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How a 20-year-old quit uni to make 55,000 free meals for medicos in Melbourne's lockdown

Alex Dekker (left) started Alex Makes Meals to help frontline hospital staff during COVID-19. Source: Alex Makes Meals

Health care workers, homeless people and working-holiday visa holders in financial hardship have received 55,000 free meals during the last five months, courtesy of a 20-year-old from Melbourne.

Australia recorded the first COVID-19 death on March 15. That same day, when 20-year-old university student Alex Dekker was speaking to his sister Pietra, a doctor at the Monash Medical Centre, he realised how difficult a health worker’s job was in the middle of a pandemic outbreak.

“She told me she ate nothing but a muesli bar the whole day, and I thought ‘that can’t be right’. So I offered to cook her a lasagna and I brought it to her place," Mr Dekker told SBS Italian.

The conversation left Mr Dekker thinking about many doctors and nurses who were in the same situation as his sister, and he decided to do something about it.

He set up a Facebook page offering free meals for health care workers in need. He received five requests for meals in no time.

The next time he checked the social media page, there were 400 requests - too many to handle by himself.

“Up until that point, all I knew about restaurants was eating in one,” he says with a giggle.

Mr Dekker made a few calls, started a GoFund me campaign to fund his initiative and began cooking meals in his kitchen. He cooked 400 meals that week. And that's how he started 'Alex Makes Meals', which is now a registered charity. 

He spent his 20th birthday on March 31 driving around Melbourne, delivering free food with the help of a few friends.

The idea was good, although handing meals directly to hospital staff was “an emotional experience”, he says while delivering it to health workers’ homes was a “logistical nightmare”.

He crossed the path of an Italian chef whose food business was hit hard by the pandemic.

Nicola Dusi, a 34-year-old man from Verona, had recently started a restaurant in Melbourne’s CBD but was soon forced to shut down Hardware Club with no diners turning up during the first lockdown in the Victorian capital.

“We thought we could spend the next six weeks sitting down doing nothing or we could instead engage in volunteering,” Mr Dusi said.

Alex Dekker
Alex Dekker started Alex Makes Meals to help frontline health care workers during COVID-19.
Source: Alex Makes Meals

The Italian chef and his business partner Andrea got in touch with Mr Dekker and gave him not just the restaurant kitchen to cook meals, but they also worked as volunteers cooking restaurant-quality Italian meals for the needy. 

Besides, multiple businesses in Melbourne offered him help by providing cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes and other ingredients to cook hundreds of servings of not just Italian-style meals, but also vegetarian, gluten-free and pork-free alternatives.

On top of that, 30 chefs and a dozen drivers volunteered to get the operations off ground from the new kitchen, and the charity could support more and more health workers across the city.

“These people were giving their hearts out to keep us safe, the least we could do was reaching out and help them,” says Mr Dekker.

Since then, Alex Makes Meals has been preparing 400-500 balanced food portions every day, cooked by professional chefs and delivered across the Victorian capital.

More recently, Alex Dekker started his kitchen in Preston, in Melbourne’s north, and with the help of several corporate donors, such as Man with a Van, Lion, Dare, Red Rooster and Toyota, he has so far made 55,000 meals.

Currently, the registered charity not only serves fifteen hospitals in Melbourne and helps homeless people and youth support groups, but also delivers food to locations in Sydney after teaming up with volunteers and businesses in NSW.

The food delivery locations include backpackers’ hostels with a population of work visa holders, who lost their job and are unable to go back to their home.

Mr Dekker, who dropped out of his science and international relations degree to work on his charity, says he envisages this initiative extending beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re here to help for as long as we can. Food security has always been an issue in Australia and it’s a problem too big to ever be solved by one small group. With the economic consequences of this pandemic, with the global economic freeze, things for people will get worse before they can get better”.

Metropolitan Melbourne residents are subject to Stage 4 restrictions and must comply with a curfew between the hours of 8pm and 5am.

During the curfew, people in Melbourne can only leave their house for work, and essential health, care or safety reasons. Between 5am and 8pm, people in Melbourne can leave the home for exercise, to shop for necessary goods and services, for work, for health care, or to care for a sick or elderly relative.

All Victorians must wear a face covering when they leave home, no matter where they live.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. 

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. 

News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus