Bendigo Foodshare gave out 636 tonnes of food last year, often to working people

HELP US HELP THE NEEDY: John Walker and Graeme Dower after finishing their Monday morning run. Mr Walker says more volunteers would be welcome. Bendigo Foodshare increased its collections last year. Picture: DARREN HOWE
HELP US HELP THE NEEDY: John Walker and Graeme Dower after finishing their Monday morning run. Mr Walker says more volunteers would be welcome. Bendigo Foodshare increased its collections last year. Picture: DARREN HOWE

BENDIGO Foodshare gave out the equivalent of 1.2 million meals last year as underemployment and poverty tightened their grips across the region.

Newly released figures show the group collected 636 thousand kilograms of food in 2019, the same year it expanded operations to help 12,400 people a week.

There are 25,000 people living close to or below the poverty line, almost half of whom need food relief every week, Bendigo Foodshare chair Cathie Steele said.

"While there are some people who are entirely without work, there is a growing number of people who are employed but who want more work," she said.

"Others have skills and education that is not being used to their full potential in their current role."

The employment figure 'no government' wants to preside over

Despite growing concerns about underemployment in the not-for-profit sector it can hard to gauge exactly how big a problem underemployment is in Bendigo, REMPLAN's principal economist Matt Nichol said.

"It's all very well to say that people have a job but the question is then how many hours they are working every week?" he said.

"That's the heart of this issue. Do they have the option of working more hours if they want?" he said.

"If people earn more they are going to spend more, they are going to invest more and that has ripple effects for the economy."

Governments have been focusing on unemployment statistics and often avoiding those on underemployment for decades, Mr Nichol said.

"Whenever a particular political party is in opposition they'll make the point that these statistics would be more informative if we understood the intensity of employment," he said.

"But of course, when they become the incumbent government it's not particularly politically expedient to have a high unemployment rate by changing the definition.

"If you tweak the definition of what a job is and you say being underemployed is almost the same as being unemployed then the unemployment rate will go up considerably.

Naturally, no incumbent government wants to be presiding over that."

A person can be classed as underemployed if they work more than one hour a week. The national underemployment rate was 8.5 per cent according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data from May 2018, compared to an unemployment rate of 5.1 per cent.

Some of the most extensive data on underemployment's nature comes from the national Census, Mr Nichol said.

At the last Census in 2016, nearly a quarter of people around Bendigo aged 15 and over worked between one and 24 hours a week, while 38 per cent worked 40 hours or more.

People in the Bendigo region were more likely to have shorter work hours than the national average, according to the census.

Why John and Graeme volunteer

Graeme Dower has been volunteering with Bendigo Foodshare for about three or four years. It started as a way to meet requirements for unemployment benefits.

"They (Centrelink) told me to go to the library. The library told me to come here," he said, referring to the Bendigo Volunteer Resource Centre, which is based at the library in Hargreaves Street.

Then his volunteering ballooned into a passion for giving back.

He and fellow volunteer John Walker are both close to retirement age.

"I'll keep doing this once I hit that age," Mr Walker said.

Volunteering gives him a chance to get out and meet new people as well as help out, he said.

Unemployment in Bendigo has been tracking downwards for a year-and-a-half, ABS labour force survey data compiled by consultancy group .id show.

There were 2600 unemployed people in greater Bendigo last march, a drop from 4126 people in June 2018.

But what is also clear is that demand for Bendigo Foodshare's services keeps rising.

It expanded its collections to seven days a week last September and is looking for business sponsors to help it meet demand.

Much of what it collected last year came from 12 central Victorian supermarkets that gave surplus food.

WORK TO DO: A volunteer helps sort food arriving at Bendigo Foodshare's Long Gully warehouse. Picture: JODIE DONNELLAN

WORK TO DO: A volunteer helps sort food arriving at Bendigo Foodshare's Long Gully warehouse. Picture: JODIE DONNELLAN

Mr Walker and spends many mornings criss-crossing Bendigo collecting goods from those supermarkets as well as bakeries, butchers and other food businesses.

"It would just give existing volunteers more of a chance to give volunteers some time over the weekends. We'd maybe have enough to rotate them so they would only be on once a month," he said.

Volunteers would help collect, load and pack away surplus food from businesses around town.

Mr Walker might head out on two Monday morning runs, depending on how much food supermarkets and stores are supplying on that particular day.

"Some days I can completely fill this van up, so I have to make a second run. Some days I can come back with hardly anything at all. So it depends on the day," he said.

Supply can depend on the previous day's weather. Supermarkets might need to get rid of bread that sat around on a cold day.

"You can get a stack of bread after a cold day because people would have been eating pies," Mr Walker said.

He and Mr Dower took in a fairly good haul of bread on Monday morning's run, when considering that it was their first weekday back on after the summer break.

They also got two boxes of meat from a meat wholesaler and quite a few boxes of fruit and vegetables, with more volunteers readying to make more trips as the day and week went on.

"These bananas are fine, we just can't sell them because of what they look like," a worker at one of the three supermarkets on their run says.

The trolley of bananas was starting to get brown spot on their skins, so were harder to sell.

"But look," the worker says as he peels one to show Mr Dower, "there's nothing wrong with them."

A few suburbs away at the Epsom ALDI acting store manager Hamish Burr said he and his staff did not want to see food discarded if they can help it.

"We'd give them about two trolleys a day of food, on average and we are happy to support the community," he said.

"It would generally be thrown out as waste, if we were not able to donate it."

For more on Bendigo Foodshare volunteering visit www.bendigofoodshare.org.au

This story People struggling to feed families even as employment rises first appeared on Bendigo Advertiser.