Being told that 10 tonnes of chickpeas, three tonnes of lentils and 20 crates of apples are about to be delivered to your workplace would leave most people flustered (not to mention tight on space). But for Bridget Bentley and Annie Constable, dealing with generous deliveries like this are part and parcel of working at Bendigo Foodshare

Bridget is the manager and Annie is the warehouse coordinator of Bendigo Foodshare, a not-for-profit organisation that collects food from farmers and supermarkets that would otherwise go to waste. Bendigo Foodshare stores fresh and frozen produce and dry goods in a warehouse in Long Gully before distributing it to charities, community organisations and schools throughout central Victoria.

Bendigo Foodshare volunteers

From July 2019 to July 2020, Bendigo Foodshare rescued more than 892,000 kilograms of food. “That’s an 18 per cent increase from the previous year,” Bridget says. “The value of the food rescued was over $6 million.”

But collecting food is only one part of the equation. Once items are donated from supermarkets, farmers or the general public, Bridget, Annie and their army of more than 240 volunteers set about distributing it to 92 agencies throughout the region. “That includes schools, child care, kindergartens, charities like Anglicare and the Salvation Army, neighbourhood houses and small community groups,” Bridget says.

Annie Constable and a volunteer receiving donated pumpkins

Many bags of lentils and chickpeas have been delivered along with a box of ingredients and a recipe card to those in need. “We are really trying to grow people’s capacity as well as their food literacy,” Bridget adds.

Before COVID-19, Bendigo Foodshare helped more than 12,000 people with food relief each week. But since the pandemic began Bridget says there’s been an increased demand of around 30 per cent for food support. This demand from the community combined with hospitality businesses being severely impacted by lockdown restrictions led to a unique program being established.

Cafes for COVID started as a GoFundMe campaign to support local hospitality businesses while providing cooked meals for people in need. The idea was that Bendigo Foodshare would pay local businesses $5 for each meal they cooked that would then be distributed through the food relief network. “We supplied the businesses with containers and labels, and they turned the excess food we had into meals for the community,” Bridget says. “We raised $11,200 and so far, we’ve made 3,000 meals. By December that number will look more like 5,000 meals.”

Meals for cafes for COVID from Mali Thai

Now in the second round, Cafes for COVID has the support of StreetSmart, a charity taking action against homelessness. StreetSmart has contributed over $8000 to make 900 meals in three weeks. “All the meals are delicious and nutritious,” Bridget says.

In addition to formal arrangements, Foodshare has had significant support from several local businesses. “The owner of The National Hotel, Bruce Morcom, has been making meals right throughout the pandemic for free,” Bridget says. “He and his staff are cooking for women and families at Annie North, the women’s family violence refuge service.”

Parminder Daliwall Singh – chef from the National Hotel cooking Cafes for COVID meals

For Bridget, while the pandemic has brought new levels of need and food insecurity, she’s seen how connected the community has become.

“We had a beautiful experience early on in the pandemic,” she says. “We were able to take meals that had been cooked by The National Hotel, with chickpeas that had been donated by farmer Brendan Williams and apples picked by volunteers in Harcourt. Those meals show a real coming together of people. We are part of the community and are trying to break the poverty cycle. What could be more important than that?”

Words by Lindy Alexander