Part One of the Hungry Lucky Country was first published on February 28, 2015 on Beacon Reader, the now defunct crowd-funded journalism platform. An edited version (much stronger thanks to Hop Dac’s skill as an editor) was published in Issue 25 of Kill Your Darlings, a quarterly Australian literary magazine. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Kill Your Darlings, both exceptional organisations, are practically next door to one another in Footscray.
THE FOOD JUSTICE TRUCK
An interview over chickpea curry with Patrick Lawrence from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre about a groundbreaking initiative to feed asylum seekers. The idea for the Food Justice Truck started a year and a half ago when founder and CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis said, ‘But what about the others?’
When I ask Patrick Lawrence what he did before becoming the Director of Humanitarian Services at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre his answer floors me, ‘Classical piano.’ I was expecting ‘Masters in International Development,’ or ‘Engineers Without Borders’. Ten years ago Patrick returned to Melbourne, ‘I still wanted to make music but I found out about this place in St Kilda that was detoxing people off heroin on mattresses on the floor and said they needed volunteers. I thought “Well if I don’t go today I’ll never go”. That decision had a pretty big impact on my life.’ From there Patrick moved in to volunteer management. He still works one day a week at First Step in St Kilda. At this point it occurs to me that I am lunching with a saint.
Australia’s largest asylum seeker organisation was established by Kon Karapanagiotidis in 2001 and is now based out of a massive building in Footscray, Melbourne. What was once a call centre is now chickpeas and benevolence. The Community Meals Program is cranking, the lunch queue winds around the outside of the member’s area to two pianos and a drum kit and people are shopping in the Foodbank. The 1500 members of the ASRC can visit the Foodbank once a week and choose what they want from tall rows of shelves stacked with tinned tomatoes, grains, tuna, pasta, toiletries and an adjoining room full of fresh fruit and vegetables. Patrick explains where the food comes from, ‘About a third we purchase ourselves. About a third comes from what we call our ASRC Food Network which is an unofficial affiliation of schools, places of worship, individuals, families, work places who collect food. And the other piece of the pie is the food rescue organisations that have been supporting us for a very long time: FareShare, SecondBite, Foodbank Victoria and more recently OzHarvest. ‘ A local fishmonger donates about 30kg a week and I meet a volunteer who donates chestnuts from his farm every season.
According to the Department of Border Protection, as of December 2014 there were 25,569 people in Australia on bridging visas. Many people on bridging visas are not eligible for welfare payments and a large number of asylum seekers are denied the right to work. Almost half of the members of the Foodbank receive no welfare payments and those that do receive just over $200 a week. With no income – or no work – or both, the majority of asylum seekers find it impossible to survive. In the queue for lunch Patrick explains the genesis of The Food Justice Truck, ‘[There are] about 10 000 asylum seekers in Victoria alone who don’t have access to the Foodbank. We prioritise those that aren’t being supported by one of the federally funded case working agencies. We focus on people with no income. We focus on people with particularly great mental health needs or other serious welfare needs. So we’re left with these other people. Kon asked me the question, “What about the others?” I said to him, “Well look, give me 2 weeks to cogitate and not sleep properly and I’ll come back to you with a proposal to have a serious impact on the nutritional landscape of 2000 asylum seekers.” I ask about the numbers. ‘I just invented the figure of 2000 just ‘cause I thought well 10 000 is just crazy. There’s no way in the world I can get my head around that. I had to put some kind of scope around it.’
So how to feed an extra 2000 people? The ASRC wondered whether they could build a bigger Foodbank somewhere else, ‘And the answer to that fundamentally is no. The FairShares and SecondBites, we’re maxing them out already. So we thought let’s buy stuff in bulk and charge cost price.’ But they quickly figured out the asylum seekers have hardly any money for food let alone public transport to go and get it. So bulk prices was out, as was a second location, ‘There are asylum seekers all over Melbourne. They’re in the Far North, the South East, the West, they’re everywhere. Where are we going to base this place?’ They came up with a mobile truck combined with a social enterprise model, ‘Selling to two groups of people: One is the general public and they will pay our standard rates, and the other group are asylum seekers and asylum seekers will get a 75% discount. The general public will know that essentially for every apple they buy someone else is going to get an apple too.’
Next came the idea to crowd fund the truck. ‘We’ve never done a crowd funding campaign. It is a very physical, obvious, sexy idea, bit hip and a bit fun, and it took off. I won’t say we raised a $150 000 easily but we raised it with a few days to spare.’ The project secured 970 backers. ‘Basically every time Kon wrote something on facebook 30 people would go and donate. Kon is fiercely intelligent. He started the ASRC when he was teaching social work at Victoria Uni in Footscray. Since then he’s got a law degree. He’s completed a senior executive Masters of Business Administration and he has run most of the programs in the ASRC at one point in time. He is a pretty amazing guy.’ [Note to self: Marry Kon]
A Deakin University Faculty of Health study of the ASRC Foodbank found that 90% of the asylum seekers accessing the Foodbank are food insecure. The average asylum seeker has just $20 to spend on food for a week and that it costs $130 a week to eat well in Australia. The Food Justice Truck hopes to make up some of the difference. ‘So that $20, if you’re getting a 75% discount, becomes $80 worth of food.’ I ask if anyone else is doing similar things, ‘There are social enterprises all over the place. The soup van idea has been around for ages. The food charity sector is strong and well established but the size of the discount is a game-changer for asylum seekers.’
