Food For Justice
By Claudio Donisi
‘Not being able to access food is a social injustice not just for refugees but for all Australians.’ So says Russell Shields, Program Manager of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Food Justice Truck project. Speaking at the Footscray Primary School location of the mobile food truck on a wet Friday afternoon, school children and their families gather along with local asylum seeker community members to purchase produce. ‘Low income Australian families might have at least $100’s or more for food each week. Asylum seekers who receive less than the Newstart allowance while they are waiting for their applications to be processed, usually only have $10-20 dollars for food per week. They face further hardship due to the restrictions placed on them because of the visa programs they are on, let alone the uncertainty of being in limbo. This program isn’t just about the welfare of asylum seekers. It is about the basic human right to have access to food. Food security is a big issue for many Australian’s but for asylum seekers, it is most acute.’
The Food Justice Truck is a social enterprise initiative by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) and was launched in 2016 to tackle the growing food insecurity felt by more than 12,000 people in Victoria who are on bridging visas. The Food Justice Truck project is an extension of the ASRC Food Bank program that has been in operation for the last 10 years. According to Russell Shields ‘there are over 12,000 asylum seekers in Victoria at the moment. We know at least 90% of people who seek protection experience food insecurity, run out of food, and cannot afford to buy more. At least 40% have gone to bed hungry in the past month alone. The mobile Food Justice Truck (FJT) project was started to address the issues of getting food to asylum seekers spread out across Melbourne and Victoria.’
Photos by Tim Turner
The Food Justice Truck is a mobile truck that travels currently to four locations across Melbourne, Hume City Hub Broadmeadows, Thomastown Primary School, Wesley Mission Melbourne and Footscray Primary School. The (FJT) has been deployed for at least two days per month for 3-4 hours per location. Each location had been selected based on the size of the asylum seeker resident populations and their needs. According to Russell Shields on location at Footscray Primary School for the interview, ‘we know there are many more spread across Melbourne such as in Dandenong. We would like the (FJT) to get to more places. Due to the community support and interest in this program, we hope to do that in the coming years.’
The Food Justice Truck parked on the Footscray Primary School grounds opens out into a large canopy revealing shelving and cases of various foods including grains, tea, coffee, vegetables, fruit and bread. ‘Vegetables and bread seem to be the most popular. At some point we would like to include dairy foods as well’ Russell said. A critical feature of the program is its unique funding model where both the general public as well as asylum seekers can purchase food from the FJT. The FJT purchases food from local sustainable food growers and wholesalers. According to Russell Shields, ‘we want this program to be self-sustaining. Allowing the general public to purchase from the FJT enables funds to be reinvested back in the project so prices can be kept as low as possible for asylum seekers to be able to afford them. Asylum seekers receive a 75% discount on the food they purchase as a result. Having support from local growers and providers adds to the sense that this project is a whole of community response to supporting refugees.’
The Food Justice Truck Project is staffed by ASRC volunteers. On the day of the interview, two Iranian asylum seekers Rod and Geoff (their names have been changed to protect their identities) were supporting Program Manager Russell Shields. According to Rod who drove the truck, ‘I have a young family. My children are going to school. We are on a bridging visa waiting for our application to be accessed. We have been in Australia for a 2 years. It has been very hard. There are many Iranians here. I want to help people like me.’ According to Geoff, ‘I love Australia. People have been very good to me, helping me and my family. I want to give back to them.’
As the rain fell, the school bell rang ending the school day. Parents, children and asylum seekers gathered around the Food Justice Truck. According to Russell Shields, ‘here at Footscray Primary, we generally get 50-80 people. They come from the local community, school parents and asylum seekers. We get approximately 30 asylum seekers usually.’ According to Oanh one of the school parents, ‘the food is fresh. I buy a lot of vegetables. I really love the bread.’ According to David who has two young children at the school, ‘I really think this program is fantastic. I love the fact the school has embraced this program and allows the FJT to be based here. The values this program advocates for are really important in terms of supporting local sustainable farming, multiculturalism and refugees who really need our help.’
For Russell Shields, who has been involved with the Fair Food Movement for over 10 years, food security is an issue that needs to be addressed more prominently. ‘Fair food and food justice is a very big problem. We need more leadership from government on this. So much food is thrown out and wasted when it should be going to the disadvantaged. We have so many small farmers walking of the land. I am hoping the Food Justice Truck project will raise awareness about the importance of food security for all Australians not just for asylum seekers.
Russell Shields also acknowledged the social impact of the FJT project. ‘It is a really positive experience for everyone when we are on location. Asylum seekers have many issues to deal with such as mental health issues. Having volunteers who are refugees themselves with me demonstrates a real spirit of cooperation and support. We provide information about other services available to support them. I have spent many years in the hospitality industry. I am very proud of this project. I love doing this. This project is about providence and people not profit.’
For further information you can contact the ASRC on (03) 9326 6066 or www.asrc.org.au or email at email@example.com.