Parishes, schools and agencies

Banking on free food at Melbourne's fringe

From the parishes

By Stephen Cauchi

February 6 2020 

The Revd Neil Taylor of Newstart Church, Manor Lakes. 

Newstart Church, at Manor Lakes near Werribee, runs a ministry that is dear to people’s hearts and stomachs – free food. Unfortunately, the demographics of the area have made this a necessity.

Once a week, a room at the Manor Lakes community centre where the church is based turns into a mini-supermarket. Pre-prepared meals, cheese, hot dogs, pasta, cereal, quiche, frozen and chilled food, bottled water, bread, sweets and biscuits, canned food, and vegetables are all available for free.

From humble beginnings the program has expanded and will continue to grow, said Newstart’s pastor, the Revd Neil Taylor. “On a light day it might be 40, but (usually) 50 families and we help a couple of shut-ins (homebound people) as well,” he said.

“We’re trying to really help the people in the Manor Lakes area because of the financial stress and rental pressure.

“It’s just trying to have a heart for the community and we feel this is a way to do it.”

Both Newstart Church and the Foodbank have been going for eight years, said Mr Taylor.

Volunteers set up the Foodbank on Tuesday, which is then held on Wednesday. It goes every week except the New Year period.

Demand is high, so much so that customers can only come to Foodbank once every two weeks. Over the course of a month, 100 families will visit, said Mr Taylor.

Christmas and Easter – when families were preparing large meals – and the period before school holidays were the busiest times, he said. “People might be under financial stress because they want to visit a relative or send their child on a school camp. And every time petrol prices go up there’s a bit of distress.

The demand for free food, he said, reflected underlying problems.

 “The food’s not the issue. There’s underlying things in people’s lives that’s the issue. The food’s a symptom of bigger things in people’s lives.

“I think people aren’t financially savvy in some senses. We’re not dealing with sophisticated people.

“People come in, get a bag of food, and if we can talk to them about the deeper issue in their life, we will.”

“Sometimes we do refer people onto gambling addiction centres or debt counselling or psychiatric or housing situations.

“So we have this massive referral program that happens in the background as well.

“It’s not just about the food.”

Foodbank was selected as a ministry, in part, because of “the ability to get people to come to us so we could talk to them about God’s story and their story,” he said.

Mr Taylor said that about half-a-dozen Foodbank customers had not only come to Newstart church but have also given their life to Jesus through the ministry. The church, which meets in another room at the community centre, has an average Sunday attendance of around 40 to 50, he said.

Manor Vale, which falls within the City of Wyndham, suffers all of the problems of outer-suburban living: a scarcity of rental properties means rent stress for families and there are severe congestion problems.

“The infrastructure’s not established, there’s trucks everywhere because they’re building (homes and infrastructure)… it takes us 20 or 30 minutes just to get out of Werribee onto a freeway, then the freeway’s packed.”

On the bright side, “Wyndham Council’s a great council, they’re supportive of faith communities and they’re supportive of what we do here.”

“We couldn’t do this without Wyndham Council supporting us. They get it.”

“Some of the local schools support us. They have home economics programs and donate stuff.”

Beryl Wisewould and Robert Izzard don’t attend Newstart Church but happily volunteer at the Foodbank.

Ms Wisewould, a volunteer for over two years, said that helping other people in need was her main motivation.

“It was really on my heart to help,” she said. “The opportunity to help people. What I find is that some people, yes, they need the food. But some just need someone to say, hello, how are you. Just a friendship, someone to talk to,” she said.

Mr Izzard, a volunteer for 18 months, said his job was “anything and everything … stacking, packing, loading, driving, whatever has to be done.

“It’s a worthwhile cause,” he said. “There’s a lot of people struggling and someone’s got to help.”

While most of Foodbank’s customers are appreciative, “people come and abuse us,” said Mr Taylor.

“They’re greedy. They come and take food. They don’t need it, they use it as a supermarket.”

In particular, some people were using more than one foodbank. Mr Taylor said the church tried to minimise this problem “as nicely as possible.”

“If someone’s coming from Point Cook to come to our food bank, they’ve passed four good food banks along the way,” he said.

“It’s our job to let them they don’t have to come all this way.”

Newstart mainly source their food from two not-for-profit organisations: the Yarraville-based Foodbank Victoria and Ozharvest (who deliver). Leftover food from Victoria Market on a Sunday is also donated.

While most foodstuffs are available, peanut butter, vegemite, coffee and tea are not, said Mr Taylor. Toilet paper is available but is reliant on individual donations.

Mr Taylor, who has been in ministry 30 years, was partly inspired to pursue Foodbank as a ministry from his time as a missionary in China.

The underground churches that he helped to start were models of inclusion, he said.

“So many people were on the fringe of the group (but) they included everyone. Everyone was included in their meetings, in their gatherings, in their meals that they had together. They included as much people as wanted to come and be part of it.”

Newstart was originally Church of Christ but changed over to the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne two years ago, said Mr Taylor.

 “The Anglican system of authorised Anglican communities is so conducive, so beneficial, to church planting. It really helps the church plant.”