Feeding the hungry – life of service

Food for the needy

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 23.7.11

As food security moves up the political agenda, it’s important to remember that every person on the planet has a basic right to adequate food. In theory and in law, if not in practice, no-one should ever be hungry, or food insecure.

Australia is a signatory to the 1966 International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which is the treaty that creates the right to food. Yet to date the Australian Government has not put in place any legal or institutional framework to guarantee the full enjoyment of this right to all the citizens of this country. It’s simply assumed that since we are an exporter of agricultural commodities, it follows automatically that the country is ‘food secure’.

But as I wrote last fortnight, at least 2 million Australians are food insecure; a number that is likely to rise if and when global economic turmoil finds its way to these shores.

In Coffs Harbour, staff at a number of these organisations have told me that demand for their services has doubled or more in the last few years. They point to big rent increases in the private rental sector in Coffs Harbour, together with a 10-year waiting list for social housing, as a major strain on the budgets of families and individuals with low incomes. Electricity and food price rises, car running costs and medical bills complicate life that much more.

As one manager said to me, ‘We often have people coming in with only $60 to last them a fortnight…it’s very, very hard. There’s a lot of people who are in the situation of depending on food assistance of one form or another more or less every fortnight or every other fortnight.’

The constant demand for the Uniting Church soup kitchen, run by Narelle Milton and her team of volunteers since the early 1990s, testifies to the depth of food insecurity in Coffs Harbour. From its modest beginnings, when Narelle and her helpers made the soup and sandwiches at home and served only a small handful of people, the kitchen is now a city institution.

Narelle Milton, Coffs Harbour Uniting Church Soup Kitchen
Narelle Milton, Coffs Harbour Uniting Church Soup Kitchen

It now boasts an impressive commercial kitchen, with two large fridges, five freezers, a stainless steel dishwasher and, in Narelle’s words, ‘a remarkable stove’.

At the start, Narelle and her volunteers purchased all the food themselves. They still do, but over the years strong links have been forged with many in the broader community.

‘We’ve got bananas, people have an abundance of fruit and veggies, the farmers come in and give us their surplus;  many others come in with half a ham, or some tea…we get lots of donations, especially at Christmas, though we could always use more’, says Narelle.

And in the past year the kitchen has begun to receive donations from Woolworths Food Rescue, which both helps with the lunches and allows the kitchen to make available food parcels to diners if they wish.

The kitchen is ‘open to all, it’s an open table, we do not sit in judgment’, says Narelle. It’s also more than just providing food for hungry people: ‘it’s a place for communion, for friendship’, says Narelle. ‘Somebody speaks to everybody each day, everybody’s included.’

Narelle places a lot of emphasis on restoring and enhancing the dignity of the diners. ‘That’s why we have tablecloths’, she says. ‘And we serve them, they do not have to line up.’

In 2009 Narelle received the Order of Australia in recognition of her years of service to the Coffs Harbour community. It was richly deserved, she is a remarkable woman.

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