FOODBANK FACES EVER-INCREASING DEMAND TO FEED THE HUNGRY
LIKE any food market, the shelves are stacked with familiar staples: fruit and vegetables, bread, tinned food, pasta and rice, breakfast cereals, sauces and condiments.
The difference is that all this food is given away.
Foodbank is Australia’s largest food relief agency, acting as a pantry to charities and community groups.
Every week it distributes 125 tonnes of food from its 2000sq m warehouse in Wetherill Park.
“Demand definitely outstrips supply,” says Tony Gatt, business development manager for Foodbank NSW/ACT.
Mr Gatt says Foodbank is the bridge between 25,000 agencies and food.
“We provide 109,000 meals a day – that’s the population of Darwin,” he says.
Even so, almost 70 per cent of agencies can’t feed all their clients.
“They’re sending away 65,000 people a month with nothing,” Gatt says.
Given that, it’s shocking to learn that everything in the warehouse was destined for landfill – 125,000kg of food that would be thrown away every week.
“It comes as a surprise to most people that two million Australians are living below the poverty line and 200,000 of them are kids,” Gatt says. “They are hungry or don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
They include single mothers, people with a disability or mental illness, older single women and widows and, increasingly, people in regional and rural areas forced out of cities by the continuing rise in housing costs.
The casualisation of the workforce has added to demand.
“Since the GFC we have a new class, the working poor,” Gatt says. “They’re working but they can’t get enough hours a week to support their families.”
Fate can intervene, such as the woman who had to take months off work after breaking her leg while walking her dog. With no savings to fall back on while she wasn’t working, she had to resort to food parcels from a local agency.
Too many times Gatt has heard stories of people going for days without food or eating just once a day because they don’t have money for food after paying rent, utilities and other bills.
“It isn’t just in Sydney’s western suburbs,” Gatt says.
“There is increasing demand in the inner city but the main agencies there don’t have the space to run food pantries.”
At a recent meeting in the inner west, boarding house residents, young mothers, students, pensioners, young families and homeless people all said they needed food relief. With demand rising, Foodbank will move to a new 7000sq m warehouse in Glendenning in October. Yet Gatt says hunger remains a hidden problem.
“There’s one reason,” he says.
“Shame. If someone has a terminal illness, there’s no shame in saying they need help. “But if they are struggling to feed their family, they feel ashamed so it’s not spoken about.”
The food journey begins in the Wetherill Park warehouse, where shelves and pallets are stacked with donations from producers and retailers. The items might have damaged packaging or, in the case of fresh produce, they aren’t perfect enough for shoppers conditioned to buy flawless fruit and veg.
The remainder comes from partnerships with suppliers. For example, Foodbank has been buying sheep and cattle at auction to produce meat and buying wheat to be milled and turned into bread.
“For every $1 we spend, we generate $7 worth of food,” Gatt says.
“We need food but more importantly, we need money, even though we get mates’ rates.”
Each week 30 volunteers are needed in the warehouse.
Along with the regulars, many come from corporations as part of their philanthropic activities.
One such group has come from Macquarie Bank as part of its charitable foundation.
“We wanted to give some time and labour to help more physically,” says Murray Priestman, Macquarie’s global head of talent, as he helps his team bag oranges.
“There is an element of team building but we think it’s important to spend a bit of time to put something back in.”
Those bags of oranges end up at welfare agencies like WestCare in Penrith, which provides groceries to about 6000 people a year.
“Sometimes they’re homeless or have long-term health issues or they’re struggling with finances because of rising rental costs,” Andrew Peach, WestCare’s manager of emergency and relief services, says.
In the past 18 months, Peach has noticed a change in the people seeking emergency food relief.
“There has been an increase in the number of people who come in because of a small change in their circumstances,” he says.
“If one person loses their job or has their hours cut, everything can change. It’s a real change from that long-term welfare dependence.”
A marriage breakdown changed everything for Margaret Gbeintor.
The mother of two young children was homeless and had no money for food.
“I was really desperate,” she says.
WestCare provided food and other emergency relief but also helped her get her life back on track.
“They encouraged me and told me I could start again,” she says.
She is studying community services and has found a place to live in Werrington, near Penrith. She also volunteers at WestCare.
“I want to give something back to the community,” she says.
To learn more or to volunteer go to foodbanknsw.org.au
Tony Gatt in the Foodbank warehouse (above), volunteers from Macquarie Bank (below left) and Andrew Peach from WestCare with Margaret Gbeintor in the agency’s Penrith food pantry.