Alan Chong opened his Singaporean-Chinese restaurant Tian38 just months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
While he’s battling to keep his business alive in Melbourne’s CBD, Mr Chong has also been helping to feed the community, first directly from his restaurant, and now through charities Foodbank Victoria, Humble Mission, and CrossCulture Church.
Demand for food support increases in Melbourne's sixth lockdown
Tian38 first began handing out free meals to anyone in need in Melbourne’s second lockdown last year, with lines stretching down the street.
“We did it because since we couldn't run a restaurant we felt it was just proper to do the right thing … If I can't run a restaurant, well, yeah, just go out there and do something right for the community,” Mr Chong told SBS News.
While he is keen to help anyone who needs it, he said international students have been a "key group" requiring free food as they have been "marginalised and disenfranchised due to particular lack of support structures afforded to them".
“A care package and a hot meal. We try to make sure that goes somewhere, at least, to help them through,” Mr Chong said.
Ying Hu, an international student from China living in inner-city Melbourne, has turned to food relief services to make it through the city’s sixth lockdown, which is now into its third month.
“Every student is very different but we are all the same during the lockdown in terms of being isolated somehow,” Ms Hu said.
Ms Hu is studying teaching at the University of Melbourne and has relied on support services both on and off campus, including a weekly ‘fresh box’ for students sponsored by SecondBite, and a free ‘pop-up’ food store for international students run by Foodbank Victoria.
Ms Hu said she doesn’t know what she would have done without such services.
“I think of them often whenever I need some fresh fruits and vegetables … just going to the city to pick up some fresh groceries is really amazing.”
Foodbank's pop-up has served students of more than 120 different nationalities since last October, the charity's Victoria CEO Dave McNamara said.
It started in response to international students "not receiving any federal assistance at the time, and not being able to work or return home at the time".
"They were really at risk. So we established the supermarket to make sure that all those students got access to culturally appropriate and healthy food to help them through the lockdown", Mr McNamara said.
Melbourne’s sixth lockdown has seen demand soar.
"Right now we're seeing student numbers around 600-plus every day of operation and we only operate three days a week, over four hours," he said.
While the need is there, the service’s future is uncertain.
"We're committed to running it until the end of the year. Then we'll just have to see how funding goes," Mr McNamara said.
He said Melbourne has seen a "cascading effect of disadvantage increasing through each lockdown" and many people are worried about what comes next, with the federal government set to slash disaster payments once Australia hits its vaccination targets.
“The demand for our services across the state has increased dramatically … the cascading nature of these lockdowns has meant that people haven't been able to get back onto their feet as quickly as they'd like," he said.
"And in some cases, they haven't got back on their feet."