The Food Justice Truck is a familiar sight to many pedestrians in the Melbourne CBD. Every Wednesday, the truck stops outside Wesley Uniting Church on Lonsdale Street from 11:30am to 2pm, transforming the front of the church into a fresh food market.
Its mission is to support asylum seekers in the Victorian community by offering access to fresh and affordable food. Food insecurity is a chronic issue for many asylum seekers. More than 10,000 asylum seekers reside in Victoria on bridging visas. Many are denied the right to work and have restricted access to welfare and income support.
The open market atmosphere and the smiling volunteers provide a welcoming environment for shoppers. At the front of the truck is a sign that says ’75 per cent discount for asylum seekers’. The general public can also purchase from the food truck at the full price, with profits re-invested to keep the truck financially sustainable.
Visitors to the truck are greeted with a colourful array of fresh fruits and vegetables neatly stored in wooden crates. Shoppers can select from a wide range of locally-sourced produce, including organic tea leaves, rice, lentil, jams and bread.
The truck is the latest initiative from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), Australia’s largest asylum seeker advocacy, aid and health organization. According to the ASRC, more than 90 per cent of people who seek protection experience food insecurity or run out of food. An estimated 42 per cent have lost weight since arriving in Australia.
Russell Shields is manager of the Food Justice Truck. He said the social enterprise aims to address the shortfall in asylum seekers’ household budgets through an environmentally and economically sustainable model.
“We know that asylum seekers are left with an average of $20 per person per week for food, which is manifestly inadequate. Monash University Dietetics Department states that an adult male in Australia needs $130 per week to eat healthily,” he said.
“Our challenge was how to deal with this massive food insecurity in the broader asylum seeker community that can’t access the ASRC’s Foodbank.”
The Food Justice Truck model was created by Patrick Lawrence, Director of Humanitarian Services at the ASRC. However, a significant obstacle to turning this vision into reality was money.
As an organisation that receives no federal government funding, the ASRC turned to its grassroots supporters to finance the project. They embarked on a crowdfunding campaign with the aim of raising $150,000.
Through word-of-mouth, social media promotion and mainstream press coverage, they reached their goal in less than a month. More than 970 individuals donated money to the project. The strong response to the campaign reflected community concern and compassion for asylum seekers, a stark contrast to the draconian and inhumane policies of successive Australian governments.
The money generated from the campaign was used to employ a full-time manager and purchase a truck which was modified into an environmentally friendly vehicle.
“We were determined to make the truck as environmentally sustainable as possible,” Mr Shields said.
“To that end, we were able to purchase a petrol-electric hybrid truck. We also ask that customers bring their own bags and we source our stock through local producers.”
In addition to offering food support, the vehicle acts as a billboard that raises awareness about the plight of asylum seekers as it travels across Melbourne.
“From an advocacy perspective, we see the truck as starting the conversation regarding the serious food access issues faced by asylum seekers,” Mr Shields said.
“This has certainly been successful so far in terms of both the media and public response and perhaps this model will be taken up in other states and to serve other vulnerable communities.”
Launched in March this year, the Food Justice Truck began operating weekly outside Wesley Uniting Church in early September. The decision to choose Wesley Uniting Church as a site for the truck arose from conversations between ASRC and Lentara UnitingCare.
“We were always eager to have the truck trade in the CBD,” Mr Shields said.
“There is a massive general public customer base there with all the city workers and the local universities. The public transport situation makes it easy for asylum seekers based on the city border or from a greater distance to access the truck.
“The ASRC has had a very strong relationship with the Uniting Church’s Asylum Seeker Project for many years now, and the Wesley Church was suggested by our wonderful colleagues at Lentara UnitingCare.”
Children and families are regular customers of the truck, which visits Thomastown Primary School on Tuesday afternoons and Footscray Primary School on Friday afternoons. With only one paid staff, the social enterprise relies on a team of dedicated volunteers and the assistance of churches and schools to keep the truck rolling.
“To be able to engage with a supportive community who really understand our aims and are willing to assist is a great feeling,” Mr Shields said.
The truck will soon venture to other areas in Melbourne with large asylum seeker populations. Openings in Brimbank, Sunshine and Dandenong are scheduled for the coming months.
“We are looking forward to meeting new people and having them join our community, both customers and volunteers,” he said.
“Who knows, maybe the Food Justice Truck fleet isn’t too far away!”
If you would like to volunteer at the Food Justice Truck, contact the ASRC on (03) 9326 6066 or email email@example.com.