They are sourcing most of the fruit and veg for the truck from Spade and Barrow. ‘They buy the whole crop from a farmer unlike the supermarkets that will only buy stuff that meets the guidelines- carrots that are straight and this length and perfectly orange and everything else- Spade and Barrow buys the whole crop. They use the term “Nature’s Grade”, so it might not look perfect but it is quite possibly even better in terms of flavour.’ ‘So it cuts out the middle man?’ ‘Massively. They’ve saved a few farmers from going under. We’re going to be buying from them for the justice truck but we’re also open to buying from everywhere.’ The food justice truck won’t sell donated food. ‘It is a purely financial model, it is just an unusual one.’ We have reached the front of the line. We load up our plates with food and Patrick hits the desert bar, ‘Ooh I love crumble.’
The food truck has a pragmatic approach, ‘Somebody used this term at one of our planning days “Post Organic”. My interpretation of Post Organic is it is not all about organic. It is about local, low fuel miles, no greenhousing. You might be better off using something that was shipped from Queensland than using something that was grown in a greenhouse in Melbourne.’ Inspired by Friends of the Earth the truck will sell grain in bulk. ‘Red lentils, green lentils, plain flour, atta flour, wholemeal flour, long grain rice, basmati rice, maybe jasmine rice…That is a bring your own container situation.’ The truck is going to be as close to zero waste as possible. ‘ People that support the ASRC also care about the environment and care about healthy eating. I took advice from various different people. Taking advice is a very important thing.’ One of the people Patrick took advice from was eco –restauranteur Joost Bakker, ‘He’s one of our main pro-bono supporters around truck design.’ The Food Justice Truck is going to be a petrol electric hybrid and there won’t be any cardboard in sight, ‘Part of the zero waste idea is most of the food is going to be in these plastic crates that we give to our suppliers. Joost refuses to use any suppliers that can’t give him the produce in a returnable, reuseable container.’
The chickpea curry is the best thing I have eaten in four and a half years but I am still pissed off, ‘Do you ever feel angry that the government isn’t doing what it should be doing?’ Patrick pauses, ‘There is a wonderful quote that I love. Martin Luther King. Admittedly he had something to be angry about and I don’t really because my life is great. I’m angry on behalf of other people so it is a different kind of anger. But the quote I first saw it painted on the wall downstairs. Someone was painting a wall but before they did it they painted this quote on it so it is painted in to the wall. And it is, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.’ We eat. ‘Are there more asylum seekers in Victoria than other states?’ ‘There are.’ ‘Why is that?’ ‘I don’t know- maybe because the ASRC is here.’ Looking around the packed lunch room this seems entirely plausible.
The food truck will launch at Footscray Primary School in March, ‘We are hoping to have ten locations a week within 12 months. The good thing about Footscray is it is one of these combination locations where we know we have a lot of people, let’s say hipsters, who are gonna wanna shop there; people who care about asylum seekers, we know a lot of people who financially support the ASRC live in Footscray, and we also know that Footscray as a suburb has a high level of asylum seekers.’ Patrick is thinking ahead, ‘I’d love to sell herbs in the soil in the truck. So you can buy Australia’s freshest herbs, literally ripping them out of the soil.’ I look up. ‘What’s on the roof here?’ ‘Potentially you could put something up there.’ ‘That is for the future.’ ‘We are thinking about it.’
When I approached Patrick with the idea of writing about the truck I had a post it note with THIS IS AN ISSUE OF FOOD SECURITY scrawled on it stuck in my notebook. But having just eaten at the same table as asylum seekers I can’t sum it up that easily- it is about food security yes, but it is also about the four year old kid in the foyer of the ASRC singing Happy Birthday and practising his ABCs. It is about people who survived atrocity sitting down to break bread with their families. It is about innovation in the face of a bureaucratic and racist nightmare. It is fitting that last night as I was researching this article protesters in Melbourne stopped the Australian Open and draped a banner reading ‘Australia Open For Refugees’ and ‘#shutdownmanus’ across the tennis stadium. I think this action smacks of what is to come- Australian citizens saying no to a government that, aside from countless other human rights breaches, expects people to eat on $20 a week.
Follow the truck on twitter @justicetruck and Patrick @PatrickLawr
PART TWO of this article is about the building of the truck: Interviews with Industrial Designer Brett Capron and the men building the truck: Andrew Blair and Darren Owen from Vehicle Modification Specialists.
PART THREE is an interview with ASRC’s Food Justice Truck Manager Russell Shields and a profile of the launch of the truck in March 2015 at Footscray Primary School.