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Free food draws industry support

While many players in the food industry are worried about the impact of the global financial crisis on sales, one Melbourne organisation is anticipating growing demand in 2009.

This, however, will not lead to increased revenue, as the organisation in question, FareShare, is a not for profit organisation that gives food to people in need of it.

“The economy as a whole might have been doing well over the past decade but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people in food distress,” said FareShare chief executive, Marcus Godinho. “Just because a problem can be hard to see doesn’t mean it isn’t there. There are plenty of people who, for no fault of their own, simply don’t get the nutrition they need.

“At the same time, there are plenty of cases of food producers and retailers who throw food away, often purely because it doesn’t meet cosmetic standards. Our aim has always been to link companies with food to spare with people in need of food.”

There are other organisations that collect food from producers and retailers and distribute it to people in need, but FareShare is different in that it turns donations into cooked meals, at its kitchen facility in Abbotsford, in inner Melbourne.

It started in 2001 through the merger of a project called Melbourne City Harvest, run by aid organisation Keshet, which ‘rescued’ prepared meals from function halls and catered events, and the group One Umbrella, which cooked unwanted food using the kitchen of the RACV Club. The Pratt Foundation acted as a founding sponsor.

FareShare produces quiches, pies, casseroles and pastas, as the basis of packaged meals, which are then passed to a wide range of about 100 community groups for distribution.

“We moved into our current premises, acquired with the help of a generous donation from the Jack and Ethel Goldin Foundation, last May,” Godinho said. “In 2007-08, we produced about 16,000 meals per month. With our dedicated kitchen, we are now making more than 30,000 per month. Our target is to give away one million meals per year.

“Many of the meals ultimately go to people who are homeless, housebound, or have a physical or mental disability that keeps them out of mainstream society. But the big growth area has been what you might call the working poor – people who have a job, but simply don’t have enough money left for decent food after all the essential bills have been paid.

“With the economic events of the past few months, I except that this group will grow substantially in 2009, and that there will also be a lot more people in food distress due to unemployment.”

Godinho noted that last year FareShare received over 280 tonnes of food from more than 80 donor businesses, ranging from pastry from Boscastles to vegetables from Costa’s Fruit and Vegetables to ‘single serve’ packaged food from Epworth Hospital.

“Our donations include food that is close to its use-by date and food that is unsuitable for retail sale for many reasons, such as eggs that are not a standard size or meat that has been ground too finely,” he said. “As a result of a campaign by One Umbrella, donors of food are protected from liability under ‘Good Samaritan’ legislation passed by the Victorian government.

“That Act was the model for similar legislation passed in NSW, and we hope that other states will pick up the idea as well. The Act applies to food that is safe to consume, and donors must follow stringent guidelines to ensure food safety.

“There is also the added benefit that the food that we use does not end up as landfill. Most foodstuffs generate methane, a greenhouse gas, when they decompose, so the environment wins as well.”

While FareShare has a handful of paid staff to collect food donations, distribute meals to 100 charities and oversee the kitchen, it depends mainly on volunteers for cooking and packing. A number of large corporations have established programmes to allow employees to work a certain number of paid hours for community organisations such as FareShare.

“We need a lot of hands,” Godinho said. “15 people per shift, 11 shifts a week, and soon to increase to perhaps 16 shifts. So we are very appreciative of our volunteer workers, and we are very appreciative of companies like NAB, Heinz, and Fonterra that encourage their people to help. And I have no doubt that volunteers find the process both satisfying and enlightening.

“One of our goals for next year is to extend our services out of the central city, into outlying areas where there is a significant – if largely hidden – problem of food distress. There is no shortage of people who need support of this kind. That, in a country as rich and as fortunate as Australia, is a tragic situation.”

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