This article was published in The Bendigo Advertiser on Saturday 7 September 2014

THE numbers reveal all: many people in the Bendigo community are getting by on very little.

An astounding 25 per cent of City of Greater Bendigo residents have experienced a food crisis in the past 12 months.

They have run out of food and not been able to afford more, the council’s 2014 Well-being survey reveals.

Member for Bendigo Lisa Chesters said has previously said 30 per cent of Bendigo households lived on an income of less than $600 per week, which she described as “hidden poverty”.

Many residents are just one pay check – or bill – away from a financial emergency.

It’s for this reason Bendigo Foodshare, a not-for-profit organisation that provides food to 74 central Victorian groups, is vital to the city’s health.

Foodshare formed in June last year but has already made a considerable difference to agencies dealing with the coal face of poverty.

Operations manager Ray Butler, Foodshare’s sole, part-time employee, is responsible for acquiring, transporting and storing 100,000 kilograms of food each month – an incredible co-ordination effort.

Mr Butler forms relationships with donors – whether it be industrial food factories or small, local cafes – to request their excess food.

The cost of living has gone up so much and everybody is committed with loans. – Jeremy Dettman

Thanks to the help of J&A Freight and Foodshare’s dedicated volunteers, the food is transported from donors across the state – including a McCain’s in Ballarat, Hazeldene’s in Lockwood and Parmalat Bendigo – to Foodshare’s industrial warehouse at Havilah Road.

The food is stored and then distributed to schools, emergency relief organisations and community groups, to help those in need.

Salvation Army emergency relief manager Sharon Crimmins said Foodshare’s help was immeasurable.

“When we didn’t have Foodshare we were just doing over-the-counter parcels, to give people food just for the night.

“Now we can give people one week’s worth of supplies.”

“Without Foodshare I couldn’t do what I do.”

Pauline Aitken, who operates a food relief program with husband Jim from their Echuca garage, echoed Ms Crimmins’ sentiments.

“(Foodshare) is excellent, we’d be lost without them,” she said.

“They come with their refrigerated van and they keep us supplied.”

Mrs Aitken said she started the program to help farmers during the drought.

She said these days, clients ranged from people struggling with homelessness and drug addictions to professionals who had lost their jobs.

“That’s worse, because it’s humiliating,” she said of the latter group.

The Aikens open their garage to the public every day, storing Foodshare’s pre-made food hampers in their freezer, and keeping canned food in supply as well.

They also host a morning tea for pensioners on Tuesdays, to help them keep connected to the community.

“They’re a bit lonely and lost and they come in and whatever food we have we give them – a biscuit and a cup of coffee,” Mrs Aitken said.

While the Aitkens’ food relief service is assisting people in crisis, other programs that use Foodshare’s supplies are tackling the root causes of poverty.

The Bendigo Salvation Army, for example, runs a six-week “food contract” program, which involves clients having their groceries supplied to them for six weeks if they can demonstrate they’re paying off their debts.

Saltworks Pantry, another Foodshare recipient, is mostly staffed by volunteers who have relied on the pantry at some point, to help build up their confidence and skills.

The pantry’s one paid employee, Michelle Rankin, said volunteering was a great way for people to improve their job prospects.

“Many people who are unemployed haven’t been in the workforce for a long time or volunteer for a long time,” she said.

“Their self-esteem is very low. It’s a matter of reassuring them but also giving them responsibility and independent tasks as well.”

Jeremy Dettman, owner of J&L Freight – which transports stock for Foodshare at least twice a month – knows how easily poverty can creep up on people.

He said his parents “lost everything” a few years ago and had to rely on food relief agencies to eat.

“I know a lot of families do struggle,” he said.

“If it wasn’t for organisations like Foodshare they wouldn’t be able to eat.

“The cost of living has gone up so much and everybody is committed with loans.”

Mr Dettman said he was happy to help Foodshare in any way he could.

“If it means I’m out of a few dollars here or there so be it,” he said.

“They do a fantastic job.”

Ray Butler said while food insecurity was typically associated with people who were unemployed, more and more often it was also an issue for people with jobs.

“These people are bound up by financial commitments, because it’s a buy-now society, so they’ve got nothing left,” he said.

“The thing with this sort of poverty is you probably won’t see it, or understand it.”

He said the fact many students went to school without breakfast or lunch – reported by the Bendigo Advertiser on Friday – was devastating.

“If you don’t have enough nutrition, your brain can’t develop properly and you can’t learn,” he said.

He said he wanted to expand Foodshare.

“Our next phase is to look much more out of Bendigo, to rural towns,” he said.

“There are many places in between here and Melbourne and who knows how hidden (poverty) there is.”