Awash with food but starving: The country's largest food recovery warehouse is winding down

New Zealand's largest food recovery warehouse, 0800 Hungry, has informed its landlord it plans to close.  

There is no date, because in just one month, half a million dollars worth of products, most of which would otherwise end up in the landfill, have arrived at its doors.

It can't be sold, but to the Christchurch community they serve, it is a godsend, and its legacy is getting desperate families through tough times.  

"We are now poorer than the people we feed," says warehouse supervisor Nicola Bensemann.

"When we close, we won't have to be up at the crack of dawn. We won't have to work seven days a week and 12 hour stretches. We won't have to live with the uncertainty.  There won't be the abuse, the feeling of being taken for granted.

"On the other hand, we will absolutely miss the people that 0800 Hungry has developed relationships with over nearly two decades. Generations of families, many who are in genuine need.

"Our heart breaks for the volunteers. Nearly half of them have special needs. For some of them it's their only social interaction. They know the value of what they're providing to the community. They develop work skills. They all line up to come here. It's somewhere they feel safe, they know what they're doing and they feel appreciated," she says.

0800 Hungry's outgoing costs are $260,000 per year. The service relies on regular and casual donors, $5 donations per food parcel, and a grants system they say is a "criteria minefield".

Each of the food parcels feeds a household for a week. More than 155 social agencies and churches take them to clients. 

It is food recovery on an industrial scale, direct to the community, no questions asked.

"Time and time again we hear from these agencies that coming with a food parcel helps to break the ice. It allows them to see if people are okay," says Bensemann. 

The figures are large: 9,300 food parcels consisting of between one and two large boxes of food and household supplies delivered to doors last year. This year, they're ahead of that by abound 700. 

"The benefit of delivering to the door is that you build a picture of the need.  It's on their own terms. They will give you as much access as they're comfortable with," says Bensemann.  

"Often they need someone to talk to because they're lonely. You are a friendly face with support. It's also a convenience for a lot of people, an un-intrusive way to receive food. Some elderly don't have transport and they don't want to line up in queues and supply personal information to receive food. If you have a problem, it's usually easier to share with someone you don't know and in your own home.  They know there is someone there who will listen."

0800 Hungry is built around a volunteer base. It has 120 regular volunteers.

"Schools throughout Christchurch have also taken this onboard as an opportunity to get kids along to help, and develop a social conscience at the same time. Other community organisations, those in mental health, special needs and the disabled are involved. This outlet is vital to a healthy community," says Bensemann.

"Banks send groups of staff to volunteer, and Volunteer Canterbury has been a backbone, connecting local businesses who seek opportunities for their staff to contribute to the community.

"Workers who are allowed time to volunteer with us can see immediately that what they do contributes to their community and directly impacts peoples' lives, and that's why they come back. But we also need businesses to get behind us financially if we are to survive."

The plight of 0800 Hungry has been taken to the public before, and the public have dug deep.  

Two years ago, a call for help by The AM Show raised $70,000. Many of those who donated commented that they or their families had been helped at one time or another in their lives by 0800 Hungry.  It is an institution.

The rallying call raised enough to get them through the next two years. But the reality is that it wasn't not enough.

In the same year as this mammoth fundraising effort, $100,000 in annual earnings from recycling boxes disappeared overnight, when reusable plastic crates became available to the customers it was supplying with the cardboard. 

"We are reliant on grants to cover the shortfall, but to date we haven't been successful with many of our applications. The demand is growing, and we don't seem to be a high priority. The process is often impersonal," says Bensemann.

"Surges of cash like what was raised by the AM Show Givealittle campaign run out.  What we need to survive is a solid, ongoing commitment of funds. We cannot continue surviving month to month, hand to mouth."

As 0800 Hungry's 18th anniversary approaches next month, its future is grim.

"We're not sure when we'll be locked out.  We're three-and-a-half months behind with our rent.  How do we empty the place out?" says Nicola's husband and 0800 Hungry founder Kerry Bensemann. "We are developing an exit plan, that is the current situation."

But until then, the phone continues to ring and food parcels continue to be delivered.

"In 1999, God called me to open a food warehouse," says Kerry.  "Over the years we have stood in the gap between those who have and those who have not.  We have recovered over 35 million dollars of food products and household items and delivered food parcels to more than 230,000 households. There have been those who have taken advantage. But you have to go through the greedy to get to the needy."

After the earthquakes, they put an eight-wheeler curtain-side truck on the road for five weeks, working their way across the east of the city, delivering around 6,500 parcels before operating back in their warehouse

0800 Hungry is a non-denominational, non-profit Christian Charitable Trust that was set up to empower churches, and social agencies of all denominations to reach out to those in the community who need a helping hand. It began as a resource for the church to "become a human face to people".


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