Schoolchildren in Melbourne’s western suburbs are collecting food for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Foodbank.
It’s the work of the Way of the West initiative, founded in 2015 by Mark Northeast, chairman of St Mary's Parish Council. The aim of the program is to “provide some tactical assistance for asylum seekers living in our community,” says Northeast.
So far, six local Catholic primary and high schools have signed up: St Marys in Williamstown, St Johns in Footscray, Corpus Christi in Kingsville, Christ the King in Braybrook, Emanuel College in Point Cook and Queen of Peace in Altona Meadows.
“Some people still go to bed hungry or give their children food before they are able to eat.”
Each school chooses one month to hold a food drive. Students, usually in years five and six, are responsible for running the collection, counting the food items and packing the donations into a van that takes them to the ASRC Foodbank in Footscray.
Northeast hopes to recruit 12 schools to cover each month of the year. His “aspirational target” is all 37 Catholic primary schools in the western region.
School groups often visit the Foodbank, which is set up like a mini-supermarket. “If there's time, they can unpack their goods and put them on the shelves and actually see people…putting their food directly into trolleys,” says Karen Williams, the ASRC food and goods donations coordinator.
Many people seeking asylum are unable to work or access Medicare. Some receive government assistance in the form of the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme (ASAS) or the Community Assistance Support Program (CAS), funded by the Department of Immigration and administered by the Red Cross. The benefit is capped at 89 per cent of the Newstart Allowance, or $227 a week – well under the poverty line, calculated at $412.
To help make up the shortfall, the ASRC Foodbank has provided local asylum seekers with free fresh food since 2001. Today it has 600 members from 60 countries around the world including Iran, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia and Ethiopia.
Around $1 million dollars of food is required each year. Almost 90 per cent comes from community donations. The remaining 10 per cent comes from the ASRC budget.
“You can see that there is a real interest in what’s going on and a real kindness in wanting to support people who they know live in their communities and are living in need.”
It’s a lot of food, but not enough. A weekly shop at the Foodbank covers about two meals a day. “Some people still go to bed hungry or give their children food before they are able to eat,” says ASRC Foodbank manager, Chantelle Bazerghi.
The Foodbank’s latest campaign is the Winter Warmer Drive, seeking donations of hearty foods like lentils, oats, and potatoes. “At this time of year, we start to get very low on food,” says Williams. “We need to stock up to get us through winter.”
When they arrive at the Foodbank, the kids are happy to pitch in and help. “They want to be involved,” observes Williams. “You can see that there is a real interest in what’s going on and a real kindness in wanting to support people who they know live in their communities and are living in need.”
Way of the West’s contribution is immensely valuable, she says. “When we rely on 90 per cent of our food to be donated, we can't underestimate the involvement of schools.”
The children bring a “really beautiful” naivety to their work: “They don't look at people differently.”
Many children share a common experience with the asylum seekers they are helping. “A lot of the schools themselves have got a lot of children there from refugee families.”
As well as providing for people in need, the program teaches children from a young age about compassion and social justice. The children bring a “really beautiful” naivety to their work, says Williams. “They don't look at people differently.”
Through the program, children involve their families - parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles – who all become advocates for people seeking asylum. “What it's saying is that no matter what's going on in the world and anything we hear in the media or what the government says, what we know is people are saying we want to support people who are seeking asylum in our communities,” says Williams. “We know that there is a need and we will meet it.”