New Zealand charities are bracing for a surge in the number of Kiwis requiring emergency food parcels this Christmas, with the COVID-19 pandemic likely to intensify what is already their busiest time of year.
The Auckland City Mission says the lead-up to Christmas is set to be "a period of immense, immense demand" on its services, at a scale greater than it's ever seen before.
The charity estimates one in 10 Kiwis experienced food insecurity - defined as lack of access to nutritionally adequate food on a regular basis - before COVID-19. But it now believes that's doubled to more like one in five, representing about 1 million New Zealanders.
In 2019, the Mission distributed about a third of its 25,000 annual food parcels in the fortnight before Christmas - enough to feed 8000 families of four for about four days.
But chief executive Chris Farrelly told Newshub it's likely to be far more this time around - especially since this year, for the first time ever, it's providing additional food specifically for a Christmas meal.
The Mission opened its five distribution sites for emergency food parcels and presents to the public on Monday - but its still unsure just how much greater the level of need will be following a year like no other.
"It's hard to say. It'll be bigger [than last year], but just to what extent we really don't know. Week one will give us a pretty good sense of how it's going," he said.
"We frankly don't quite know what's going to hit us in the next few weeks, so we're kind of a little unsure… We know based on the last eight months the need has doubled essentially, so that's the ballpark we're working in."
Farrelly says the people in need this Christmas are those who've never had to ask for a handout before.
"They have fixed costs; fixed rent that's very high, or fixed loan repayments and they've lost an income. Those people are desperate," he said.
"The demographic coming to us is primarily women with children, frequently single mums."
Despite the increased need, however, for the first time Farrelly feels the community and the Government are backing them in the fight to eradicate food insecurity.
"A year or two ago I would have felt very lonely in this space, but jeez - we feel we've got a whole lot of support behind us now from the community," he said.
"I get calls daily from people saying 'what can we do to help?'"
COVID-19 a 'super-catalyst' for rapid change
Among those eager to offer support are the founders of the New Zealand Food Network - a new charity launched this year to act as a food distributor for frontline community groups across the country, including the Mission.
The charity's founders were pitching the idea to the Government when coronavirus made its way to our shores in early 2020. But rather than scuppering their plans, the outbreak was what CEO Kevin Findlay describes as a "super-catalyst" for them to get the ball rolling right away.
In response to the rapidly increasing need, they built the entire company from the ground up in less than four months before launching in late July - having already secured funding as part of the Government's $32 million allocation for food banks in its 2020 Wellbeing Budget.
"It would've been a slow burn without COVID I'm sure, because we really did need that national backing. Where the country was at the time, it just made sense," Findlay told Newshub.
"Had that not happened, it would probably be years in the making to get us where we are now from a funding and a structure perspective. I could say it was COVID or nothing."
The charity has partnered with Fonterra-owned dairy company Anchor in a Christmas appeal that aims to feed at least 15,000 Kiwis. They're attempting to fill what they call 'food ambulances' with Christmas hampers that will be delivered throughout the country.
The Food Network prides itself on its ability to channel food where it's needed most. It's a new approach, as in the past some charities have been overwhelmed with food while other regions, such as Gisborne and Northland, have gone without.
Like the Mission, the Food Network has noticed a doubling in the needs of the community that relies on its services - and Findlay says it appears to be the same deal with most of the country's food charities.
"St Vincent de Paul in Auckland, they've gone from giving out 70 food parcels a week to now in the mid-400s. There are some organisations who've folded due to COVID, so there is a bit of consolidation of distribution, but it's still two to three times more than what it was."
Findlay expects the level of need this Christmas will be significantly higher than ever before - and he warns it may become 'the new norm' for New Zealand, as some of the financial impacts of COVID-19 are yet to be felt.
"Anecdotally, the expectation is that we've doubled from pre-COVID to now. So from about 10 percent it's now one in five. We're trying to get to a stage where food insecurity is either brief, rare or non-recurring, but COVID puts things in the mix," he said.
"Whether it's the new norm is a bit of a mystery because we just don't know to what level the economic impact is going to take over the next six to 12 months.
"People's savings may be depleted, certain industries might not quite survive, it may be slow for other industries to come back online, so we just don't know. What we do know is that food security is an issue that's not going away."
The gifts charities want from the Government this Christmas
Both Farrelly and Findlay are complimentary of the work the Government has put in this year to help New Zealand's most vulnerable people in the face of a wide-reaching pandemic.
One of the major wins for the Auckland City Mission during COVID-19 was seeing almost the entire street population in central Auckland into motels, all paid for by the Government.
"Come March, we had this message, 'OK, self-isolate at home, we're going to go into lockdown'," Farrelly explained.
"But if you have no home to isolate in, you're stuffed - so what we did, in three days, is get off the streets virtually every single street homeless person in central Auckland. They went into motels and we had the staff and expertise to support them and look after them.
"That was an amazing thing. New Zealand really had our eye on our most vulnerable from the very first days of COVID. It wasn't an after-thought."
A lot of those previously homeless people remain in motels to this day, with staff still on-site to look after them. Farrelly says with these people now adjusted to life off the streets, it's past the point of no return; they can no longer be told to get out and go back to living under a bridge.
So the question is, what next?
"We literally do not have the housing stock in this country to put these people [in]. This is a massive challenge," Farrelly said.
"The Government at the moment are hell-bent on trying to get us through this, but like me are struggling to know just quite how. It's all very well medium-term or long-term solutions, but what are the solutions today?
"It's a big challenge now for the Government to enter next year with this large number of people in motels."
Farrelly also wants the Government to look at welfare payments, which he says are obviously not adequate for many Kiwis in poverty - particularly given the increased financial pressures brought on by the pandemic.
"The Welfare Reform Advisory Group, those recommendations on that need to be implemented - we and other agencies have been quite straight on that. When so many people are on welfare and don't have jobs, that whole payment has to be looked at," he said.
Like Farrelly, Findlay applauds the Government's efforts to address food insecurity, but he wants them to "take it a step further" and establish an all-of-Government food policy for the country.
"We are a garden and a food producer. Agriculture is four times bigger an industry than tourism. It'd be great to have a cohesive approach."