In one of Australia’s most disadvantaged suburbs, hunger is one of the main pandemic aftershocks

In one of Australia’s most disadvantaged suburbs, hunger is one of the main pandemic aftershocks

Off a six-lane highway, behind sagging power lines and a cracked brick wall, is an old church hall. 

Almost every Monday afternoon, cars bump along the gravel car park, men and women on electric scooters bounce over the footpath past overgrown weeds and dandelions towards the double doors, for food and company.

Emma Delladio parks on the kerb and lights a cigarette before going in, struggling to catch a light in the afternoon breeze.

“I haven’t had one all day,” she says.

Emma comes to NCI for the company almost as much as the groceries. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)She came from the Salvation Army on the other side of the highway where she ate ham and salad sandwiches for a $2 donation and helped sew shopping bags from old T-shirts.

This morning she wrangled her eight-year-old, Mark, to school just in time. House to car is the hardest part of the morning, she says.

Mark had wolfed down a croissant the night before, the one meant for lunch, and about a dozen yoghurts; almost demolishing a week’s worth of food in two days.

Emma had tried before to explain to him they could not afford it, but how do you tell a child to stop being hungry?

With a handbag slung over her shoulder she heads inside where it smells like tea and broken-down cardboard. Fairy lights drape across the hall, their bulbs barely visible through the streams of diffused sun pouring through the windows.

For three years, Emma has come to Norlane Community Initiatives — or NCI as everyone calls it — to stock up on supplies at the peoples’ pantry before heading to the kitchen to help prepare the weekly community dinner.

Emma struggles if NCI closes for school holidays or due to pandemic lockdowns.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)It’s been around for nine years, run by Baptist couple Kaylene and Simon Reeves down a skinny avenue off a slip lane in the heart of 3214: one of Victoria’s most disadvantaged suburbs in the northern flatlands of Geelong, where it’s common to go to a funeral for a 40-year-old more than once a year.

The Reeves wanted to change that, to teach the community about nutrition and cooking and gardening to put power back in their hands.

They spend $80 a fortnight at Foodbank to stock up on essentials. Locals pay $15 every six months to be a member which allows them to fill a box with their choice of dried and packaged foods once a week.

Emma takes her seat and scans the contents on display. Boxes of mi goreng, Yaki udon, Heinz soup, and rice paper roll dipping sauce have been emptied and placed in neat rows on trestle tables covered in red, yellow and blue cloth.

Norlane Community Initiatives is funded by the Baptist Church. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)Mustard, long-life milk and muesli bars lean against cans of chickpeas, packets of crisps and waxy bags of liquorice. There’s organic rice puffs, curry paste, whole-wheat pasta, and oat milk. The only difference between the tables and a supermarket is that almost everything on the tables passed its best-before date a few months or years ago.

A woman in an electric wheelchair with a bright orange flag flying out the back reverses in between two chairs.

A toddler runs after a man who sells the Big Issue.

Hannah, a volunteer in charge of organising the pantry each week, announces a new discount for pre-cooked family meals that can be ordered and delivered for free if you live in 3214.

They’re usually $12, now they’re $10.

Mark wants to grow up to be a professional sports player. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)Emma looks at the menu. It’s normally too expensive but maybe she can afford it if they’re offering free delivery. Maybe.

“Some of it looks good,” she says, and a woman seated next to her nods.

Almost everyone here is a woman. There used to be more men, Simon says, but they’ve dropped off lately, he doesn’t know why.

People walk up to a low table where Hannah smiles and hands them a white card with a number on it and an assortment of small, coloured cards that match the trestle tables.

The more people in your family you need to feed, the more coloured cards you get.

Hannah shuffles the numbers around. People used to be able to choose their number but so many turned up early to get number one they started making it random.

A woman in green smiles, she shows her friend her card. She can go first.

Emma gets number 12 and waits patiently to be called.

Each person takes their time, assessing the tables, choosing carefully. A sign on the wall says ‘take what you need’, a slogan that’s come to define 3214, which, after years of unemployment rising alongside the cost of living, has come to rely on its own more than the institutions meant to help it prosper.

Number five is called and a small boy, Theo, comes forward.

