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‘We don’t have jobs’: Unprecedented demand for emergency food relief

Supermarkets have been buying greater amounts from suppliers and selling more to consumers, reducing the amount of surplus food and lowering donations to charities like Foodbank by 25 per cent.

More than 20 Victorian organisations offering food relief have shut their doors due to a lack of volunteers as people stay home, and charities that previously welcomed vulnerable people into communal food halls have been forced to distribute food in hampers from their front doors.

Paola Moreno, a Colombian international student, is struggling to pay her rent, food and tuition fees after she lost her job.

Paola Moreno, a Colombian international student, is struggling to pay her rent, food and tuition fees after she lost her job.Credit:Penny Stephens

“We have rent, university fees, and food to pay for, but we don’t have jobs,” said Paola Moreno, one of the hundreds of international students who lined up at a Southbank relief centre run by Planetshakers pentecostal church.

Ms Moreno, aged in her early 20s, lost her marketing job at a private college last month. She can’t return to Colombia due to border restrictions and can’t access government relief payments because she is on a student visa.

“We have a lot of worry and fear … we are here without any support, we can’t go back home and we are vulnerable,” she said.

In the queue with Ms Moreno were dozens of students in similar predicaments. Tuition fees have not been reduced as many have lost jobs. Volunteers at the Southbank charity said they were often acting as crisis counsellors to students facing the most dire situations of their lives.

International students, seen here queuing for food, are not eligible for government support.

International students, seen here queuing for food, are not eligible for government support.Credit:Penny Stephens

Before the pandemic, the charity served about 200 people a week. On Sunday, this number was almost 1300, and the group has set up sites in Pakenham, Lower Plenty, Ringwood and Geelong due to the growth in demand.

Relief charities across the state told The Age that sections of society were experiencing food insecurity for the first time.

Driving part of the demand are families in the outer suburbs where the primary income-earner is a casual or contract worker with no access to leave entitlements.

Younger women – who make up a large proportion of the badly-affected retail, food and accommodation sectors – have been requiring emergency food packages at an alarming level, according to three inner-city charities. Women were already one-third more likely to not afford food, according to Foodbank.

Volunteers hand out groceries at Planetshakers church's relief centre in Southbank.

Volunteers hand out groceries at Planetshakers church’s relief centre in Southbank.Credit:Penny Stephens

As more people have entered periods of financial distress, the quantity of food available to charities has dried up because supermarkets and other companies that usually donate food have not been able to stock their own shelves that were stripped bare for weeks.

Foodbank, which provides food to almost 150,000 Victorians a month, received 25 per cent less food donations in March and April than it did for the corresponding period last year.

At the same time, the charity has had seven times the usual number of applications from new groups, like women’s shelters and other community organisations, to access their food supply.

“It’s the perfect storm,” Foodbank Victoria chief executive David McNamara said.

“The demand spikes are everywhere.”

“The most vulnerable who didn’t have capacity to get in and buy food [when the panic-buying was occurring] are the ones falling to the reliance of the charity sector now, and that food is increasingly difficult to find for them.”

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