The Pantry is a not for profit organisation run by volunteers dedicated to providing fresh produce and groceries to those in need. It is run out of Reality Church in Wangara. The food supplies come from five local Woolworths stores in Yanchep, Carramar, Banksia Grove, Hocking and Joondalup; and also from SecondBite and Oz harvest, two organisations who are involved in food rescue and redistribution—helping to cut down on waste by collecting excess from the food network and donating it to charities nationwide.
I am visiting The Pantry today to see how it operates and to meet Kevin Combes and Bev Woolhouse who, together with their band of twenty volunteers, have made this enterprise such a success story.
I asked Kevin how the Pantry began. About eight years ago there was a clothing op shop in the space but people were coming in looking for food. Pastor Dan Alderden felt that the need for food was greater than that for clothing. He recruited Kevin to the cause of sourcing that food because Kevin’s past experience equiped him uniquely to help.
Kevin understands what it is like to be food insecure. Following an accident, he found himself in a situation where he was unable to feed his wife and seven children. He described for me the soul destroying nature of the daily task of trying to find sufficient food to feed his family. Everywhere he went, he was asked to justify his requests for help. He even had financial counselling only to be told at the end of the session that he didn’t have much to work with. The search for food overtook everything else. If you haven’t any dinner to put on the table, that becomes your priority.
Kevin’s personal experience underpins the attitude at the pantry. He says he wanted to create,
‘A place where people could just come, where they didn’t have to justify why they were here; because the simple fact that they walked through the door is more than enough. In our society you wait ’til the last morsel of bread before you ask for help.’
Bev got involved about eight months ago. She had been volunteering time to help with book-keeping in the church but saw a need for some renovations to the Pantry space. One improvement followed another and today the areas are bright, fresh and welcoming. She also learned to pack, had a go at driving the pick up truck and generally learned every facet of the job. Kevin praises her organisational skills and the systems she has implemented making the whole operation run like clockwork.
A long narrow alleyway stretches along the side of the building ending at the door to a service area with a counter behind which a friendly volunteer assembles bags of food for people, welcoming each one with a smile. Next door in the packing area it is a hive of frenetic activity. Early each day the volunteers led by the indefatigable Robbie, pack bag after bag of fresh produce and anything else that has been donated. As the doors open at 10.30 am they continue packing—resupplying the tables in the shop front.
Covid 19 has changed the collection process a little. A one way system is now in place. People queue up outside and tell the lady at the head of the alleyway how many people they are feeding. That number is relayed down to the volunteer at the counter who gathers sufficient bags for that number of people. Once the bags are ready they are collected from the counter. The person collecting then carries on down the alleyway and around to the carpark. This means that only one visitor is in the collection area at a time. Trolleys are provided if required and volunteers are on hand to help anyone who can’t manage to carry their food to the car. It’s very slick. In the two hours I was there, food for almost 300 people was handed out.
I asked Bev how many people they feed.
‘Generally we feed between three hundred and six hundred people each day, 6,000-8,000 people a month. By the end of this year we’ll be up around the 100,000 mark.’
This figure is up from 64,000 in 2019. I asked whether this increase was down to a growing awareness of their service among the community or a rise in the numbers of people in crisis. She feels that it is a bit of both. As well as supporting people suffering food insecurity, the Pantry is involved with supplying various other groups including the Red Cross, Alta-One School, bread to the Smith Family, frozen meals for distribution to rough sleepers, food to an indigenous community of between 150 and 200 people each Friday and when the schools are open, they also contribute to the school breakfast programme.
‘As an organisation, what do you need?’ I asked.
‘We need fridges and freezers, we need a cover-way for our alleyway because people are having to stand in the rain. We want to start doing deliveries, so we need a ute. We need two air conditioners in here for the staff because it gets very cold in winter. We need a computer, we don’t have a computer. We want an Ipad up the front so we have people’s details and don’t have to do this all manually. We’d like to build a bigger cool room to save on waste.’
Bev is hoping to inspire regular donations of $10 per month. She is thinking of doing a video appeal. In the meantime, I thought I could include her message in my article –
$10 buys two bags of produce and supports a family for a week.
More food arrived at 11 am. I offered to help and went into the packing area. ‘What should I put in the bags?’ I asked Robbie.
“Think about what you would like to have in a bag and put that in.”
On all their signage The Pantry has three key words: Food, Grace and Hope. I would add respect and love. Everyone who arrives is welcomed so warmly and the atmosphere is uplifting and joyous.
I asked Kevin what he gets out of running the Pantry,
‘What do I get out of it? Nobody has to go through what I went through if they come here. I want to make people leave here with a smile and feeling empowered rather than leaving here feeling degraded and having their dignity torn to shreds.’
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