Feature Story 02-Mar-2012
Australians respond generously to humanitarian disasters at home and abroad with money, goods, emergency workers and, sometimes, our own labour. During the 2011 floods, thousands of ordinary people saw what needed to be done and simply did it - a ‘bucket brigade’, working with our emergency services and welfare organisations to help people in need.
In need of a helping hand
There is, however, a problem of human suffering that is occurring daily in our local communities. It doesn’t appear on our television screens accompanied by dramatic footage and those that need our help are often embarrassed to ask for it. The uncomfortable truth is that a large and rapidly growing number of Australians go hungry regularly, and welfare agencies are struggling to help them put food on the table.
Foodbank Australia is the largest hunger relief organisation in Australia. It is a not-for-profit, non-denominational organisation which distributes surplus food to welfare agencies which feed the hungry. It has distribution centres in six states and the Northern Territory.
“Hunger is one of the best kept secrets in Australia,” Foodbank Australia’s website says. “Hunger is a largely hidden social problem and many victims suffer in silence. The victims could be a child, unemployed or elderly person in your street. Each year, two million Australians will rely on food relief and around half of them will be children. These children will often go to school without breakfast, or to bed without dinner.”
Living costs are increasing – electricity, water, petrol, the cost of housing and council rates, childcare, insurances and food, without a corresponding increase in wages. Most of these are fixed costs. When a family starts to struggle financially the food shopping list is cut dramatically. An increasing number in the community, including a growing tide of the working poor, are unable to provide enough food to feed the family and must turn to charities for assistance.
Filling the state’s biggest pantry
Foodbank Queensland is an organisation making a real difference to Queensland’s hungry. It was set up in 1996 to feed those in need by collecting and redistributing the tonnes of wasted food being dumped in landfill. Good food may be unable to be sold through regular outlets due to faulty packaging, incorrect labelling, being close to use-by date or surplus to need. Sometimes manufacturers do a special product run to fill a particular need. Foodbank Queensland also receives food from the Foodbanks in other states.
“Foodbank sources food from all players in the grocery industry – retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, farmers, processors and importers,” Foodbank Queensland General Manager Ken McMillan said. As well as generous food donors, other sponsors contribute goods and services such as warehousing and trucking.
Ken explained how the Foodbank warehouse in Brisbane acts as the pantry of the welfare sector.
“Foodbank collects food on behalf of 300 welfare agencies who, in turn, distribute the food to those in need. Agencies include St Vinnies, Salvos, Meals on Wheels, Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA), Police-Citizens Youth Club (PCYC), Wesley Mission, Spiritus, Adracare, Mission Australia, street vans, soup kitchens, domestic violence shelters, drug rehabilitation centres, foster carers and more.” Foodbank Queensland distributes about 800,000 kilos of food a month on average, helping to feed over 80,000 people a week - half of them children.
The State Government built the Brisbane warehouse and, in 2010, increased support funding to $750,000 per annum for three years. Generous corporate, group and individual sponsors also support Foodbank. The warehouse currently has 10 paid staff and about 60 volunteers.
In October 2011 the Queensland Council of Social Service (QCOSS) Annual Poverty Statement said that more than 480,000 Queenslanders were living in poverty, with seniors and other Queenslanders on fixed incomes hit particularly hard by increases in household expenses.
The number of people needing help has grown rapidly over the past few years due to a deteriorating economy and a string of natural disasters. Traditional groups such as the homeless and unemployed are now joined by ordinary families and pensioners who cannot make ends meet and have never needed assistance before.
“Demand has doubled in the last few years, firstly as a result of the global financial crisis, followed by the summer disasters of 2011,” Ken said. “The natural disasters greatly impacted on Foodbank and its charities, particularly in the first few months after the events. Our logistical resources were stretched to the limit and we were delivering emergency relief to places and welfare agencies where we had never been. We are still involved in flood relief 12 months after the event,” Ken said.
At the same time, flood damage reduced the supply of fresh produce. Generous donors like the Rocklea markets and Tully banana farmers suffered severe damage in the floods, losing their own livelihoods.
Finding enough food to fill the Foodbank pantry is a constant challenge. “One third of all food produced in Australia is wasted. Most of that is edible and most of it ends up as landfill. Our aim is to capture as much food surplus as possible and pass it on to the poor,” Ken concluded.
In the front line
Suncoast Christian Care Co-op in Nambour on the Sunshine Coast is one of the agencies working to help low-income families and individuals to put food on the table. They run a low-cost food co-op, soup kitchens and breakfasts in Nambour, a mobile food van for outlying areas and give emergency relief vouchers to people in urgent need.
Co-op manager Hugh Matchett explained how the Co-op works. “The food is sourced in various ways. We go to Foodbank in Brisbane two or three times a week to collect food. We also receive generous food donations from local supermarkets, wholesalers, and fresh fruit and vegetables from other local businesses. We have individuals who regularly donate food surplus to their needs from their gardens or eggs from their chooks. We network with other agencies in the area to share surpluses. Sometimes we receive donations of money to help purchase food.”
