A new grocery store that sells low-cost foods and provides job opportunities for refugees, migrants and vulnerable people trying to break into employment has opened on a housing estate in inner-city Sydney.
The Staples Bag Camperdown, a Settlement Services International (SSI) initiative, is located within the site of Common Ground – an accommodation and support service run by Mission Australia offering housing for people experiencing long-term homelessness.
Mission Australia CEO James Toomey says the social enterprise will be a great resource for residents living at Common Ground and others in the area on low incomes.
“Too many people in our community are struggling daily to afford life’s basic essentials, and are often forced to leave important items off their shopping list just so they can make ends meet,” says Toomey.
“The Staples Bag will help to ease this burden and offer an opportunity for people experiencing financial difficulty to do their weekly groceries at a fraction of the cost.”
“At up to 70 per cent off retail prices, vulnerable community members will be able to use these savings towards rising rent, bills and school uniforms for their kids.”
How will the new inner-city grocery store operate?
The grocery store is unlike other food relief agencies in that it directly organises food for people in need rather food for agencies that work with people in need.
SSI also works together with FoodBank to rescue food from landfill every week. Staff and volunteers from SSI then distribute a range of nutritious foods between three types of grocery bags – standard, family sized or vegetarian.
These bags are then sold at a discount rate in the Camperdown grocery store to vulnerable people like migrants, refugees, single parents, homeless individuals, and those on low-to-moderate incomes.
“At up to 70 per cent off retail prices, vulnerable community members will be able to use these savings towards rising rent, bills and school uniforms for their kids,” says SSI’s general manager of service delivery community, Karen Bevan.
Bags may include bread, cereals and grains; milk, eggs and dairy; pantry items; condiments; fresh fruit and vegetables; meat and seafood; and drinks
“The Staples Bag also caters to culturally appropriate meals. For example, we offer halal meat, vegetarian options...nutritious whole grains, and pre-packaged meals for those who do not cook.”
Although the store has been created to be accessible to Sydney city's most vulnerable, people of all socioeconomic groups can shop there.
“The majority of our customers are young families and single parents and the elderly who may be working and earning a wage, but with the increasing cost of everyday utility bills, food is often the first item to be compromised," she adds. "So we consciously made a decision not to limit the service to people who access welfare services and make it a store available to everyone in the broader community."
The Camperdown store is The Staples Bag’s first shop on a housing estate and its second permanent store in the greater Sydney region – the other outlet is situated in the western Sydney suburb of Campsie. SSI also runs various pop-up stalls in high-need areas like Campbelltown, Parramatta and Cranebrook.
Low-cost food and a shot at employment
The Staples Bag Camperdown will link into the broader SSI network to provide people experiencing unemployment with work experience and job opportunities.
Bevan estimates that so far this year, the Staples Bag employment initiative has supported around 110 jobseekers living throughout Sydney to develop skills in customer service, merchandising and warehousing. Many service recipients are from a culturally and linguistically diverse background.
“The Staples Bag allows participants to interact with locals, and it helps to improve their English [if it is a second language],” she says. “It also helps reduce stigma within the broader Australian community about refugees and newcomers by allowing new and established communities to engage with each other directly.”
"As someone with a lived experience of being a refugee, I feel very grateful for all that I have received and want to help others. Working in this job just feels fantastic.”
Zaid Alsaeery, 26, who came to Australia as a refugee from Iraq in 2013, works with The Staples Bag as a delivery van driver and picks up rescued food to go into the discounted grocery bags.
“The program helped me to land my first job in Australia,” Alsaeery, who plans to start delivering food to Camperdown, tells SBS. “That had a positive impact on my self-esteem. As someone with a lived experience of being a refugee, I feel very grateful for all that I have received and want to help others. Working in this job just feels fantastic.”
Alsaeery says he also purchases the grocery bags, as it helps to feed his extended family of three sisters, parents and grandfather.
“I use the grocery items in the bag to make food like hummus, baba ganoush and other salads as well, which is great,” he says. “I’d recommend this service to everyone. The food is fresh and the low cost of the bags really does help you to save money.”