13 April 2024

Letter from the Editor: in this comfortable city, children will go to bed hungry tonight

| Genevieve Jacobs
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food van

There’s more need than ever in Canberra for services like HelpingACT’s food van. Photo: Ronald Wang.

We’ve all heard the jibes and seen the eye-rolling about how comfortable Canberra is.

We’re told this public service paradise is full of self-righteous people on inflated salaries. And there’s some justice in the portrayal as we coast through on higher-than-average salaries compared to many ordinary Australians.

But the truth is very different for a substantial chunk of Canberrans who fall on the wrong side of the big gap between a large middle class and the most needy.

That massive distance between the haves and the have-nots is bigger than anywhere else, and the missing middle makes it harder to see how challenging life can be for people facing a long, cold winter here in the ACT, including children.

This week, Hands Across Canberra CEO Peter Gordon announced his retirement and I’m honoured to succeed him in the role.

The organisation represents hundreds of smaller local charities, raising funds and freeing them to work on the front lines instead of administration.

And where are the most significant rises in demand?

Food. People in Canberra, the epitome of a prosperous middle-class community, are hungry.

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As the cost of living has soared post-pandemic, so have the numbers of people trying to stretch their dollars across a very expensive rental market with hungry mouths to feed.

Food pantries have mushroomed across our suburbs, increasing by between 50 and 80 per cent in the past year. There are 2000 people homeless in Canberra each night, and the number of children in need through insecure housing and actual hunger is rising sharply.

Demand has never been higher, according to organisations like the Vinnies Night Patrol and Helping ACT, who have launched additional services to meet the calls for assistance.

Many of the people who need help are working, too. They don’t fit the presumed profile of people in serious need but may be, nevertheless, among the 40,000 Canberrans living below the poverty line.

And here’s the paradox: this community is, on every measure available, high on the list of the most generous jurisdictions in Australia. People in Canberra give readily and generously (on average, $700 per annum for every citizen).

But 80 per cent of that giving leaves the city for other charities headquartered and operating elsewhere.

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I’m no exception: I regularly give to organisations like Médicines Sans Frontières, The Catherine Hamlin Foundation, the Barbara May Foundation, Vinnies and other national and international charities. Their work matters and that money is needed.

But when we all give to national charities first, do we miss what’s right under our noses here in the national capital?

The task of feeding people, for example, is very much a local one. During the pandemic, many food relief organisations sprang to life, but the demand has never receded.

Local charities providing these services tend to be smaller, more directly focused on frontline needs and without the resources for fancy fundraising material.

Here at Region, our priority has always been local, and I’ll take those values to Hands Across Canberra. I’ve always believed that giving begins at home, and as a cold, long Canberra winter approaches, those needs have never been more urgent.

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They’d be stoked with the tram though.

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