The Co-op has seen an increase of approximately 30% in membership in the past 12 months as the number of people unable to afford the bare necessities of life increases. People who may be ill or disabled, unemployed, single mums or pensioners are finding that budgets do not stretch far enough, once essential bills are paid, to feed themselves or the family nutritious meals.
Members choose their items in a mini-mart set-up. Some food items are free while others are low-priced to contribute towards the basic expenses of running the co-op. “People can fill a trolley for approximately $20,” Hugh said. Volunteers and Work for the Dole participants staff the co-op.
To join the co-op proof of low income is required, such as a health care card or aged pension card. There is a low membership fee to join (currently $5) and the co-op is open five days a week.
Hugh emphasised that the co-op treats members with dignity and care. Members often enjoy a friendly chat over a cup of tea or a reassurance that they or their loved ones will be remembered in a daily prayer that starts each day at the co-op.
As with most welfare groups, it is becoming harder to meet increased need for free or subsidised food. “We need much more fresh stuff from businesses and individuals. Money donations are welcome but if more people could bring in excess home-grown produce, it would really help.”
On a mission to feed the hungry
Foodbank Australia is the largest of the hunger relief organisations in the country but there are other smaller groups operating in a similar fashion to collect and distribute food to the hungry.
Food Relief NQ distributes over 200,000 kg of food via 76 welfare agencies in North Queensland, from Cairns to Mackay and out to Mount Isa.
Second Bite delivers fresh produce to over 221 community food programs in Victoria. It also operates in Tasmania and Brisbane.
OzHarvest rescues excess food which would otherwise be discarded and distributes it to charities in Sydney, Canberra, Newcastle, Adelaide and Brisbane. Australia-wide it delivers 333,000 meals per month with a fleet of 12 vans.
What can you or your organisation do to help?Foodbank Queensland suggests:
- Setting up a canned food collection at your workplace or local schools.
- Running a golf day or other fundraiser and giving the proceeds to Foodbank.
- Adopting Foodbank as your charity of choice, remembering that they fed over 80,000 people in Queensland every week.
- Talking about Foodbank and the work it does – spread the word.
- Offering your services one day a month in the Foodbank warehouse at Colmslie.
- Foodbank Queensland is always looking for support from companies who can donate food and groceries that are surplus to commercial demand. If your company is not part of the food industry but can donate goods, services, funding or time, Foodbank would like to hear from you.
- The Bay of Plenty Regional Council in New Zealand set an excellent example recently. In December 2011 they decided that instead of posting out Season's Greetings cards they would send electronic cards and donate what it would have cost to print and post these to the region's food banks. Staff members and councillors also collected boxes of non-perishable food items to donate to the food banks.
Volunteering – giving back to your community
Ann has been volunteering at Foodbank at Colmslie since October 2010. Prior to retirement Ann and her husband owned a fruit and vegetable shop. Ann learned about Foodbank from a customer who volunteered there and decided to do ‘something worthwhile and fulfilling’ in her retirement.
“Since then I really now appreciate what Foodbank does for the community. I did not realise how many people are in need of help to just keep going and how many children go
to school on an ‘empty tummy’. What truly amazes me is that if Foodbank didn't exist, perfectly good and usable food would be wasted, ending up as land fill. I realise by being in constant contact with the people from the various charities, who are always appreciative of this food, that if this food was wasted there would be many, many more hungry families around. My family has never been in that situation and I am thankful for that. I think by doing some volunteer work at Foodbank I am, in a very small way, doing my bit to help these people also.”
Ann enjoys getting to know the people from various charities who come to ‘shop’. “I am constantly impressed by their gratitude for Foodbank and also their caring and dedication to the people they help. They are very special people.”
“My advice to anybody thinking about volunteering at Foodbank is ‘Just do it’. It is a really great place to be. Ken and all the staff are really nice people and all the other volunteers are too. I really enjoy going there two days a week. I feel like I am being useful and helping other people into the bargain.”
Food for thought
Research shows that Australians discard up to 20% of the food they buy. It also shows that the percentage of food waste goes up with income. The more you earn, the more you are likely to waste. Over-catering, poor handling of food, and sometimes, just lack of thought, contribute to the wastage. Perhaps with a little more planning and care with the weekly food shop, the money saved could be donated to feed the hungry.
Sarah Pennell, Business and Communications Manager of Foodbank Australia describes food banking as a ‘win-win’ for all.
"The environment benefits - food doesn't go to waste and therefore the water, nutrients and land involved in their production doesn't go to waste…Also carbon generation which would come from the food going to landfill is avoided.”
“Society benefits – we provide 75,000 meals a day for people who may otherwise go hungry. Because we provide this food to the charities for free or for the cost of a small handling fee, those charities can use the money they save (about $160 million per year) to provide services which help the people address the core issues which have put them in their predicament.”
“One of our big challenges is to gain acknowledgment that there is a hunger problem in Australia. Greater awareness of this issue is needed in order to increase the assistance we receive from the government, companies and the public.”