18 March 2024

After years of helping others, Ngunnawal Street Pantries founders to shut up shop

| Sally Hopman
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Ngunnawal Street Pantries with Paul and Margaret McGrath pictured out front.

Paul and Margaret McGrath outside their Ngunnawal home – which is also a street pantry for people in need. Photo: Region.

After four years of helping anyone in need, often working 12-hour days to do so, Margaret and Paul McGrath will close their Ngunnawal Street Pantries early next year.

Ill-health, government red tape and sheer exhaustion were behind the decision, Margaret said.

She and her husband set up the grassroots movement at their Ngunnawal home in 2020 by initially placing a box of free food next to their mailbox. Eighteen months later, four pantries in Gungahlin were offering everything from free food, toys and clothing to blankets and toiletries donated by the community.

“It was during COVID,” Margaret said, adding they had not only become aware of a marked increase in people needing food and household necessities, but of those who wouldn’t normally fall through the gaps.

Despite the success of the pantries – and the thousands of people they have helped since 2020 – it has taken its toll on the couple, both of whom are nearing 60.

“It was a hard decision for us to make,” Margaret said. “But we have to.

READ ALSO People you know could be silently struggling with food insecurity: here’s how to help

“Last year was a horror year with Paul needing surgery, our dog passed away, we had a car accident. Paul has cirrhosis of the liver … we don’t know how much time he has left. So we decided to try to enjoy what time he has left.”

The couple is in desperate need of some time off. Paul, who does the administration work, spends at least four hours a day organising deliveries along with the food service. Margaret is usually up by 6am, ensuring everything is ready for the pantry to open by 10am. She usually finishes up sorting through donations and a myriad of other jobs by about 7pm.

They also open up the “closed” doors when someone is in desperate need of help.

“We knew we wouldn’t be able to do this forever,” Paul said, “we’ve been trying to make it sustainable but the politicians don’t want to listen.

Paul McGrath in front of the fresh food offered by the street pantry.

The street pantry receives fresh food from local businesses’ end of day stock which would otherwise be thrown away. Photo: Region.

“In France, they have a law where cafes aren’t allowed to throw their food away, it must be made available to the public. It’s such a simple idea and it would work well in Canberra as a community program, but we can’t get anyone to listen.”

Rather than shut up shop or wind down collection of donations, the McGraths plan to go “full steam ahead” until January next year with the pantries.

“It would be very hard for us to just slow down, so we decided to keep going as normal until Sunday, 26 January next year – that will be our last food service. After that, if there’s anything left, we’ll give it away to charities.”

Paul said he had been having talks in the hope someone or some group could take over from them next year, running it in a similar “non-judgmental, non-discriminatory way”.

It’s simple, he said. “We give items to people who need them and we’d like to see that continue if possible.”

Their philosophy remained: “People should take what they need and give when they could.”

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Trevor Willis5:25 pm 17 Mar 24

Great job. congrats

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