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Fighting Hunger ... ... Feeding Hope

The Challenges and the Opportunities facing Foodbank Aotearoa New Zealand and Foodbank Canterbury during and moving forward under COVID-19

Foodbank Canterbury is the food bank that serves Canterbury and beyond. FBC is part of an amazing international network of food banks under The Global Foodbanking Network. Here in Canterbury, we work in partnership and collaboration with more than 130 community-based agencies: food pantries, women’s refuges, Maraes, Plunkett, after-school programs, Iwi and Pasifika social organisations, Community housing complexes, soup kitchens, school systems etc that work with our communities throughout our region. We operate a Foodbank Hub in Timaru and supply food resources to rural Canterbury and the West Coast through the FBC Food for Hope program.

Before the pandemic we were redistributing food to resource around 140,000 meals per month.

Then came 2020.

In 2020, we experienced a disruption like never before. Every region, all our agencies and people were impacted. We looked around and saw the amount of pain and distress that was tragically so rapidly spreading across our regions. And yet in most cases, we witnessed an inspiring level of resilience and ‘let’s get through this together!’. It was a sense of Kia tu̅pore – let’s be kind.

During the height of the crisis in March, the vast majority of the local food pantries, soup kitchens, faith-based organizations, and other community groups that FBC had worked with to distribute food to the community closed temporarily. At FBC It forced us to replace our business-as-usual with a somewhat new approach grounded in innovation and possibility whilst remaining true to our Kaupapa … … we dared to believe!

As time went on, we recognized the opportunity to accelerate what we did. This meant assessing whether existing partners could expand what they offered, finding new collaborators, and when necessary, providing services directly.

At FBC we don’t see ourselves as just acting in the food sector being part of the FMCG chain, but eradicating poverty, and we needed to reach across all sectors to do that.

It happened quickly, it was dramatic, and it has stayed with us. Within weeks we were serving 120% more people than we had been serving at the start of the year … … that just gives an idea of how rapidly the need increased.

As a result, our operations have had to increase significantly and rapidly. It felt like we had to turn and figure out how to navigate an unknown and complex situation while scaling our business in ways that we’d never really even imagined that we would need to.

During the year, Foodbank sourced almost 950,000 kilograms of food and related product via both donations from the food and grocery sector, farmers, and the purchase of key staple items, all thanks to funding from our generous funders, corporate partners, and individuals. This record volume equated to 2.63 million meals in the communities we serve – an increase of nearly 69 percent on 2019 and enabling FBC to generate a social return on its activities worth $21.2 million!

And yet, it’s sad for us to watch on TV that there are kids and parents sleeping in their cars. It is heart-breaking.

All of that has provided a lot of lessons, and truthfully, I think it’s going to take us a long time to learn all those lessons but addressing the underlying drivers of food insecurity requires to go a step further. We have seen a shift in our ‘need audience’. We are daily being confronted by people who have never asked for help before. Despite the fact that the economic fallout of the pandemic extends to every part of the socio-economic strata, it disproportionately affects underrepresented people, so we need to seek this element so that we can start to strengthen relationships with these hard-hit communities within our service areas. Unfortunately, because we have a lack of vital statistics in this area in New Zealand, finding these people is no easy task. People tend to keep their hunger and need close to themselves – it’s a dignity thing and very Kiwi.

One of the pandemic lessons is that we can never be totally prepared for what’s to come and yet 2020 also proved how resilient, flexible, and adaptable Foodbank Canterbury was in the face of enormous challenge. Yet there is so much more to do.

Despite the New Zealand economy being far better than was originally expected last year, we are seeing more need – a need that is now moving mainstream.

What does this mean for Foodbank Canterbury and food relief in general?

FBC needs support. National and local government support; we need corporate support as well as local community support. Instead of donating food to FBC we are asking people to consider donating - doing ‘virtual food drives’ amongst friends, this makes it possible for us to go out and purchase the food that we need for our communities – and the FBC buying power is around 5x more than what we can purchase at our local supermarket.

We also need volunteers. During the pandemic we were so thankful for the volunteers that came through - from locals to some visitors to our country stuck for visa reasons … … it was wonderful. But we still have that need because what our volunteers are working on are the emergency food boxes that flow out every day across the community, so there’s a huge need for volunteers.

I would also say that there is the need for a conversation, for companies and for individuals to learn more about the issues of fighting hunger and crashing food waste and educate themselves on what we can do together.

All too often when I go and address groups throughout our region, I am confronted by those questioning why parents can’t give their kids school lunches – ‘like we did’. I am told over and over ‘I don’t know anyone who is hungry’. Our wish at FBC is that we could come together and put aside any animosity that we might feel towards people in need and recognize that there are people who are having to turn to food pantries. The majority – and yes, we do have sponges but that’s the minority … … the majority don’t choose to do this. This isn’t a place that they want to be in their life. And, in fact, when they ask for food help, I think it’s possibly the bravest act that they’re taking. It’s a loss of dignity. Parents who choose to ask so that their children can have food to eat; seniors who call us rather than not paying their winter heating bill, that is heroic.

So rather than questioning why people might need food or the choices that they have made to get into that set of circumstances where they need assistance, I wish we were able to come together and to advocate for a safety net that can really support us when we need it. This is not a problem that FBC can solve alone. We need central and local government financial support; we need strong public programs like school-based nutritious breakfast and lunch programs; programs that serve people with disabilities and seniors; programs to help young solo Mothers; we need to educate all our people about food waste … … but it will not happen overnight.

We are a country that grows, produces, and imports sufficient food to ensure that every Kiwi has a health meal every day - so this is a country where no one should go hungry. But in order for that to happen, we have to come together, support the organisations like Foodbank Canterbury that we have going for us and advocate for a world that is truly better for all.

New Zealand can be a beacon for the rest of the world.

©Foodbank Aotearoa New Zealand May 2021 John Milligan CEO


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