At the Wellington and Auckland City Missions, Christmas looks a bit different in Covid times. There are no big feasts planned this year, but with the help of donors, the missions are still spreading joy.
This content was created in paid partnership with Nando’s.
The first week of August was business as usual for Auckland City Mission’s food distribution operation – providing between 700 and 900 food packages to those in need. The following week, Auckland’s long, long lockdown began – and demand doubled. Then it increased some more. At one point the Mission and its partner sites were distributing 2,500 packages a week. Every week now is still more than double the pre-lockdown level.
“We’ve never had to meet a surge for this long, nor this extensive,” says Auckland city missioner Helen Robinson.
Even in Wellington, which spent only three weeks this year at lockdown levels three and four, the surge in demand was instant and prodigious, says Wellington city missioner Murray Edridge. It was a reminder of the economic fragility of many New Zealand lives.
“What I’ve become really conscious of is that we have a significant number of families who are really living on the edge,” says Edridge. “They’re just getting by and all it requires is an unexpected expense, with the car or a medical expense, just something small, and it really makes a difference and pushes them over the edge of just surviving or not coping. And Covid has just exacerbated all of those concerns.”
Robinson says the Mission sees people who might be on benefits with some casual or part-time work, for whom lockdowns meant far less work, and therefore less income.
“What’s happened during lockdown is a lot of people have either lost jobs or had their hours reduced, or if they were on casual labour, just weren’t being utilised. Think of hospo, where you had people who were in quite vulnerable labour positions anyway, or the industries around the airport.”
Wherever the need arises, the missions and their partners and counterparts around the country are committed to stepping up. But where does the food – and the money to buy food and pay distribution workers – come from?
Some of it now comes from the government. For the first time, last year’s Covid budget provided taxpayer funding for food banks, although that’s not guaranteed to continue. Contributions from members of the public are also critical, and then there are the businesses that step up to help. The Wellington Mission received a $50,000 credit from supermarket giant Foodstuffs during both level four lockdowns, but also receives regular food donations from smaller New Zealand companies like Auckland’s Blue Frog Breakfast and the artisan smallgoods company Beard Brothers in Hawke’s Bay.
Long-term relationships with donors are important for stability, says Robinson, and among the most established for the Auckland City Mission is its partnership with the Southern African restaurant chain Nando’s, which has been working with the Mission for six years. All chicken left over from a trading day in its restaurants is frozen and given to food agencies around the country.
“The programme is called No Chuckin’ Our Chicken,” explains Nando’s marketing manager Michal Evans. “We work with the Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch City Missions, and then we have other partners in the regions, like Good Neighbour in Tauranga and Kiwi Harvest in Dunedin. We have a policy of only serving fresh chicken (never frozen), so the programme means we can reduce our waste while also feeding people in need.”
Nando’s has another equally prosaically-named project this week: Cans for Chips. Anyone who brings a can of nonperishable food to a Nando’s restaurant can swap it for a serving of chips. You even get a choice – PERi-PERi or plain.
To help out the Auckland and Wellington City Missions this Christmas, donate a can to a Nando’s near you and get free chips. Find out more here.
The recipients of food assistance traditionally don’t get consumer choice, but last year the Wellington City Mission changed that, with the launch of its “Social Supermarket”, where recipients can come in and choose their own food, like any other shoppers. This has some unexpected benefits. Some donated foods are hard to place: the mission can’t really send out hot chilli sauce in food parcels. But there will be people for whom a good chilli sauce is a boost to their quality of life. At the Social Supermarket, they can choose it.
“You and I have dignity in our lives because we have choice,” says Edridge. “It’s really hard to have dignity if you don’t have any choices.”
When this year’s lockdown was announced, the Mission considered reverting to the conventional food parcels it sent out last year. Instead, it decided to stick with the supermarket model and have its workers act as personal shoppers for clients. For this Christmas, the model has been adapted for a Mission toy store. Parents who don’t otherwise have the resources to give can come in, choose toys and wrap them themselves.
Christmas also presented some particular challenges for the Auckland City Mission this year. Under red light restrictions, it can’t hold its traditional Christmas feast for 1,000 or more people. Nando’s has come to the rescue again here, donating takeaway meals for people who would normally come to the dinner and also opening some of its restaurants for Mission clients.
“We really rely on the generosity of Aucklanders and our long-term partners like Nando’s,” says Robinson. “Nando’s has been a friend of the Mission for years, running a whole variety of food and fundraising promotions and donating chickens. Cans for Chips is actually quite a big deal for us. Last year, that collection gave us 6,000 food items, which was a really good boost to the provision of our supplies throughout December, but particularly at Christmas.”
Because food is often one of the first sacrifices for families who can’t make ends meet, it can be a useful measure for poverty, says Robinson.
“I just say look at the amount of people who are coming for food, because what it shows me really simply is people don’t have enough coming in against what’s going out. So they pay the rent, they send the kids to school, they go to the doctor, they pay their transport bills and utilities. And then it’s food. If they do all of that and can survive, but then they don’t have money for food, that’s when people will be accessing services like ours.”
But food insecurity is a measurable symptom, not a cause of poverty. Robinson says the need for the Mission’s services won’t ease until the living wage becomes a baseline for all New Zealanders, beneficiaries included, and the cost of living is addressed.
“I think New Zealand needs to really address this much deeper question about the provision of adequate housing supply. In an environment where there’s not enough supply, housing is always going to be an item that becomes more and more expensive, because there’s high competition. So what can we do to increase supply, particularly in the social housing area?”
At the end of the day, the changes we need to make to end food insecurity in New Zealand will take effort from everyone, not just those at the Mission, says Robinson.
“There are these key drivers to food insecurity, but in the end it’s going to be us. I don’t mean the Mission us, I mean, Auckland us, the New Zealand ‘us’ that is going to solve this problem. Everyone needs to do their part.”