by Annabelle Powell, Journalist, Council magazine

Food security, compounded by COVID-19 financial hardship and multiplied by population growth, is a significant problem in society. Food Bank Victoria reported that the demand for food relief has been up 47 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic. The Foodbank Hunger Report 2020 revealed that three in ten Australians now experiencing food insecurity had not gone hungry before the pandemic, and that young people are being hardest hit by the impacts of COVID-19. Similar impacts are also being felt in places like Geelong. Now, the Greater Geelong Council is tackling the issue of food security head on by providing funding towards the development of a new Food Centre that will provide much needed relief for thousands of residents and families doing it tough.

The number of people struggling to put food on the table is rising. It is estimated that around 53,000 Geelong residents need food assistance every year, equivalent to approximately 2.48 million meals per year. This figure is set to rise to 3.25 million meals annually by 2031.

To tackle this escalating problem, the Greater Geelong Council entered into a landmark agreement with the Geelong Food Relief Centre (GFRC), making a major investment of $1.7 million over five years to build more capacity into the food relief system improving access to food relief for families in need.

“It’s incredibly sad that an increasing number of people here in our Greater Geelong region are struggling to put food on the table. The thought of children going to bed hungry is particularly heartbreaking,” Greater Geelong Mayor, Stephanie Asher, said.

“This investment is a serious and genuine attempt by the Council to address what we agree is an unacceptable situation.”

New and expanded geelong food relief centre

The Council committed to spending up to $1 million to renovate a building in North Geelong to then be leased by the GFRC and used as a central point for food distribution across Geelong. The project provided a cost efficient way of repurposing an existing facility to address an immediate need in the community food relief system.

The Council also agreed to provide $100,000 in 2020-21 and $150,000 in each of the following four years to:

∞ Help with the facility’s operating costs such as rent, maintenance and electricity

∞ Strengthen the centre’s ability to attract volunteers and philanthropic assistance

∞ Strengthen collaboration across the entire food relief network

Now open, the new hub is significantly larger than the GFRC’s previous facility, increasing its capacity and allowing it to tackle rising demand.

The new hub has created an opportunity for local agencies and food suppliers to work closely together to provide meals across the region.

“Investment, including $1 million from the Greater Geelong Council, has enabled the Geelong Food Relief Centre to relocate to premises that support an increase in food distribution and facilitates the support of greater numbers of vulnerable community members,” Mayor Asher said.

“Relocation to the larger purpose-designed facility provides a safer and more accessible work environment for the staff and large number of dedicated volunteers who support the operations, while significantly increasing the amount of food that can be distributed to those most vulnerable.”

Additionally, the Victorian Government has provided $368,750 for the centre to expand its services and a further $300,000 to help fit out the food distribution hub.

The new large-scale emergency food hub includes commercial kitchen facilities, cool store and freezer facilities, office and meeting rooms, and a dry store ‘mini mart’ area.

“The new facility, which is enabling the GFRC to look after 47,500 individuals or 23,500 families in 2021-22, includes spaces for sorting, packaging and distribution along with a fully stocked mini mart where clients can access food and household items,” Mayor Asher said.

“With expected population growth, it is anticipated that the regional food security system will need to provide more than 3.25 million meals by 2031. This industry-first regional food hub enables multi-agency cooperation in order to tackle this issue head on.”

Geelong Food Relief Centre CEO Colin Peebles and Councillor Sarah Mansfield, in the new emergency food hub.

A collaborative approach leads to success

The changes to Geelong’s food assistance system, including the hub, were developed with the input of a stakeholder group chaired by former Mayor Keith Fagg, representation from the Council (former councillor Pat Murnane) and 12 local relief organisations, as part of the Geelong Food Assistance Network.

They were also shaped by the recommendations of an independent Food Assistance Report commissioned by the City of Greater Geelong.

Councillor Sarah Mansfield said there are too many community members struggling to put food on the table. “Food insecurity is a significant problem in Greater Geelong, so this industry-first regional food hub is a massive achievement in tackling this issue head-on,” Cr Mansfield said.

“The hub brings together so many organisations and allows them to best cater to the growing demand for food relief in our community.” Council also recognised the new hub is only a small step on the road to genuine social equity for the Geelong community.

Mayor Asher said it was wonderful to see the centre operating after three years of planning and work. “Council is proud to have worked closely with the community to create a sustainable model that will co-ordinate food relief resources across the region.

“This model is not only a first for Geelong, but it provides a blueprint for other cities who are keen to assist grassroots groups to help their own residents struggling with food insecurity.”

Groundwork for future food needs of the nation

Adequate access to nutrition is a cornerstone of wellbeing, and projects such as the Geelong Food Relief Centre ensures vulnerable community members can meet basic needs.

Mayor Asher said, “Council is also keen to support the broader food relief network to ensure that the services are delivered to those in the community with the greatest need.

In addition, we continue to help raise awareness of the importance of food relief, especially in these very uncertain times.” Geelong is one of five regional Emergency Food Distribution Hubs across the state that the Victorian Government has recently supported. In partnership with Foodbank Victoria, the  Victorian State Government elected Albury-Wodonga Regional Foodshare,

Bendigo Foodshare, the Geelong Food Relief Centre, Mildura Foodshare and Warrnambool and District Foodshare to provide the new hub services.

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