Bringing dignity to the dinner table

Mum and dad will choose not to eat dinner, feed their kids and tell them they had a big lunch at work, so the kids don’t feel guilt.

Former NSW Labor leader and Unions NSWSecretary John Robertson is now CEO of Foodbank, Australia’s largest food relief organisation, journalist Sue Osborne writes.

Even while he was NSW Opposition Leader, Robertson was regularly picking and packing food parcels for Foodbank, as well as lobbying for financial support and liaising with other charities.

“I was blessed to be offered the opportunity to run the organisation, because it’s been around for 29 years, making a real impact on people’s lives in some of the most difficult circumstances, not just during COVID,” Robertson said.

He likes that Foodbank is self-sufficient and free of government influence, although it does receive government support, especially since the advent of COVID.

But most importantly, Robertson said the organisation gives people dignity.

“People get to choose their food with Foodbank and that’s important because a lot of people find themselves in a situation where they can’t put food on the table through no fault of their own. They shouldn’t be denied dignity,” Robertson said.

A voice for the powerless

“I feel like I’m continuing the work I started as an organiser for the Electrical Trades Union years ago. All my work has been about giving a voice to the powerless.”

Food is donated to the charity through grocery retailers, manufacturers and farmers, often when it is nearing its use-by date. Foodbank also purchases food to distribute.

Volunteers at a large warehouse in Glendenning, in Sydney’s west, sort food into hampers for various charities. The organisation spends $1.5 million trucking food out to rural and regional areas. Since the end of July, it’s been providing 660,000 meals a week, and that figure keeps growing.

Foodbank provides hampers for people that are in quarantine in large apartment blocks and unable to afford online deliveries.

Last year, Foodbank also supported 1500 international students who were no longer able to find work in tourism or hospitality and had no support from the social security system.

Since COVID, Foodbank has received support from the State Government and assistance from paid workers and defence force personnel for this frontline work.

Doing it tough

Apart from those in lockdown and reliant on Foodbank’s daily deliveries, COVID has seen more and more people simply doing it tough.

“It’s very hard to believe that there could be 20 percent of the population in Australia in this situation, but people get thrown a curve ball by life,” Robertson said.

The casualisation of the workforce and the gig economy meant some workers never knew if they would have a shift the next day (see “Broken wages bargain”, page 13).

“There’s a medical incident, their work dries up or they run out of sick leave. All these sorts of things have an impact, let alone those living on social security. There’s a growing cohort of working people struggling.”

In 2020, 38 percent of food-insecure residents in NSW and the ACT were accessing food relief at least once a week compared with 16 percent in 2019.

“People will make choices like two meals a day rather than three, or mum and dad will choose not to eat dinner, feed their kids and tell them they had a big lunch at work, so the kids don’t feel guilt.”

Robertson is keen to get the message out there that there is no shame in asking for help when it’s needed.

“There’s a significant stigma associated with having to admit you can’t afford food. It stops people reaching out. I had an email from someone who said, ‘if it hadn’t been for your hamper, I was contemplating stealing, just so I could put food on the table’.”

He said teachers and support staff in schools were often in touch with their communities and families and could direct families to Foodbank if they sensed a need.

Foodbank runs the School Breakfast 4 Health program, providing students with a nutritious breakfast at school.

Prior to COVID, school student volunteers were a significant part of the workforce at the Glendenning warehouse, and Robertson hoped this would resume as soon as possible.

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