“Number six!” A woman in blue.

The smell of fried food travels through the hall as the woman with the electric wheelchair fails to hide a paper bag of chips.

Clusters of women chat about school’s opening up, the footy finals, and the warming weather. Life seems to be, slowly, returning to some sort of normal again, they say.

Except here.

Here, the pandemic has exacerbated the need for food.

Hunger reaching further

After seven years, Derek Wyse still sees new faces come to his window almost everyday.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton )Down a concrete driveway next door to an op-shop with a leaning wooden cross in the front garden is a small sliding window.

And behind that window, on most days of the week, is Derek Wyse.

He’s lived in the same one-storey house in Corio for 60 years and volunteered at St Andrew’s Foodshare for the past seven.

He gives out up to 160 food parcels a month to families, singles, migrants, refugees.

He’s traditional, there are no screens in the cubby, just an exercise book, its weathered pages filled with names stretching back years, and small rectangles of cardboard with dates and numbers.

Last month: 147.

“It hasn’t always been this bad,” he said.

A standard parcel, the size of a regular supermarket bag, has rice, bread, yoghurt, a few pieces of fruit and vegetables.

They sit side by side behind a sliding wooden door decorated with finger paintings from children at the Sunday school two doors down.

During the chaos of the past 18 months, the people “were all over the place”, Derek says.

“Some days we have two people come, other days 40.”

Derek Wyse says with each lockdown, people are getting more desperate.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)Every time someone comes to the window, Derek writes their name in his book. If it’s their first time he writes ‘new’ in red ink next to it.

Two new people have come to the window almost every day this year.

Most of the food is bought with funds raised through the op shop next door, which made it difficult to feed people last year when the store’s doors had to close.

He’s not sure why the need in Geelong’s north is so high, but he thinks it’s probably due to the exodus of manufacturing and consequent rates of unemployment that hit 20 per cent five years ago, about five times the state average.

“I worked at International Harvester, Pilkington’s Glassworks, it’s still here but under a different name and it has one-tenth of the people unemployed,” Derek says.

He volunteers here most days of the week as part of the government’s work for the dole program.

He receives $683 a fortnight, which is enough, he says because he’s lucky enough to own his home and doesn’t pay rent.

He doesn’t drive, it’s too expensive.

“Rego, insurance, something breaks and you stick your hand in your pocket.”

Derek says about two-thirds of the people who come to his window each day are families, one-third are singles.

The window only serves people living in Geelong’s north: Lara and Bell Post Hill. And usually, that isn’t a problem, but more recently people from as far as Colac and Winchelsea have shuffled down the driveway asking for help.

A few years ago, Derek would have given them a parcel as a once-off and told them next time they had to look closer to home.

He can’t do that anymore. There isn’t enough.

Trying to move away from food banksBy 3:00pm back in the church hall, the coloured tablecloths are shaken out and folded away, the trestle tables are collapsed and placed in cupboards where people have scrawled their names along a painted tree truck. People who have been coming for years, people who have died.

Parents leave to pick up their kids from school, including Emma. They’ll be back for dinner.

Those that stay sip tea from mismatched mugs and nibble on arrowroot biscuits.

A group of women head into the kitchen to prepare dinner, passing posters with designs for what the centre could one day look like: a playground out the back, a veggie garden, sealed car park, a cafe and a chicken coop, fruit trees.

“People think we don’t care about where we live but we do, we just need the right tools,” Simon says.

But Australia’s housing market is a force too big for one community centre to reckon with.

Average weekly rents have climbed by more than $100 a week over the last few years, and when the roof over your head is in jeopardy, spending on food often comes last.

Houses for sale in Norlane and Corio are bought sight-unseen by investors in Sydney and Melbourne. It’s rumoured one woman owns at least 60 properties in Norlane alone, whether true or not it makes people fear for the piece of the world they carved out for themselves.  

Those who are priced out are travelling further afield to towns like Colac and Winchelsea, and the food relief trucks follow.

It makes Simon mad to think the people he has worked for nine years to help are disappearing because someone hundreds of kilometres away wants to make a buck or sees their home as an economic opportunity.

“I get riled up about investors making money off our neighbourhood,” he says.

