walk past and they just have a little peek. And that and that was part of it. Like, sometimes that's all the exposure that people need.

    Felicia: They’re just only ready for a little bit. They just want to have a look. And then there were people who didn't know anything about veggies, but they want to be part of it. So, they went 'I'll buy one, I'll buy one, and they were able to contribute financially in that way, physically and financially in that way.

    Felicia: And then there were other neighbours who clearly have a green thumb. They came along and they were almost doing little like tutorials.

    Dr Sandro: Oh, that's awesome.

    Felicia: Like this is how you, and the kids were learning. My kids were there and this neighbour came and was showing them how to plant. A lot of the younger kids in the neighbourhood, we left watering cans out there and gave them access to our front tap so they'd come during the whole of lockdown this year and various people would just come and water it. And the kids, I think, just love watching, I think people actually not just kids, people in general love watching things grow.

    Felicia: There's something about growth that kind of lifts an individual. So that's been really fun. And the one that, we left one actually for the kids to just kind of dig and they just threw seeds in there and we went, that one won't grow. Let's leave it like a bit of a mud pit. And guess what? It's actually grown.

    Dr Sandro: Full of plants.

    Felicia: Yeah. We don't know what's in there because the kids just chucked in a whole bunch of seeds and they were digging and stirring and watering and it was a bit of a play station. But it's actually it's growing. Yeah, so it's amazing.

    Dr Sandro: I suppose it's; I mean that the little pot of mixed seeds that's growing beyond your expectations, is kind of an analogy for the whole garden in many ways. I mean, the idea that you've created something that's so simple and low cost and, you know, low barrier of entry as well, like you didn't start out as a guru gardener.

    Felicia: Yes.

    Dr Sandro: But you kind of, anyone as you say, anyone can bring what they want to experience something of their own kind of level of expertise and just share stuff and just be, be themselves with the people around them and being a kind of a place that you know, is accepting and welcoming for everyone.

    Dr Sandro: But a common mission. I mean, how much do you think, how much do you think that that's an important part of it, that kind of common mission or the, you know, the focus of growing plants, to be able to kind of create a community that you have?

    Felicia: Absolutely. I think that, that shared experience is critical, but it's shared and I think that there's a level of connectedness that comes with that range of shared experiences, and it brings ownership into play, which kind of cycles on itself that ownership share the experience. We're in this together. So, it's yeah, it's really uplifted the community, the community spirit. We now have neighbours dropping off their own produce.

    Dr Sandro: I have to ask though, are you going, the big Christmas party this year, are you going to be growing some of your own veggies are going to have home, you know, your own community cucumbers at the Christmas party this year?

    Felicia: I would love to. That's, that's such a, such a great idea. Actually, we should. We've organised one of the neighbours to dress up at Santa, so Santa should hand out...

    Dr Sandro: Hand out seedlings and seeds, and a few cucumbers from the garden! That sounds awesome.

    Felicia: That's a great idea. Thanks for that one.

    Dr Sandro: So, so final question Felicia. I mean you, you've been part of Future Healthy which is our, VicHealth’s new program focused on supporting young people. And you're a champion, a Community Champion within the Future Healthy initiative and movement.

    Felicia: Yep, that's right.

    Dr Sandro: I mean how does, what's the plan? What's the next step? What would you love people to hear in terms of creating their own healthy future in their community? From your experience, what would be your advice or your pearls of wisdom?

    Felicia: Yeah, I think alongside kind of what we've been talking about. What I'd love to see is people adopt this we mentality when it comes to wellbeing and health. And in doing so, you're willing to partner and invite other people along with your health journey.

    Felicia: And that can be physically, that can be emotionally, socially, mentally, spiritually, wherever you're at. You can actually add value and you're on that health journey, hey, bring someone along like I totally didn't know I was doing the veggie patch. I still don't know.

    Dr Sandro: You’re doing it pretty well for someone who doesn't know.

    Felicia: Yeah, everyone thinks I do. But I'm like, I want to bring other people along with me on this and, whatever level you're at, there's always people who can journey with you, and it's the mentality of like, we could have just kept this within our family and just kept doing our backyard thing.

    Felicia: I've realised through the pandemic and a lot of the lockdown that people actually want to be on a journey together. And sometimes it's just that little bit of support and inviting people on that journey with you, sharing an experience just takes it to a new level.

    Dr Sandro: Felicia, it's been absolutely amazing. Thank you so much for finding the time to speak to us today. Felicia: No thank you for having me.

    Dr Sandro: The idea that you've started with, you know, food at the table has become food in the backyard, which has become a food movement in your community is just so inspiring. And yeah, we think you're truly amazing and we really appreciate you for joining us today.

    Felicia: No thank you. Thank you, guys for having me. It's been a pleasure.

    Dr Sandro: Thanks for listening to the In Good Health podcast. To find out more about the work that we do, head over to our website Oh, and make sure you check us out on social media under @vichealth.

Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.