Echuca Neighbourhood House manager Sarah Peake.
Imagine for just a moment how much food can fit onto four pallets.
That is how much food Echuca Neighbourhood House (ENH) has been providing through its Food Bank program to people in need across the district every day since the flood crisis began.
House manager Sarah Peake said the number of people they have helped since mid-October was impossible to calculate, but with 25 volunteers filling shifts each week, it’s fair to say they have been run off their feet.
So busy, in fact, that ENH, which runs a variety of programs across three sites in Echuca, has temporarily suspended the majority of its activities in the face of the ongoing flood crisis, with the full focus on helping the community in whatever way it can.
Ordinarily, ENH provides services such as community lunches, no interest loans, a community garden, courses in a variety of subjects like computers, English, literacy and numeracy, and digital essentials, as well as showers for the homeless.
It is also the only house in Australia which manages a golf course, the Back 9 in Echuca. Unfortunately, the course is in no fit state for those wanting to play a few holes after being inundated by the Campaspe River.
The Food Bank component of ENH was introduced a couple of years ago, with the service previously run by Echuca’s Pauline Aitken for more than twenty years from her home. When she retired, somebody approached ENH and wanted to know who was going to take it on.
So, take it on they did, Sarah said.
‘Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to ascertain what a normal year is operating Food Bank because we started during the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020,’ Sarah said. ‘And since then, of course, we’ve seen housing prices go up, rental prices go up, and the whole housing market has exploded.
‘There have been so many people coming to us who aren't able to get Centrelink payments, who have lost their jobs, or simply cannot make ends meet because of the rising cost of living.
‘We went into Food Bank uncertain how far we’d take it and now it’s our biggest program. We’ve had to make multiple conversions to our shed and facilities to cater for it.’
Sarah said they did some deliveries, but the bulk of their food was collected by those in need, with a small donation asked in exchange which helped cover the costs associated with being affiliated with Foodbank Victoria and Foodshare.
‘Each meal does cost us, so we do ask for a gold coin donation from those who can afford it.’
During the flood crisis, the team co-ordinated food drops to residents isolated by floodwaters with the assistance of the ADF and SES. They have also provided food across the district, including deliveries to Gunbower, Torrumbarry, Rochester, Echuca Village, Strathallen, Bunnaloo, Mathoura and Barmah, with state borders no barrier to how far they’ll go to help.
‘We won’t turn anybody away,’ Sarah said.
While Sarah has been humbled by the level of support she has received for Food Bank during the flood crisis, with goods donated from places as far away as Geelong and Myrtleford, Echuca United Football Netball Club providing the use of their club rooms, and Campaspe Shire Council hiring a cool room, Sarah has spent countless hours making sure there is enough food coming in for those who need it.
And the crisis is far from over. The ramifications for homes and businesses who have been inundated, along with farmers, some who have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in livestock, hay and crops, will create ongoing concerns.
‘We have spoken to farmers who have lost everything and it’s just heartbreaking,’ Sarah said.
‘I’m extremely concerned for the mental wellbeing of people now and into the future.’
‘I’m very fortunate that I have a great team helping me and we will keep doing everything we can to help people.
‘Food Bank is here to stay. And while it’s a sad thing knowing that it’s a service which won’t be going anywhere, the crew get a kick out of knowing that someone will have a fully belly each night and that is incredibly rewarding.’
With the program relying on volunteers to pick up food from supermarkets in their private vehicles, Sarah is hoping to raise funds for a bus which will make their jobs easier.
Together with Committee for Echuca Moama and Rich River Golf Club, February’s Celebri-Tee Golf Day and Sportsman's Dinner & Auction will raise funds to go towards the Food Bank bus.
‘We are so thrilled that C4EM will donate the proceeds from next year’s golf day towards our bus. It is such a worthwhile cause and the number of people it will help is immeasurable,’ Sarah said.
The third annual Golf Day will be held on Wednesday, February 15, with the Sportsman's Dinner & Auction kicking off from 7pm. Tickets are available from Rich River Golf Club on 5481 3333.