“They don’t care about the people here.”

The Reeves have used neighbourhood front and backyards to grow community gardens. They’ve lost count of how many they have now.

Working bees are organised to turn soil and pick the crop for a Saturday farmers market where people in 3214 get everything at half price.

The Reeves wanted NCI to create self-sufficiency and solve a problem rather than create a new one. But with 15 food organisations in the region, 12 more than when they arrived, Simon is struggling to understand what the centre stands for now.

They never thought it would be themThe problem is discussed in figures that keep growing. 

A new report by Deakin University researcher Fiona McKay found food relief centres in Geelong and the Surf Coast saw fewer food donations, less local business funding, and fewer volunteers compared to pre-pandemic levels, but the need had increased by at least 50 per cent.

One of the town’s biggest food relief centres — Geelong Food Relief — has hired 27 more volunteers to help feed more than 23,000 families this financial year.

But chief executive Collin Peebles says he needs to find another 23 to rescue brown bananas and day-old bread from supermarket backdoors, to stack shelves and fridges and welcome those who silently approach the centre’s mini-mart to choose what they want; a little power given back.

Many newcomers apologise, say they never dreamed they would need to ask for help to feed their family.

Greater Geelong Council threw $1 million into renovating the centre so it could store 1 million more kilograms of food.

This year, trucks started travelling further, all the way to Colac and Camperdown, hundreds of kilometres from headquarters.

“It shows there is a need,” Collin says.

“There always has been but more so due to what’s happened to these isolated communities after the pandemic.”

The response has gone all the way to the top echelons of the federal government and reached the tens of millions of dollars.

Victoria’s government provided one-off grants of up to $75,000 to almost 100 organisations last year from Ballarat to Banyule and Geelong to Gippsland for projects called Free Food Fridays, the Open Pantry, Lifting Spirits Community Market, Project Joy, There is Hope.

Here in 3214, those who are helping are still struggling to keep up with demand.

The economy may have bounced back, Collin says, but those who were teetering on the edge fell into debt, withdrew from their superannuation, defaulted on their homes, lost jobs, lost income, lost security.

The moratorium on evictions kept roofs over heads but kept hardship hidden behind insecure walls; rent and mortgage deferrals created a backlog of debt, house prices soared in regional centres kicking out long-term tenants for first home buyers desperate to step on the ladder.

Those that suffered were those already suffering.

Now, Collin travels around Victoria to advise regional and rural centres on the best model for food distribution.

In all his time working at the Geelong centre, he says, he’s never seen the need, especially for fresh food, reach so far into every corner of the state.

“Difficult times,” he says.

The centre of last hopeAs 5:00pm approaches the fairy lights begin to twinkle and more people arrive: pensioners, single parents, a teenager in a comic book hoodie with her grandmother.

There are men who tie their dogs to trees outside and toddlers plinking piano keys.

People here say NCI is good for “the off week” — the week without Centrelink deposits, the week where decisions need to be made: petrol or school camp? Dinner or the leak in the roof?

Most people say they don’t just come for the food anymore; they come to be around others, to sit amongst the chitchat, to clean dishes and wash potatoes, to contribute.

“It’s good to see everyone together again to share some food, share some company,” Simon shouts. But no one is listening because everyone is chatting, so he gets a microphone.

Announcements are made about volunteers needed to deliver meals to houses, there’s a tree planting session in Cowie Street soon.

“Come and talk to me if you want to save the planet!”

A girl called Alana is turning 10 tomorrow and everyone launches into a rendition of happy birthday.

Two teenagers help bring plates of steaming veggies and chicken rissoles to tables. Slices of French bread lathered in margarine are placed on each table in wicker baskets.

Emma snuggles in beside her eight-year-old Mark and digs into the meal she just helped cook, talking to other mums about school fees and the shoes their kids keep growing out of.

Simon says a prayer and tells someone to hit the music.

The pandemic has made life tougher for many residents in Geelong’s north.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton )Posted 26 Sep 202126 Sep 2021Sun 26 Sep 2021 at 7:09pm, updated 27 Sep 202127 Sep 2021Mon 27 Sep 2021 at 2:50am

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