On a frigid night outside a suburban shopping mall, hundreds of people gathered in hopes of getting their hands on grocery staples such as produce, bread and ready meals.
On a frigid night in Sydney’s southwestern suburb of Miller, the most popular spot in town is an outdoor plaza filled with the sounds of lively chatter and dozens of children running around with chocolate milk.
Surrounded by otherwise empty streets and an abandoned shopping center, 83 Woodward Crescent is lit by a portable floodlight and the orange and blue glow of the Aldi sign opposite the community space.
Since 4:30 PM people have been queuing with empty carts, an hour and a half for the Community Cafe food and meal service.
In one evening, the Community Cafe Outreach program serves 300 meals and up to 200 people, not counting the children. Since December, the queue has risen from barely above 70 to an average of 210 people per night.
In the last two months in particular, there has been an influx of new faces, as the costs of groceries and petrol are soaring.
‘First meal of the day’
Mother-of-one Rebecca Deering had her first meal of the day at 7pm. Before that was a piece of meatloaf from the night before.
Most of the food she collects on Tuesday evening goes to her four-year-old daughter’s lunch box.
“It’s not about the supermarket bill going up, it’s more about what you get in your cart is less because you don’t have the extra money,” she tells news.com.au.
“I feed (my daughter) only as it is.”
Currently, Ms. Deering has a single parent pension of $970 every two weeks and Ms. Deering spends $400 a week on rent. What’s left goes to bills and the rest is kept for basic groceries like butter, milk, and meat.
“I need a little bit, so I’m not in pain, but I usually just feed the child. She eats constantly,” she says.
“Three meals a day? Not for me. My daughter eats, I don’t.”
Pregnant mother-of-six Rachel de Bruyn has been visiting Community Cafe since the initiative started. She was then homeless and lived in her car while her children lived with her ex-partner.
“Embarrassed or blessed,” she describes the moment a friendly Airbnb owner offered her a home for free, then for a discounted rate of $100.
“It allowed me to become more stable and get a job, which I did,” she says.
Now at work but on maternity leave, she admits she doesn’t know “how to afford anything”.
Ms. de Bruyn says stocking up on household products like shampoo and conditioner, or washing powder can cost $150 on its own. With six young children, including two twins, Ms. de Bruyn easily estimates her grocery bill at $500 a week.
“It’s too hard right now and you’re always looking for places that do good deals, but sometimes saving isn’t enough.”
‘The number of people was overwhelming’
Elsewhere in line, Community Cafe Incorporated CEO and founder Kirsty Parkes alternates between grabbing supplies from her van, serving food, or chatting with her regulars.
Ms. Parkes and her volunteers are familiar faces in the community. During Tuesday’s service, a woman came by to donate $200 in cash to help Ms. Parkes achieve her goal of securing physical and permanent premises.
Volunteers know the patrons by name and every effort is made to source the goods needed for particular individuals, whether it be a few extra meals of chicken, a rice cooker, a fridge or a blanket.
“We have the opportunity to chat with people and work out their needs and discover their stories,” says Ms. Parkes.
“For some people it’s really important that they tell you and share that because they want you to know why they’re here.”
But Ms. Parkes says the influx of people in the past three months has been “stunning” and “overwhelming”.
She has seen that the rising cost of living, from soaring gas prices to skyrocketing groceries, has affected everyone, even those from affluent suburbs.
Ms. Parkes is also holding a second feeding program from her home in Hoxton Park, where attendance is also increasing.
“People are having a hard time everywhere, even in areas that look like they’re more affluent,” she says, referring to her own suburb of Hoxton Park.
“They may not mention it, or they may not be able to access a service because of barriers like access or pride, but we’re trying to take all those barriers down.”
‘Take what you need, no questions asked’
Ms. Parkes’ philosophy for Community Cafe remains the same as when she began operation in July 2021. At the time, controversial suburban lockdowns gripped Sydney’s local government area, meaning people couldn’t travel more than 3 miles to access other outreach programmes. Some who charged fees for their services also raised their prices to meet demand.
However, Community Cafe’s goal has always been a “no questions asked” approach to the community — not charity, she says.
“People just have free access and take whatever they need and we don’t pass judgment on anyone.”
Her vision for the project is also based on her own experiences about seven years ago, when her own family was nearly homeless.
At the time, she and her husband had unexpectedly welcomed twins, expanding her family from three to five overnight. Being priced out of childcare meant their family was dependent on her husband’s only income, which barely covered their expenses.
“It was overwhelming and we struggled. There were many days and nights when my husband and I just didn’t eat,” she says.
But her family was offered a lifeline thanks to a free food program offered by a community group in Bankstown. Desperate, Ms. Parkes recalls borrowing gas money for the 20-minute car ride between Bankstown and Miller, where she lived at the time.
“I have cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t believe it was free. I was like, ‘We’ll be fine,'” she says.
“I said to my husband, ‘At some point we’ll be in a position where I can give back’.”
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