Helping to feed the Bay's hungry

By Sonya Bateson

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030714aw03bop The Bay Times gives back. Reporter Sonya Bateson volunteers at the Foodbank.She is pictured with volunteer Rob Clark.
030714aw03bop The Bay Times gives back. Reporter Sonya Bateson volunteers at the Foodbank.She is pictured with volunteer Rob Clark.

Our staff are doing their bit to give back to the community they love by volunteering up to a day at local charities and then writing about their experiences. Reporter Sonya Bateson spends a day with the Tauranga Community Foodbank as part of the weekly series, the Bay of Plenty Times Gives Back.

How does foodbank work? To get help from the foodbank, a person has to first visit a registered charity or church, who will assess the person's situation before referring them on.

This way, the Foodbank itself does not have to decide whether the person's circumstances are enough to warrant a food parcel.

The person then brings a "ticket" with their details, including the number of people in their household, to the foodbank, and volunteers whiz around the packing room gathering dry goods and produce to tide the household over.

A person may ask for a foodbank parcel no more than three times in a 12-month period.

I once spoke to a couple who took two hours to walk here from Welcome Bay.Alan Plunkett, foodbank chairman

THE FIRST thing you learn at Tauranga Community Foodbank is to never pass judgment.

People of all ages and skin colours come through the doors of the foodbank each day, looking for assistance to help them through a rough patch in their lives.

Some of these people have recently lost a job or have got into trouble with debt, while others are long-term sickness, unemployment or domestic purposes beneficiaries.

The volunteers at the foodbank aren't stupid. They know there are some people out there ripping off the system. But in the long run, being able to help those who truly need it outweighs the fact a small number are in it for a free feed.

I volunteered at the foodbank on Thursday, usually one of the quieter days in the week.

The day starts with a tour of the building. Then, as we wait for the "customers" to arrive, I begin breaking up a bulk bag of rather pungent garlic flakes into small plastic bags.

The flakes are one of the more random food items donated to the foodbank but, as manager Nicki Goodwin says, everything can and will be used.

Done, I scrub my hands with soap to try to get rid of the smell and wait for our first customer.

A large shopping list is pinned up on the wall in the packing room, showing all the items to go into each parcel and the quantities for different household sizes.

When our first customer of the day comes in, I take over packing the frozen food.

The customer is of a household of three people, so I begin with the bread freezer - two loaves. Next I move to the pies freezer - two pies per person is six pies. One sausage per person - three sausages, which I put in a small supermarket fruit bag. Out of the random assortment freezer, I get one six-pack of bread rolls and a pack of strawberry tarts.

A supermarket has donated a huge amount of wrongly labelled blocks of butter, so I put one of these in the bag - a lucky score for the recipients, who would normally make do with cheap marge.

While I do this, volunteer Rob Clark whizzes a trolley around the dry goods shelves packing a range of items, including tinned tomatoes, Weetbix, milk powder, two-minute noodles and small bags of rice, into a box.

When we're done, Rob raids the vegetable boxes. Potatoes are loaded into a bag and a quarter of a pumpkin is also added.

No more than three minutes later, the customer is out the door and packing the goods into her car.

Stay-at-home dad Rob Clark has been volunteering his time at foodbank for about 18 months.

"I come in, stack the shelves, then do the entertaining," he jokes.

Rob says he enjoys bringing a smile and a sparkle to people's faces.

He has been coming to the foodbank so often that he calls fellow Thursday volunteer Sue van Os his second wife.

"This is the best day to be here because I'm here, obviously. But it's a different atmosphere with different people."

When children turn up at the centre with their parent, Rob hands them a treat.

"I like to give them treats because I've got kids of my own. I want them to feel like it's a good place to come and get over that stigma of coming to foodbank.

"There is a stigma out there, so you've got to be very welcoming. Everyone has their own opinion about what foodbank does, some people feel we are just feeding certain stereotypes."

Sue pipes in: "A lot of the people who come here have just had bad luck, maybe they've had a work injury. We do have a bit of that feeling working here that but for the grace of God we could be on the other side quite easily.

"Most of the people that come in here as customers are very polite, nice and very grateful. They are good people."

Rob says giving people the free food parcels through foodbank helps not only the recipient, but the community overall.

"At the end of the day, people are less likely to steal on a full tummy. People will often steal when they are really desperate.

"There is a lot of stigma about foodbank. A lot of my friends ask why I'm helping 'those people', but there's a whole lot of people requiring assistance -- it can happen to anyone."

"There's no judgment here."

Foodbank chairman Alan Plunkett says there are occasionally a few people where it is obvious they are abusing the system, but foodbank volunteers do not judge.

Sometimes people will show up to the foodbank after putting out a cigarette, then will walk in smelling like alcohol and using the latest cellphone.

But most of the people that come in are genuinely needy and this is what the foodbank is there for.

"I once spoke to a couple who took two hours to walk here from Welcome Bay.

"We have a bus stop 50 metres down the road and a good carpark outside, both of which are crucial to operate a foodbank. It's amazing the amount of people that walk.

"Most of the people aren't misusing the system but if they could cut out smoking we would have a lot less customers."

Most of the people that use foodbank are single parents, mothers or fathers, but there are customers from all walks of life.

Mr Plunkett estimates about 60 per cent of the food used in parcels is donated straight from the public and 40 per cent is brought with monetary donations. The food is received through collection drives at school and churches, donation boxes at supermarkets, drop-offs to foodbank, and bulk lots of damaged or surplus stock from supermarkets.

"We buy in Weetbix and noodles, the basic fare. We give away a lot of pies, because one pie is a meal. We get ample bread donated to us, fruit and vegetables are always needed."

There is a bit of a stigma attached to the foodbank, Mr Plunkett says, but this has been getting better over time.

"The people that come here are not down and outs. There are some hard circumstances, whether it's for the unemployed or the unemployable -- but it's not our place to judge."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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