Planting the seed
The history of organised food relief in Victoria dates back to the 1930s when the State Relief Committee was formed to aid Victorians in need during the Great Depression.
Food relief assists people of all ages and backgrounds – men, women, children, older adults, students and families – who are experiencing food insecurity.
During the early days, the newly formed committee visited country areas to provide goods and food and support regional organisations established as local aid collection and distribution points.
From town ball fundraisers, jam-making drives and thriving social auxiliary groups to local farmers scouring their orchards to donate excess fruit, country areas have always looked after their own.
Through depression, floods, bushfires and massive societal shifts, organised food relief has existed in Victoria for over 90 years as a safety net for those experiencing disaster and short- or long-term food insecurity.
By 2006, the need for a local Bendigo-based food relief entity was clear. Foodbank Victoria (formerly VicRelief/State Relief Committee) supported the Peter Harcourt Disability Centre in establishing a local Foodshare arrangement.
In 2008, UnitingCare Bendigo was deemed a more suitable custodian of the arrangement with Foodbank Victoria, with support from the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul Society. As a result, the local Foodshare moved to the old Gillies factory on Garsed Street.
Over the next three years, UnitingCare Bendigo continued to oversee and run operations. In February 2011, an additional partnership agreement between Foodbank Victoria and UnitingCare Bendigo saw a new Foodbank warehouse in Havilah Road open and, with this, the renaming of the entity to Bendigo Foodshare.
The warehouse at Havilah Road was officially opened in a ceremony on 2 September 2011 by the Premier, Ted Baillieu, and the Victorian Community Services Minister, the Hon. Mary Wooldridge.
Foodbank Victoria supplied freezers, fridges and shelving for the warehouse and would freight food and materials from Melbourne to Bendigo weekly. Local agencies would then access and deliver food to the local community through emergency relief programs. A handful of volunteers kept the organisation running.
In 2012, Bendigo UnitingCare realised that Bendigo Foodshare didn’t align with the core focus of operations and began work with the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul Society, St Luke’s Anglicare and the Bendigo Sustainability Group to create an independent Foodshare organisation.
The five founding agencies laid the groundwork to establish a community-owned, self-sufficient, and autonomous Bendigo Foodshare – planting a seed in the hope that such an organisation would grow deep roots within Bendigo with nurturing and support.
The purpose of Bendigo Foodshare would be to access food locally via rescued, donated and purchased sources to feed local people through distribution to relief agencies, community groups and schools. A further aim was to reduce local food waste, positively impact CO2 levels in landfills, and reduce water waste.
Within Bendigo UnitingCare, two members – Peter Goffin and Dean Shirley – were actively involved in the strategic and operational workings of Foodshare. 10 years on, they reflected on how the transition period from UnitingCare/Foodbank Victoria to Bendigo Foodshare standing on its own was a time of great promise and hope.
The inaugural meeting of Bendigo Foodshare took place on 30 January 2013, and the first Board was appointed on 6 February 2013, including Anna Howard (Chair), Dean Shirley (Deputy Chair), Dean Murphy (Treasurer), Sharon Crimmins (Secretary), Peter Goffin, Len Hiscock and Jennifer Alden.
Bendigo Foodshare was officially established as an independent charity on 11 April 2013, and by 1 July 2013, the new entity commenced the financial year officially independent of UnitingCare and Foodbank Victoria.
In 2013, Bendigo Foodshare supplied 417,000kg of food to 15 emergency relief agencies and five schools. By June 2014, food had increased significantly supporting 20 emergency relief agencies, 34 schools and 16 community meals programs.
A rush of action began, and the newly independent Bendigo Foodshare continued to improve Central Victorians’ health by reducing food poverty. The Board completed the organisation’s first Strategic Plan in November 2013 and appointed a part-time Manager to oversee the warehouse, logistics and donations.
By 2014, news of the Foodshare spread through the community, and people began to take note – more local businesses and agencies became involved, new volunteers signed up, and Cathie Steele was appointed as the new Chair of the Board. Cathie would go on to serve as Chair for the next nine years and remains on the Board of Bendigo Foodshare today (2023).
Several volunteers and Cathie are still volunteering with the organisation, including our longest serving volunteers, Colin Walls, and Charlie Grixti. Volunteering has always been at the heart of Bendigo Foodshare, with an estimated 500 volunteers directly giving their time over the past 10 years.
The early Board was enthusiastic, dedicated and high performing. However, despite the goodwill and growing reputation, things took time in the first few years of independence. The momentum needed to be faster, there were little funds for paid employees, and the organisation’s survival was constantly on the line. Yet, the Board were single-minded in their commitment and never wavered from the organisation’s driving vision.
By 2016-2017, the hard work paid off, with Bendigo Foodshare’s income now greater than operating costs – a significant achievement. In 2018, Annie Constable, a volunteer of 4 years, was appointed as one of the first paid employees and remains on staff today (2023).
Since the beginning, Bendigo Foodshare has received numerous grants, financial donations and support from generous businesses, foundations, the City of Greater Bendigo, Governments and individuals. With monetary donations, much of the early progress of the organisation was possible. Throughout the years, the organisation’s ability to survive – and thrive – has only been made possible thanks to the generous support of the community.
By 2018, over 550,000kg of food was being rescued and supplied to 49 emergency relief agencies and 45 schools, supporting an estimated 8,800 local people each week, made possible by 80 volunteers.
