“Not every carrot can be a supermodel,” Katy Barfield has said. And although at first this seems a wacky thing to say, after talking to Barfield at duNord, one of the restaurants her produce company Spade & Barrow supplies for an hour or so, I understand completely what she means.

Barfield was the founding CEO of Second Bite, a food rescue organisation that takes food bound for landfill from the Prahran Market and restaurants around Melbourne to Sacred Heart Mission in St Kilda. It is then made into meals for those in need of a feed. This year Second Bite will collect and redistribute five million kilograms of fresh food – approximately 10 million meals.

Often the fruit and veg left behind at the market is the wonky carrots and curly capsicums. Through Second Bite Barfield met farmers who also had trouble selling produce that wasn’t aesthetically perfect, but which tasted exactly as good veg should. She realised farmers were often forced to sell their crops for a pittance and chucked out what wasn’t accepted by big food wholesalers and supermarkets. “I was meeting more and more people who couldn’t afford to put good quality, fresh food on the table. And farmers who were saying: ‘We’re about to lose our farms. We are about to receive food relief ourselves’,” says Barfield. That’s when the idea for Spade & Barrow clicked. “I thought, there is a real inconsistency here. There’s something not working in our food system.”

To Barfield it is a simple, common sense proposition: pay Australian farmers a fair, transparent price for their produce. Buy it from them direct and sell it on to the hospitality industry. Avoid wasting perfectly good – if crazy-looking – produce by selling it to chefs who know it cannot be judged on its looks alone. And most importantly, connect the growers with food consumers.

“Chefs tell me they want to meet the farmer, pick the region and keep it local,” says Barfield. These chefs include Matt Wilkinson (Pope Joan, Spud Bar) and Guy Grossi (Grossi Florentino, Ombra). Cafes and restaurants currently supplied by Spade & Barrow include Arcadia Cafe, Charlie Dumpling, Chew Burger, Feast of Merit, Kinfolk, St ALi, STREAT, Tivoli Road Bakery and many more.

Forty per cent of any crop does not meet the aesthetic standards retailers and wholesalers demand. Barfield cuts out wholesalers who import what’s cheap, and perfect looking rather than what’s Australian and fresh. She can give chefs a better price because with Spade & Barrow there is no double handing as there often is in the complicated, veiled wholesale system.

Matti Fallon is the head chef at CBD Scandinavian eatery duNord. He heard about Spade & Barrow from Andrew Fisk of Bomba Bar. “He told me what they’re all about and it’s exactly what we’re about,” says Fallon. He accepted Spade & Barrow’s invitation to spend a day at a potato farm in Trentham run by Bill Henderson, one of Spade & Barrow’s producers. He and other chefs from Melbourne met Mr Henderson and learned all there is to know about growing potatoes. “That trip sold us on Spade & Barrow,” says Fallon. “I don’t have to worry about the middle man being devious, which happens all too often. It’s important to know there is some one at the end of the road where the food is coming from.”

The coffee and chocolate market has had its practices questioned in the past. They answered with the fairtrade certification. Barfield believes the tide is turning on fresh produce, meat and dairy products in the same way. “If consumers know the cost of them buying an imported, perfect-looking orange over a home-grown, local orange is an Australian farmer going out of business, then they can make that decision for themselves,” says Barfield.

Spade & Barrow releases a price list every week and itemises all the costs involved in shipping, washing, packing and distribution. It also lists exactly from where produce has been bought: the region and the name of the farmer. If Spade & Barrow need to buy it wholesale from the Melbourne Market in order to provide chefs with what they need, it will always be from an Australian producer and this will also be listed.

For Barfield, this is how you insert fairness back into the food system. “If everyone knows what everyone is being paid, and what the costs are along the way, the consumer will choose wisely. They can’t do that at the moment, they don’t have a clue.”

The other reason for this not-for-profit organisation’s transparency is to stick it to those who continue to do business any other way. “I want to sell and buy produce at a fair price and show how I do that and stay viable,” says Barfield. “To prove we can be viable and pay people good wages. To say: there is no excuse not to do business ethically."

If you want to get involved, join Spade & Barrow for one of its Community Harvests. Volunteer to help a farmer facing financial hardship harvest his/her crop and bring home food for you own table.

spadeandbarrow.com.au