• The Staples Bag team has been holding pop-ups in housing estates and community centres, selling affordable food. (SBS Food)Source: SBS Food
This social enterprise is taking a two-pronged approach to tackling food insecurity – upskilling the unemployed and selling groceries for a song.
Samantha van Egmond

20 Mar 2017 - 10:38 AM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2017 - 10:38 AM

A visit to The Staples Bag’s Campsie store feels like any other trip to the supermarket. Aisles stacked with colourful condiments, crates brimming with veggies, everything from toothpaste to ice-cream on offer. The main difference – aside from the audible friendly chatter among shoppers – is the prices. A gold coin for milk and cereal? Eggs and bread for under a fiver? If you need to save some serious cash on your weekly grocery bill, you’re at the right place.

“You don’t have to prove that you’re struggling to shop with us,” says Terry Wilson, Manager of Employment at Settlement Services International (SSI), which started the not-for-profit initiative in September 2015. “We know there are a lot of people who are underemployed, and that there are a lot of families where both parents work but they’re still struggling to make ends meet,” he says. “We want to reach out to those people.”

The store, which sells heavily discounted items in addition to pre-packed ‘staples bags’ containing day-to-day essentials, sees customers from all walks of life. Terry recalls a lady who phoned before visiting to check that she was eligible. “‘I’m working but I’m a solo mother and my daughter does representative sport,’ she said. ‘Every time there’s a new uniform or shoes I’m struggling to make ends meet, and it would change my life if I could come and shop at your store.’” Another shopper heard about the staples bags on a letterbox flyer, and knew a few friends that had shopped at the store. “I was amazed at the quality and quantity of items that went into my bag,” 30-year-old Chris tells SBS. “The fruit and veg range is great.”

The program sells fresh fruit and vegetables as well as packaged items.

Fighting food insecurity is a primary driver of the program – a 2016 report produced by Food Bank reveals one in every six families in Australia are struggling to put food on the table on a regular basis. The team has been holding pop-up supermarkets at housing estates, community centres and churches, with a recent event in Blacktown drawing 120 people to stock up on groceries. “It shows us that there’s a real need in some suburbs more than others,” says Terry, adding that SSI hopes to open a second supermarket in the coming year.

The team works with a range of suppliers to obtain the food – a mix of free and at a cost ­– that may be surplus, factory seconds or nearing its used-by date, some of which they preserve by freezing. “We’re lucky to have lots of great manufacturers that support us,” he says.

In addition to providing access to affordable groceries, Terry says a key incentive behind The Staples Bag – helping the unemployed move into paid work by way of taking on volunteer staff ­– stemmed from SSI’s work with refugees and asylum seekers, who are faced with numerous barriers to employment when they come to Australia. These include their level of English skills, holding overseas qualifications that are no longer recognised, and not having local work experience. “There are two out of three that we feel we’ve solved here,” says Terry. “Because they’re coming into an environment where they’re always interacting with customers, their English language improves. It’s also an opportunity to get something on their resume.”

SSI works with employment agencies to find workers, with some spending a week before finding employment and others up to six months. Placing participants into paid employment has been a huge part of the initiative’s success. “We’ve had 1000 people come through the program and one in three have gone on to find employment,” says Terry.

54-year-old Edith was unemployed for almost four months before spending two months working at the store. “It has changed the way I feel about finding employment… I feel a lot more confident within myself, especially when I need to talk and help our customers selling our different products,” she tells SBS. “…I am a single mum and understand everyday living can be very challenging.” 

Want to lend a hand? The Staples Bag is looking for volunteers to distribute food to those who can’t make it to their Campsie store. Visit them online or call the team on (02) 9787 6832. You can also find The Staples Bag on Facebook

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