Hidden crisis behind 40-person queue

For the inner-city Sydney suburb of Waterloo, the most bustling spot on a Saturday morning isn’t a cult brunch spot, but a market offering the hungry and struggling a bit of reprieve.

Despite the endless drizzle and grey winter morning, they’re prepared.

At 9.30am, a whole 30 minutes before opening, a queue at least a dozen people deep has formed outside the OzHarvest Market. Using rescued food from supermarkets and other partners, the food relief program allows anyone access to free produce and pantry staples.

While donations are optional, they’re by no means required and at times, actively discouraged.

“We’ll have people who feel a bit shy and we tell them: ‘please don’t do that because we can see you’re struggling. It’s really tough right now’,” Market Manager Eliza van der Sman told news.com.au.

At the head of the queue is an elderly woman who got to the market at 8am. While she asked not to be named, she told news.com.au that prior to buying a car, she would take three buses just to travel from Maroubra – a suburb in Sydney’s east roughly 8km away.

As a diabetic, she tries to supplement her diet with as many fruits and vegetables, but rising prices have made it difficult. Like the rest of Australia, she’s found herself confounded at $10 heads of lettuce and capsicums marked at $15 for a kilo.

By the time its four minutes before opening, the line is 35 to 40 people deep, and a conservative 25 metres long.

Inside, the OzHarvest volunteers have spent the morning prepping and organising stock. In order to preserve the groceries until the market’s 2pm closing time, only two or three customers are allowed inside at once and the products are rationed.

On offer is an option between protein powder and muesli bars, a pouch of custard or yoghurt, and later an array of products, which customers leave with four or five pieces of.

Because the morning bread delivery brought a surplus of loaves, product limits are a bit more lax.

Single mum-of-two two Korinna found out about the OzHarvest Market by an accidental Google search.

The hardworking mother, who is studying holistic health with ambitions of beginning her own practice, struggles to stretch her fortnightly Single Parenting Payment of $880 while caring for her teenage kids.

She estimates her weekly trip saves her $40 to $50 a fortnight, boosting the $100 she spends on food, once she pays for her household’s rent, bills, transport and other expenses.

“It really does help,” she tells news.com.au.

“I have to budget very carefully but so far I’ve managed to get by.”

For Korinna, 2022 has been an exercise in resourcefulness. When cooking, she uses all parts of the vegetables, whether it’s the exterior leaves of a cabbage or the stem of a cauliflower.

“I use pretty much everything I take, provided it hasn’t gone off or gone mouldy,” she says.

Unsuspecting challenges come when it’s time to replace household goods, with stock disruptions worsening the struggle.

“Not all of us can afford to restock items like toilet paper, even when they’re on sale” she says.

“Sometimes they don’t have the kind I want and that means you have to buy the more expensive brand, or buy in bulk, whereas I can only purchase what I need.”

As the cost-of-living pressures shrink grocery baskets and inflate receipts, Eliza has seen the those who require OzHarvest’s service multiply.

She says the sharpest increases happened this year in April and May, when customer foot traffic jumped from 1400 customers to 1700.

“Prior to April and May, the majority of our customers were local residents who lived in social housing and now we’re seeing it become a lot more unpredictable,” she says.

“We’ll see the random person who’s travelling a long way because their partner has lost their job. There’ll also be people presenting with their lanyards from work and in their nice clothes and it’s obvious they’re working from the city.”

Students are another growing group.

“Conversations my colleagues are having with younger people is that rent prices went crazy at the start of the year and they’re finally catch up,” Eliza continues.

“One of the conversations I had was that people had been paying their rent with their savings and now the savings had dried up.”

Now the customers are gradually creeping towards 1800, with a four-hour block between 10am to 2pm on a Saturday drawing up to 360 customers alone.

“We’re up to 25 per cent from last year. And this time last year was the peak of the Delta lockdown where we’ve never been busier,” she says.

“People are lining up in the pouring rain and because there’s no option. Nobody would choose that. Nobody would risk getting Covid or pneumonia unless they have to and they have to.”

For Korinna, while staying afloat is no doubt harder, her strategy is to take “one day at a time”.

“We don’t know how long this is going to last. Some people have said prices are going to go down by the end of the year but I don’t know if that’s true or not,” she says.

“I try to teach my kids to be grateful for whatever food they have. I might not be able to afford all those takeaways, or yummy packaged, or frozen foods all the time but I just want them to be grateful that they have food on the plate.

“I get really upset when they don’t finish their food and we have to throw it out.”

Still, she’s hopeful that things will get better.

“I try not to think about the future too much. I just have to hope that whatever it is, I’ll be able to manage and adjust,” she adds.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to be working by then and my circumstances will have changes.”

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