In 2018-2019, Bendigo Foodshare began to focus on building community capacity. It introduced a range of community engagement initiatives and outreach programs with great success – improving the visibility of Bendigo Foodshare locally while working to prevent food poverty.
Bendigo Foodshare has always valued a partnership approach and is committed to collaborative relationships. An exemplary partnership for Foodshare has long been with the City of Greater Bendigo; being involved in the rollout of their Food Systems Strategy 2020-2030 was a major milestone for the organisation.
The Board added a Marketing role to the staff, and new programs such as the Food Ambassador Program, Grow Cook Share, Grow a Row Pick a Branch, Soupfest and the Mobile Christmas Pantry started. At the same time, positive PR increased, and the annual Million Meals in May campaign gained major sponsorship from Bendigo Bank. Meanwhile, a dedicated team of volunteers, affectionately known as the ‘Foody Funders’, started distributing donation tins across the region, all helping to secure the organisation’s future.
To support this time of growth, Bridget Bentley was employed as the organisation’s first Manager in 2019, just in time to weather the storm of the global pandemic that was around the corner. In 2020, following the impact of COVID-19, there was a dramatic 40 per cent increase in demand for food relief. This extraordinary increase resulted in significant change across the whole organisation, particularly in food throughput, which increased to 892,942kg, a 45 per cent increase in one year.
From day one, the organisation has had support from Woolworths, Coles, Aldi and IGA supermarkets and other smaller grocers and retailers. Regular pick-ups in the recognisable Foodshare vans were, and continue to be, core business. Without the support of supermarket partners, Bendigo Foodshare would not be able to supply the 80+ relief agencies that rely on the food provided. During the pandemic, supermarket rescues increased to 7 days a week, from 40 to 96 collections, and with generous local farmer donations, local food increased to 72 per cent of the total food collected.
The challenges of COVID-19 were significant. Fortunately, the Bendigo community kept Bendigo Foodshare (deemed an essential service) going through such challenging times with an additional 246 volunteers, creating a diverse, engaged and active volunteer team.
The support from the City of Greater Bendigo was invaluable as they provided additional staff resources to assist in implementing worthwhile new projects, such as Help Your Neighbour, Cafes for COVID, Farmers for Food Relief and a Youth Food Poverty research project.
Bendigo Foodshare will continue to expand rapidly because, unfortunately, food insecurity is only increasing across the community – organisations like Foodshare must hold pace to make a difference. The role of Bendigo Foodshare in times of natural disaster, such as during the 2022 floods, has also expanded. The organisation is now a key partner in the emergency response for regional Victoria and must be ready to provide food relief, sometimes on a large scale, as part of the aid response.
A Social Return on Investment study conducted by Think Impact determined that for every dollar of financial investment in Bendigo Foodshare in 2020/21, $66.44 of social, economic and environmental value is created. The study estimated the total social value generated by Bendigo Foodshare to be $96.55 million.
Regional connections have also been in focus since the global pandemic. Less reliance on Melbourne for food donations and greater links to regional neighbours have created opportunities for stronger local communities.
In 2020, Bendigo Foodshare (along with Food shares in Albury-Wodonga, Mildura and Warrnambool) was designated as a Regional Food Relief Hub and received funding to increase the capacity of food relief storage and distribution services in regional Victoria. This has provided vital annual funding to support operations as well as a commitment to funds for a new warehouse.
A Food Relief Taskforce was established in 2021 to advise the Victorian Government on key strategies and initiatives to strengthen Victoria’s food relief system. The Taskforce brings together senior representatives of the food relief sector, peak bodies and key government officers to ensure that food supply and distribution is coordinated and targeted to the most needy areas. Cathie Steele is the Regional Food Relief Network representative on the Taskforce.
Bendigo Foodshare led the establishment and is also a founding member of the Regional Food Security Alliance, a partnership with Albury-Wodonga, Warrnambool and Shepparton Foodshares, Geelong Food Relief Centre and the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council (SMECC) Mildura Foodbank. The Alliance members work collaboratively to share food and resources to ensure food is going where it is most needed and waste is further reduced.
In 2022, Bendigo Foodshare’s first CEO, Michelle Murphy, was appointed, and long-serving Board member Cathie Steele handed over the role of Chair to Sue Clarke, AM. This brings in a new era for the organisation with a greater strategic focus and an even stronger commitment to innovative approaches to supporting Bendigo and surrounding communities. Central to the organisation’s mission continues to be responding to the fundamental human right of having enough food to eat.
The early vision for a community-owned, independent, self-sufficient Bendigo Foodshare also continues with plans for a new fit-for-purpose warehouse to support the organisation’s food relief efforts to be realised in 2023/24.
While the initial focus is on building a much-needed new warehouse, the longer-term vision is to consult with the community to plan what the remaining space can look like and to ensure it meets the wider community’s needs. The vision is for a food hub and open, green space where people can come together to access locally grown produce and learn to grow and share food.
It’s critically important to recognise that Bendigo Foodshare has been founded on the generosity of the countless volunteers at the organisation’s heart. Bendigo Foodshare plans to continue to work in partnership and with the community to connect people to healthy, affordable food with a focus on improving local supply and access, developing food skills and supporting a sustainable and healthy environment.
11 April 2023 marked 10 years since Bendigo Foodshare became an independent charity, a seed of an idea has blossomed into a thriving community-owned support organisation. From little things, big things truly grow.