Demand for food relief soars as Covid, inflation and natural disasters pile pressure on the vulnerable

·5-min read

Last Wednesday, St Vincent de Paul opened a new kitchen in the inner Melbourne suburb of Kensington. Fitted inside two portable shipping containers, the commercial oven and cool room will be the new hub for the long-running charity’s soup van operation, which hands out hot meals to people in need.

“Part of the reason we needed to build the new facility was we had grown so much over Covid,” says Melissa Walton, Vinnies Victoria’s soup van manager. “Even now you’re seeing more and more people coming through. There are a lot of first time callers through the welfare assistance line too, and they’re calling and requesting food.”

Prior to the pandemic, there were two Vinnies soup vans that handed out about 12,000 meals in the inner city. Then Covid hit and demand exploded: in the 2020-21 financial year, Vinnies soup vans handed out 373,000 meals, and now run nine separate vans.

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Walton has been running the soup van operation since Covid hit. She says the withdrawal of pandemic supports and the rising cost of living has created a perfect storm for people on shoestring budgets. “This end of it – jobseeker has gone back to what it was before Covid, but everything else has gone up in the meantime. People just can’t afford to buy what they used to buy.”

Vinnies is just one emergency relief outlet reporting an increase in requests for assistance with the basics.

A Guardian Australia analysis from November last year, collating a decade’s worth of data from the three major food relief providers nationally – Foodbank, OzHarvest and SecondBite – showed that demand for food relief was rising before Covid, even before the black summer bushfires that preceded it.

In the six months since, those organisations say that with inflation at record levels and the cost of living outstripping wage rises, demand has not slowed down.

“The charities we support can always take more food to meet their community needs and we still have many charities on the waiting list,” says Ronni Kahn, founder and chief executive at OzHarvest.

“In the last three months, AskIzzy searches went up 22% – this is a function on our website which allows people to search for local food relief. This is up 62% from pre-Covid times. The average is over 53,000 searches a month.”

Kahn says charities that OzHarvest works with are reporting that new cohorts are needing help – people who’ve never needed food relief before.

In Victoria, Secondbite’s international student support program at Melbourne University has doubled its weekly volume of food relief in the last six months and is about to open a new site. Sites at other tertiary institutions around the state have also relaunched their meals programs due to increased demand. In New South Wales, requests for food assistance from agencies have been coming in weekly, rather than fortnightly.

Steve Clifford, Secondbite’s chief executive, says a pensioner who went to a relief centre in Western Australia described having to reduce the amount of minced meat she bought each week, and portion that reduced ration into smaller and smaller segments to make it last.

“This is just one example of many where someone is able to buy less food each week, because their fixed income goes less distance, because the cost of food is increasing dramatically,” Clifford says. “E​veryday Australians are feeling it in the way they’ve got to eke out the food that they’re getting.”

Foodbank’s chief executive, Brianna Casey, also says they have not seen any sign of the need waning.

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“I think what we’re seeing is the compounding impact of hardship in the community. We’re seeing people who went into the pandemic in a really vulnerable position, coming out the other side in an even more vulnerable position. We’re seeing the cumulative impacts of natural disasters, which are increasing in intensity and frequency and duration,” she says.

The food relief services are lobbying the federal government for increased funding, in particular for natural disaster relief preparedness.

“Unfortunately, we went into Covid in a really precarious situation, because we had so much pressure on our services arising from the black summer bushfires,” says Casey. “We need to get ahead of this. For every natural disaster that might only be a couple of days or a couple of weeks in the crisis phase, it is several years in the recovery phase.”

There are warnings that food prices are expected to rise even further in the coming months, as supermarkets pass on price hikes from suppliers, with some analysts estimating that inflation on groceries – already at 5.3% – could increase to 12% across the year.

While Secondbite says there are no signs of a reduction in the volume of donated food, shipping delays are causing some supply issues.

The pressure shows no sign of easing on the frontline, though. Vinnies representatives say demand at the city-based soup van alone has gone up 25% in the past month.

“Our goal is not to be needed,” says Walton. “The fact that need is increasing at such a big scale – it’s good that we can be there to help, but it’s not a good story that it’s growing so much.”

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