27 September 2019

Birthday marks two years of good deeds for Sapphire Community Pantry

| Ian Campbell
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Peter Buggy, Reka Upward, and Christine Welsh (centre) with some of the hard working volunteers at Sapphire Community Pantry. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Peter Buggy, Reka Upward, and Christine Welsh (all centre) with some of the hard-working volunteers at Sapphire Community Pantry, marking their second birthday with balloons. Photo: Ian Campbell.

A powerful force of good in the Bega Valley community has just marked its second birthday.

The Sapphire Community Pantry is now serving over 200 customers a week from its HQ on Peden Street, Bega.

Led by Christine Welsh and Peter Buggy, the Pantry’s aim is “supporting people to nourish themselves, their families and their communities” through reclaimed and donated food. This is a supermarket for all where need trumps your ability to pay.

Customers come from all over the Shire two days a week to shop at greatly reduced prices. While the majority come from Bega and surrounds, customers are also being drawn from Merimbula, Eden and surrounds.

The shelves heave with all manner of quality goods, but of equal importance and weight are the volunteers that fuss over the stock and customers.

“Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Pantry,” Christine says.

“Our volunteers cover a broad spectrum – retired, semi-retired, not in paid employment, participants in NDIS programs, school students, work placements, and people seeking work experience. They have a multitude of skills including teaching, customer service, nursing, craft, cooking, trade, to name just a few.”

Over the past 12 months, Pantry volunteers have given over 6,350 hours of their time. Using ABS figures, which costs volunteer time at $41.72 per hour, Pantry volunteers have donated nearly $265,000 worth of labour.

The food and grocery items on sale mostly come from Foodbank, the nation’s largest food rescue charity which gets excess or donated stock from the food and consumable industries’. It then on-sells the stock at very low prices to charities throughout Australia. The Pantry also receives rescued items collected by OzHarvest and SecondBite – things like bread, fruit, vegetables and grocery items. The local community also contributes including, local growers, home pantry cleanouts, food drives and community gardens.

As we sit in the Pantry’s cafe chatting, Christine points to one experience that adds depth to the growing numbers of people the Pantry is helping.

“A few months ago a young woman with a small child pulled up in a ute,” she says.

“She’d just that day driven down from Batemans Bay – she had no shoes on nor did her child.

“She was escaping domestic violence and all she could do was get in the car and drive.

“She had no money, no idea about this area – she just wanted to escape.

“They were very upset so we made them breakie and put together a few hampers for them and we made a few phone calls to the Social Justice Advocates and Mission Australia to find them some emergency accommodation and other things.

“That made me really happy and sad.”

Customers of the Pantry represent the full spectrum of Bega Valley life – and it is deliberately so.

“The Sapphire Community Pantry was established to provide inexpensive and free foods and other
items to people suffering from food insecurity,” Christine explains.

“A deliberate choice was made to provide access to all, without requiring Centrelink or other proof of need identification.

“We felt that people in need should have a stress-free, dignified and respectful experience. So, while our target customer group is people in need, we welcome anyone to come shop with us. Doing this enables us to buy more food
for our customers.”

Sixty-seven percent of customers receive income support or a pension from the government, 65% have had difficulty paying for utilities, rent, mortgage, rates and loans over the past twelve months. Additionally, more than half of the Pantry’s customers had struggled in the past year to afford basic groceries such as bread, milk and other food items.

Part of the charm and success of the Pantry is the lack of red tape, bureaucracy and judgement. Christine, the Board of Directors and the newly appointed part-time coordinator (Reka Upward) have to meet certain requirements and guidelines but largely the service is based around people helping people, community taking care of its own.

“We have got a hands-on human touch,” Christine says, lamenting the bureaucratisation of social services.

“Sometimes people put on a good front when they are going through tough times, you just never know what is going on in people’s lives, so we work really hard to avoid being in that place of judgment.

“You can choose what sort of person you want to be – if you want to be nasty, mean, angry, and jealous, we don’t want you here as a volunteer, but we will help you get over it.”

Plans for the third year of the Pantry include cooking classes using Pantry ingredients and an upgrade of the cozy cafe area which doubles as a barista training space.

“What we’ll need is volunteers and money to buy paint and building materials. That will be in the next few months so please keep an eye out if you’d like to help.”

Sapphire Community Pantry is open Tuesdays between 11 am and 2 pm and Thursdays between 11 am and 2 pm and then between 3 pm and 5 pm, on Peden Street, Bega.

What to help?

Every dollar donated to the Pantry helps feed a family. To donate, call on 0490 843 518 to or email [email protected]

Sapphire Community Pantry is an approved charity and receipted donations are tax deductible.

And, rather than getting unwanted birthday presents, how about asking how you can set up a birthday donation page that helps sustain the Pantry’s work.

The ‘Return and Earn’ bottle and can recycling stations at Bega and Tura Beach have ‘Sapphire Community Projects’ as one of the beneficiaries of their reverse vending machines. Next time you drop by either machine look for ‘Sapphire Community Projects’.

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