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Recognition award for banking our waste

For many in Wairarapa, the covid lockdowns meant a drastically reduced income, weeks of isolation and, for some, ongoing food poverty.

So, the Masterton Foodbank and WaiWaste Food Rescue sprung into action – working around the clock, and occasionally risking their own health, to keep precious resources out of landfill and onto the tables of whānau in need.

Both organisations have received the COVID-19 Response Recognition Award – established by the New Zealand government to recognise organisations and individuals working on the front line during the covid pandemic.

Eligible recipients included those who worked at the border, in managed isolation facilities, in covid testing or vaccination, or as medical staff – as well as community organisations providing essential services during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns, and 2022 omicron outbreak.

Both Waiwaste and the foodbank were acknowledged for helping feed the Wairarapa community at a time of severe economic insecurity: At times dealing with supply chain issues, limited resources, and a reduced volunteer crew.

Masterton foodbank manager Jenna Matchett said the award came as a surprise – arriving by courier with no prior warning.

Matchett co-ordinated the foodbank’s covid response during the 2021 delta outbreak – during which its workload increased exponentially, supporting greater numbers of financially vulnerable clients and whānau recovering from covid.

She said the award was a fitting tribute to the volunteers who “rallied around the community” and worked “up to 40 hours a week” to keep local bellies full.

“It was a hectic time. So many people were unable to work. Some people’s incomes had decreased by up to 20 per cent. People who had never used a foodbank before needed our help.

“It was exhausting for our volunteers – they needed time off afterwards, and they were burning out. They were stepping outside their bubbles and leaving their families behind. A lot were in that vulnerable age group.

“But they did it because they had a job that needed to be done. It’s amazing for them to have that recognition – how often do little groups like ours get recognised by central government?”

During the 2021 lockdown, and continuing into the 2022 community outbreak, the foodbank was funded to deliver care packages for families isolating with covid – including hand sanitisers, cleaning products, masks and rapid antigen tests.

To cope with the additional duties, Matchett assembled two teams of volunteers, working long hours: One assembling packages, and another “behind the scenes” crew to re-stock shelves, clean and disinfect the premises, and attend to paperwork for funding purposes.

“The paperwork was a full-time job in itself,” Matchett said.

“We became our own bubble. It was a great bonding experience – our volunteers formed lifelong friendships.

“I think having a job to do was a distraction from all the scary stuff around them. It was tough, but there was a thrill knowing we were making a difference, and were part of something bigger than ourselves.”

A WaiWaste volunteer makes a delivery to the Masterton Foodbank. PHOTO/FILE

Matchett said her team was staggered by the generosity from the wider community – particularly from the growers, cafes and restaurants who donated “pallet loads” of unused ingredients, including fresh produce, eggs, milk, honey and “s***tonnes of mushrooms”.

“I think there was a month where everyone in Masterton was eating mushrooms!

“People wanted to help – and, ultimately, I think the pandemic removed the taboo of asking for help. Covid was an equaliser – people have accepted that anyone can struggle and, in reality, we’re all a couple of bad weeks away from food poverty.

“There was a bit of tension in the community around vaccines and covid restrictions – but it was important for us to remain neutral. Regardless of ethnicity, age, or political stance, we were there if people needed food.”

Also stepping up for those who needed food was WaiWaste, which continued rescuing expired food [but still good to eat] from supermarkets and delivering to the region’s foodbanks during the 2020 lockdown – despite operating on a shoestring budget.

At the time, then coordinator Elise Sadler said, WaiWaste had no home base or transport of its own, so volunteers were using their own cars for pick-up and delivery. When lockdown hit, many of the volunteers, “in the older age group”, were unable to leave their bubble – so Sadler took sole responsibility for the food runs.

“It did feel a bit hairy. Covid was new to us – we had no idea what we were dealing with,” she said.

“It was this threatening, invisible force that was floating in the air. After every trip to the supermarket, I’d be stripping off and jumping straight in the shower,” she said.

Eventually, Sadler received support from Printcraft Masterton owners Peter and Sheryl Watson, who provided their van to help with deliveries. Later, Cross Country Rentals supplied a van free of charge.

Following the first lockdown, the Ministry of Social Development provided large-scale funding to food rescue services and food hubs through the Food Secure Communities Programme. This allowed WaiWaste to rent its own premises, purchase a chiller and freezer for food storage, invest in an electric van, and take on a larger team of workers.

“The lockdown revealed the value of food rescue, and the need for policies and procedures to be put in place if [a lockdown] happened again,” former WaiWaste chair Jeremy Logan said.

“Thanks to that foresight from the government, we were much better prepared. We’ve become better-known in the community as well – people have more awareness of the role food rescue plays in reducing food poverty and the impacts of climate change.”

WaiWaste now delivers to a range of community organisations, including the Wairarapa Community Kitchen, Yellow Brick Road, Te Hauora Runanga o Wairarapa, Project Manaaki, and Changeability.

PHOTO/FILE

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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