‘If we pull out, these people will starve’: the volunteer chefs that are cooking to feed Adelaide’s most vulnerable

Since the pandemic, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of South Australians relying on food services. As food services struggle to keep up with the increase in demand, some South Australian chefs have taken it upon themselves to lend a helping hand. (Image source: Shobosho)

By Alyssa Cairo | @AlyssaCairo_

Driving down the streets of the City of Adelaide just after dusk, you would think you are in another country. There are people seeking shelter in front of empty office buildings, while others are setting-up in front of Hungry Jack’s on Rundle St, begging for spare change to scrape together a few gold coins to purchase a meal. For some, this would be their first warm meal in weeks. Some people call it an early night, using old bits of cardboard to protect themselves from the approaching cold snap while others layer up in holey jumpers, resigning to yet another night of doing it rough and hungry.

Hutt St Centre reports that pre-COVID-19, there was just under 6000 South Australians experiencing homelessness of some degree. But, homelessness does not just mean living on the street. Many people do not know that homelessness can mean that a person cannot access safe and secure shelter that is not threatening to their safety or health. It can also mean that a person has no access to cooking, laundry or bathroom facilities.

Definitions and technicalities aside, the onslaught of COVID-19 related job losses and business closures has taken a toll on South Australian communities, causing homelessness to rise at an alarming rate. To make matters more alarming – people experiencing homelessness and disadvantage in this climate are facing risk and hardship surrounding food supply and support more than ever.

On the other side of the fence, the media bombards us with footage of empty shelves – fueling the public’s angst to get that last carton of long-life milk to store ‘just in case’.

But, when you’re sleeping in a gutter, living paycheck to paycheck or relying on food services: what happens to you?

Fundraising and Marketing Manager at Baptist Care SA Clare MacAdam said, “Uncertainty around food supply, panic buying and fear of going out has had a significant impact on Adelaide’s most vulnerable. Isolating to keep healthy is fine if you have people who can support you with food and basic necessities.”

But, when you’re homeless and alone, you don’t have access to this support.

One of the many Baptist Care SA volunteers handing-out meals to those experiencing hardship.
(Image source: Baptist Care SA)

Foodbank SA is one of the largest food relief services that sources more than 40 million kilograms of food annually for its network of over 2000 charity partners like Baptist Care SA. CEO of Foodbank SA Greg Pattison said that last year Foodbank SA was supporting more than 126,000 South Australians with food relief every month.

But, the economic devastation of the 2019-20 bush fires and the pandemic means, “The referrals for our food relief services have seen an unprecedented level of growth as a result of the impacts of COVID-19. We have seen around a 30 per cent increase in the requirement for food,” Greg said.

As more people are relying on food services, Foodbank SA has to purchasemore product than ever beforeand is searching high and low to source pantry essentials like flour and oats that were panic bought.

Foodbank SA obtains food donations from individuals, supermarkets, manufacturers and farmers. “We source around 3 million kilograms of food each year … to put more than 6 million meals on the table of those in need. On top of donations, Foodbank needs to buy food, spending around $1.6 million … just to keep up with the growing levels of demand,” Greg said.

As government restrictions led to temporary business closures, a top chef who was forced to put 46 staff out of work to ‘flatten the curve’ prepared a short video that—with the power of social media—helped to change the lives of thousands of Adelaide’s most vulnerable. Addressing Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Premier of South Australia Steven Marshall in an Instagram video, Shobosho chef and co-owner Adam Liston urged the government to use unemployed cooks. Adam pleaded on behalf of the Adelaide hospitality community to ‘give them purpose’ to serve the country’s most vulnerable. 

Adam asked, “What’s the point of having so many talented, young cooks sitting on their hands?”

When Adam shared his think-out-loud monologue to social media, his one-minute-twenty-seconds-long video made its way into hundreds of people’s social media feeds. “When Adam went online to offer his services on a voluntary basis to charities and other good causes, Baptist Care SA responded quickly,” Clare said.

Now, two teams of Shobosho chefs voluntarilyfire up the Shobosho kitchen and cook up a storm for the WestCare Centre run by Baptist Care SA, which provides a range of services to assist individuals experiencing homelessness, unemployment or social isolation.

Originally, Adam was hoping to give back to the community but also keep himself and his team active because he was concerned they were going to do nothing. It then got incredibly bigger.

“The team is now cooking for over 150 homeless people a day and we are working off donations and cook with the products that OzHarvest and FoodBank drop at the restaurant,” Adam said. Majority of the team has spent over a month already volunteering without pay as only four of the restaurant’s chefs qualify for JobSeeker or JobKeeper payments.

“Every staff member has volunteered their time and continues to do so, and the government is not paying a cent,” Adam said.

“That’s the most frustrating part.”

To comply with social distancing, over two days the two teams comprising of eight chefs each, produce six days worth of food. Despite receiving interest from chefs from other restaurants to help volunteer, Adam was not able to take on additional volunteers, as the Shobosho kitchen is not big enough to handle social distancing measures.

Adam’s desire to help our most vulnerable has influenced other businesses to chip in and help how they can best. Co-owner of Plus 82 Pocha Steven Lee said, “As a team, we thought about how we can support our local community during COVD-19 and Kang—one of our business partners—suggested delivering goods to the homeless.”

Made from the restaurant’s own ingredients, one day the team delivered classic Korean meals to those living on the streets surrounding the Grenfell St restaurant. After filming the experience and sharing it on social media, “we’ve found more restaurants are helping the homeless and supporting local communities”, Steven said.

Food services like Baptist Care SA are entirely reliant on volunteers. “Volunteers are vital to the running of our kitchen. Many of them are older and vulnerable in COVID-19 conditions. As such, they are not able to work for us,” Clare said. So, without the support of restaurants like Shobosho and Plus 82 Pocha, organisations that provide food services for those experiencing homelessness and hardship would be unable to function.

To make matters more difficult, the decision to suspend all volunteers reflects the fact that WestCare’s insurance does not cover volunteers in a pandemic environment.

“There were like 165 other volunteers that we couldn’t activate and there’s more work that we could’ve done with the charity in other areas but because there’s no government support and there’s a lot of red tape outside of that support, we have to effectively say no to everything else, so that’s disappointing,” Adam said.

As restrictions begin to ease and businesses begin to slowly open, Shobosho will face the dilemma of having a business to run and staff to pay but are aware that until volunteering is reintroduced “if we pull out, these people will starve”, Adam said.

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