‘You’re not made to feel like a beggar’: the local heroes helping the hungry


Show caption Addi Road Community Organisation CEO Rosanna Barbero. The demand for food relief has spiked at the Marrickville organisation since June. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian Welfare ‘You’re not made to feel like a beggar’: the local heroes helping the hungry With lockdowns leaving thousands unable to access food and other essentials, citizens and community groups are stepping up Alexandra Carlton Sat 4 Sep 2021 21.00 BST Share on Facebook

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It’s a Wednesday afternoon, the day before Redfern-based Koori artist Blak Douglas – AKA Adam Hill – is about to saddle up his flamboyant yellow ute, Xanthia, and embark on a food hamper blitz around Sydney. His plan is to collect dozens of donated hampers, organised by his friend and fellow artist Justine Muller, to be delivered to the remote western New South Wales town of Wilcannia, where around 10% of its vulnerable, mostly Indigenous population is infected with Covid.

The town’s only general store has already closed once because of a Covid exposure and is at risk of ongoing snap shutdowns as the pandemic worsens, leaving the population unable to access any food or amenities at all. “The influx of donations has been astonishing; I think I’m getting about 20 or 25 hampers, and Justine has a drop-off point in Woolloomooloo for hundreds of other hampers,” Douglas says. A truck will be doing a run from Sydney to Wilcannia in the following days. “I’m just exuberant about what can be achieved in a short space of time, in the middle of a pandemic.”

Adam Hill, AKA Blak Douglas, setting off on a food hamper collection run in Xanthia the ute. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Douglas is just one among countless community, NGO and corporate volunteers who are seeing the shortages and suffering caused by the NSW, ACT and Victorian lockdowns – particularly in the less-accessible regions – and deciding to do something about it.

In the town of Moama on the NSW side of the NSW-Victorian border, residents put together a massive food drive for the neighbouring Victorian town of Shepparton, which this week reached 112 active Covid cases and where nearly a third of its residents were in isolation. After her sister, a prostate nurse in Shepparton, was forced to stay at home with her whole family and was struggling to get groceries, Moama resident Sari Batson put out a call on Facebook for her fellow residents to donate food, pantry supplies and medical items to their Victorian neighbours.

The response was overwhelming. Within 24 hours she’d collected around 120 shopping bags and between 30 and 40 boxes full of groceries. After a bit of asking around she found a freight driver who was happy to make the run across the border to deliver the goods. A local community organisation, GV Cares, then took over distribution.

Since then, Batson has arranged a second run of essentials and plans to do more as needed. “Isolation has brought that whole town to its knees,” she says, explaining that everyone – from schoolteachers to medical staff and supermarket workers – has been forced to stay at home. “I didn’t do much; I just planted the seed. It was the people around me who stepped up. It was so good seeing the whole community come together.”

Donated essentials being loaded at the Addi Road Community Organisation’s emergency food relief hub in Sydney’s Marrickville. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

It’s not just individuals who are coming to the aid of isolated and locked-down Australians – the corporates are beginning to step up too. In late August, as the lockdown began to hit Shepparton residents hard, Coles sent two semi-trailers full of essentials – fruit, vegetables, eggs and meat – to the town. Woolworths donated a further 21 pallets of goods. “We know Shepparton residents are experiencing unprecedented times as a result of Covid-19, so we wanted to provide urgent support,” Coles regional manager Stuart Porter said in a statement.

The various lockdowns since the beginning of the Covid pandemic in 2020 have thrown the fragility of Australia’s food system into sharp focus. In the 10 weeks since the beginning of Sydney’s current lockdown, hunger relief charity Foodbank has seen a 200% increase in demand, including 20,000 requests for food hampers from international students, who are often only able to access minimal economic relief. The charity has on occasion been overwhelmed to the point that it’s been forced to shut operations. On 20 August, it set up one of its drive-through hamper stations in Melbourne but it was closed down by police after 90 minutes because the banked-up traffic became a safety hazard. It managed to get 1,482 hampers into 520 cars, but was forced to turn a further 1,000 cars away.

At the Addi Road Community Organisation in Sydney’s Marrickville, the demand for food relief has also spiked since June. With the LGAs of concern in south-west and western Sydney locked down longer and harder than the rest of the city, food insecurity has only worsened as the weeks have dragged on.

Each week, around 300 volunteers can be found packing groceries, pantry items and personal care supplies into hampers inside a community hall, ready to be distributed all over Sydney, but particularly to the south-west and western LGAs. Pallets heaped high line the carpark, bound for various communities: Fijian, Aboriginal, Sudanese. Addi Road’s food pantry opens every day at midday, allowing around 2,000 people per week to choose their food. “The pantry is the height of dignity,” says the chief executive, Rosanna Barbero. “You get to choose what you want, you’re not made to feel like you’re a beggar or a problem. You can even get treats for your kids like ice-cream. Everyone’s kids deserve treats.”

When Covid struck in 2020, Addi Road set up a crisis relief food centre that is now servicing people across the state, including in Walgett and Wilcannia. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Barbero has noticed that people are reaching out to grassroots organisations like hers during the pandemic not just for food, but because they’re feeling marginalised, ignored and scared. When the recent lockdowns began, the organisation was fielding between 200 and 300 calls a day, with people desperate to do more than just ask for help. They wanted a kind ear to hear their stories, and to feel less alone. The number of phone calls has only increased as the weeks have worn on, so Barbero brought on extra staff to service the demand.

“These are people who keep our country well-oiled. They’re the first to lose their jobs. They live in homes with lots of family members and they’re absolutely terrified of infecting them, and also terrified of not being able to earn a living,” Barbero says. “On top of that, they’re the ones getting blamed for spreading the virus.” People in these areas want to do the right thing, she says, but the instructions and orders are often unfair and unclear. “There was all that talk about how health orders were being badly translated into other languages,” Barbero says. “They were badly translated because they were badly explained in English in the first place.”

One little girl who volunteers at the Addi Road centre came up with a heartwarming idea to comfort some of the people receiving food donations, in particular locked-down Afghan refugees who’d reported feeling particularly anxious and frightened in the wake of the recent chaos in Afghanistan. “They felt like no one wanted them to be here, so a girl called Kate, who’s only eight years old, had the idea to put letters in the parcels, writing things like ‘we love you and we’re glad you’re here,’” Barbero says. “It was beautiful. And people told me later that being made to feel wanted and accepted meant even more than the food.”

Addi Road volunteer co-ordinator Susan Conyers talks to a police officer among relief groceries. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

How you can help

Food charities and community organisations like Addi Road and Foodbank can always use volunteers. Cash donations are also accepted gratefully, as they can be spent on the most needed supplies at the best price.

OzHarvest is currently accepting cash donations from individuals and food donations from businesses, and has a stand-by volunteer list for Covid-19-affected areas. Its website also has a large database of food relief service providers, which you can use to find organisations in your area. While not all of the listed providers require volunteers or donations, it is a good place to start looking.

To help Douglas and Muller with their Wilcannia hamper drives, contact them or look for details and updates on their Instagram pages: @blakdouglas and @justinemullerartist.

To support the people of Shepparton, contact GV Cares or look for updates on the Facebook page of Batson’s business, Noel’s Quality Meats Moama.