“I have a vision that no one sleeps hungry in Canberra.”
That was a statement made by HelpingACT president Mohammed Ali at a convention of charities, community organisations, supermarket and government representatives focused on addressing food donation and shortages in the Territory.
The event was organised by Canberra Region Joint Organisation waste and resource recovery officer Jessica Fordyce, who said she heard the same request during her meetings with players in the sector over the past two years.
“A big response from everyone was they wanted more collaboration between [food relief] providers,” she said.
“There’s a food pantry forum, but not everyone is big enough to qualify for that. You also need to bring together the street pantries and other community initiatives.”
Ms Fordyce has identified while Canberra was an easy place to navigate, many people and organisations appeared to be restricted to their own regions.
“Everyone is stuck in their own pockets of Canberra,” she said.
“Many organisations don’t have the funding or resources to be imaginative, so through this, I wanted to force people to be imaginative and bring great minds together to find solutions.
“If we just have a bit more collaboration, maybe we can help solve each other’s issues.”
The need for food relief in Canberra was highlighted as an issue that continued to grow.
Mr Ali noted HelpingACT provided 15,000 meals in 2021. So far in 2022, his organisation had already prepared 10,000 meals.
He said support for volunteers was a major issue.
“They come, they spend their time, but then some of them need their own support, which many of us can’t afford to give,” Mr Ali said.
“We need a central training hub for our volunteers.”
OzHarvest Canberra City manager Belinda Barnier said she had also seen an increase in demand.
“I’m concerned for children who bring their lunch to school, but they haven’t had breakfast, and I’m now having to discretely drop hampers with principals that the students can take home for dinner,” she said.
“We have enough funding for just three full-time staff, myself and two drivers. We could do so much more if we had more resources.
“Just this morning, one driver had a sore throat, so that means 50 per cent of my deliveries are gone. No one on his run today will be getting a pickup or a delivery.”
She said while volunteers were the “lifeblood” of her organisation, bringing them on came with training, safety and HR costs.
“We have no capacity to do more, and this is the situation we’re stuck in at the moment,” Ms Barnier said.
Ms Fordyce also said the ACT Government had a big role to play in enabling food relief providers to get on with their jobs.
“I think because people in Canberra give so much, the ACT Government has potentially become a bit complacent,” she said.
“They think people can do this sort of thing out of their own pockets, but they’re getting burned out. They need more funding and resources.”
The ACT 2021-22 Budget committed $475,000 over four years to fund long-term solutions for food sustainability across Canberra beyond lockdown.
More broadly, it has committed $14 million each year for an “overarching” community development program with the ACT Community Sector.
Emergency Relief and Community Recovery Minister Emma Davidson said the community sector did an “incredible job” ensuring everyone had access to basics such as food and hygiene products.
“The rising cost of living is leading to more Canberrans needing support from community services, including food relief, particularly for families and lower-income households,” she said.
“The ACT Government provides funding for and works closely with community services organisations to understand and address immediate and emerging issues facing Canberrans such as food security, so everyone has access to the basic items they need to live with dignity.”
The Budget provided specific funding for OzHarvest, St Vincent de Paul, Salvation Army and UnitingCare Kippax, many of which then support food pantries.
The ACT Government has also planned to establish a Food Relief Network to bring together key stakeholders across the community sector, industry and government to share resources and ideas to address long-term sustainability.
The federal government also had a role to play, with cost of living pressures and the Capital’s housing crisis identified as two key drivers of food insecurity.
Member for Canberra Alicia Payne said addressing the broader issue of poverty was essential.
“There’s a perception that we don’t have food insecurity or homelessness in Canberra, but we do,” she said.
“Canberra is a well-off place … but that actually makes it a very difficult place to be poor.
“The need to address poverty is no less important in Canberra than it is around the country.”