December can be one of the most joyous times of the year: a time for family, festivities and feasting. But what happens when this annual joy is something you witness happening to others, only to go without food or friends yourself?
“Christmas is great if you have food and an extended family, just like the celebrations we see happening on the [supermarket] television ads, where the table is piled high with turkey and ham, and everyone’s smiling and hugging each other,” says Brendan Lonergan, CEO of Beehive Industries.
“Now shoot that same scene again in a housing commission flat and it’s just one person sitting alone, with little or no food: it doesn’t look anywhere as joyful, does it?”
This darker picture, where people go hungry or face isolation as Christmas, Hanukkah and other celebrations approach, is a real – and unavoidable – issue for many across the country, including those who attend the non-profit organisation’s Beehive centre in Sydney’s Darlinghurst.
“We close down for two weeks for Christmas because the staff here simply need to have a break,” says Lonergan about Beehive staff who run activities to look after socially isolated Sydneysiders.
“We had a lot of our folks [who come to see us regularly] crying about the shut-down because we are not going to be here and that means, during the season, they might be on their own with got nothing to do.”
The truth about hunger and social isolation in the city led the folks at Beehive to team up with fellow non-profit and anti-poverty advocacy group, RESULTS, to host a Christmas-themed event called ‘Share a Bowl’ at the centre yesterday.
“The idea behind Share a Bowl was to give [the clients] the skills they need to cook a healthy meal for themselves on a low budget, but also to teach them that if [you cook this way], you can afford to invite a person over for a meal, even if you are on a limited income yourself.”
“There are a hell of a lot of lonely people out there and food is a simple way to connect with them and show them that there are people out there who really do care.”
The event involved a low-cost cooking class given to around 60 people, aged up to 90-years-old and hailing from a broad spectrum of countries, including Russia, India, Fiji and China.
The class was taught by Beehive Ambassador and former Masterchef contestant, Kumar Pereira. The dish of the day, costing under $10 to prepare, was a Sri Lankan/Indian inspired brown chicken rice, cooked using turmeric, cumin and cinnamon.
Volunteer and Beehive client Peter Arnold tells SBS he attended the event to help others “less fortunate than himself” by cooking and serving food.
“Today helped me to feel more connected to people,” says the 79-year-old. “I am spending Christmas by myself. But I know there are a lot of other people who don’t have families who are less fortunate than me.
“So I wanted to be able to help them and do some cooking for them. It all worked out quite well. Everyone has a right to be included and socially engaged.”
The cooking class, held a few days out from Human Rights Day (Sunday 10 December), also served as ademonstration to Beehive regulars that every person – no matter their circumstances – deserves to have friendship, conversation and food.
“Poverty is not only happening somewhere else, overseas: it’s happening in Australia as well,” says Daisy Nguyen, a volunteer from RESULTS.
“Yet everyone [who wants to celebrate the event] has a right to eat a Christmas meal, no matter what’s on the table – whether it’s turkey or wine or small healthy bowl of food which we all share together.”
As Daisy explains, this rights-based message – was brought home to every person who attended the event, in the midst of a social atmosphere and festive generosity.
“I could see the happiness in everyone’s eyes and saw them smile as I handed them plates of food.
“Today’s event was our way to say ‘you’re not alone. We always have your back and I’ll share [my food] with you.”