• REAP team: Clemence Mukategere, Jessica Lane, Aluel Akoch, Given-Dignity Sitei, Martha Wil, Mehret Fikak and Aster Weldergerish.
Given-Dignity Sitei is changing the course of her own life and others by participating in Toowoomba’s new volunteer-run food redistribution program.
Yasmin Noone

17 Aug 2016 - 2:54 PM  UPDATED 18 Aug 2016 - 9:21 AM

Some people dream about becoming wealthy while others aspire for career success. Then there are those who have little, yet aim for a life spent helping others.

The 29-year-old refugee, Given-Dignity Sitei, is one of these people. She fled to Australia from Botswana with her Congolese husband in November last year. Just over six months later, she joined a new regional food waste project in Toowoomba, Queensland, run by YWCA Queensland and OzHarvest.

The volunteer-run ‘REAP’ food rescue program aims to have a positive impact on the environment and reduce poverty by redistributing excess food supplies from organisations, farmers markets and food producers that have too much to charities serving those who don’t have enough. The new Toowoomba program, funded by a state government grant, has officially opened for business and in a few weeks time, it will make its first food delivery.

“There are so many people in my country who need food,” says Sitei. “So when I look at the food that is being wasted here, it drives me to want to help people who need something to eat.”

The national OzHarvest REAP project, established in 2011, rescues over 12,000 kilograms of surplus food each month from all types of food businesses including supermarkets, cafés, restaurants, produce markets and farms across Australia.

Volunteers have also delivered more than 720,000 meals and saved more than 240 tonnes of food from landfill, providing much needed food relief to regional Australians in need.

“I think that if I can help the people here in Australia, then one day maybe I will have the opportunity to help people back in my country.”

National REAP coordinator for OzHarvest, Sarah Pinchbeck, estimates that around two million Australians rely on food relief each year.

“Access to good food is as challenging for people living in regional areas, as it is those people in the cities,” says Pinchbeck. 

“There’s also excess food both the city and country areas. Farmers may be working lean but there will always be excess additional food that they produce that’s not as perfect or juicy as someone wants them to be to be sold at a supermarket.

“So instead of that food being thrown away or wasted, we are able to provide a purpose for that food.”

There are currently seven ‘REAP’ programs being run in regional areas throughout Australia, including Port Macquarie, the NSW Sapphire Coast and Cairns. The Toowoomba chapter, however, is unique. It doubles as a Community Work Skills traineeship, offering Sitei and 11 other females – mostly refugees or migrants – the opportunity to complete a Certificate 1 in Business in exchange for a 20-week volunteer stint to set up the new regional food redistribution service.

“In my country, I didn’t have the opportunity to work,” she says. “The unemployment rate in Botswana is really high, even if you finish year 12 or get a degree it’s very difficult to get a job.

“When I got to Australia, my mind was just so blown away that I thought: ‘you know what? I am going to start working on my dreams in Australia. And now, this food program has really helped me to do that. Before the course, I also didn’t know anything about computers: just how to switch it on. But I can use a computer on my own now.”

YWCA Queensland programs manager, Aeron Morgan, says she has proudly watch the participants grow in confidence and skill to create the program from scratch.

“The women are currently coordinating a food delivery schedule to organise what charities need food, what they need and how often. They are also lining that up with food collections,” says Morgan.

“These women are doing meaningful work and acquiring real life skills…We are watching them blossom.”

The program is funded to continue well into next year but the current traineeship and business course will end this October. A second group of 12 women will then be inducted into the Toowoomba-based program and go on to acquire the same business qualification, by April 2017, as the program’s first intake.

With only a few months left to complete the program, Sitei looks forward to continuing her volunteer work with OzHarvest, enrolling in further education and embarking on a future career in disability services.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, even when I was back in my country, but I didn’t have a chance to do it,” says Sitei. “Now, I think my future is finally getting there.”