Come together: Newtown creates real food connections


Free meals for anyone who has lost their job and a curbside pantry stocked by anonymous donors show the power of small acts of humanity.

Rachel Jelley has always been completely in love with food. "I always say I feel like I was born with a wooden spoon in my hand ... I just always wanted to be in the kitchen." In a weird twist of fate, COVID-19, that killer of restaurateur dreams, has brought her back to her own kitchen.

Jelley, previously known in Newtown for her popup seasonal feasts, set up Hearth & Soul in late 2018, only to shutter it the following year, despite enthusiastic reviews. On March 22, she watched as her whole industry was effectively shut down; pubs, restaurants and cafes were given less than 24 hours to make the switch to take-out and delivery or close their doors. The Federal Government estimated at least 1 million people might lose their work and income as a result of the edict and those on visas would not be eligible for unemployment benefits.

"I just thought I see what is happening in my industry, I know what this means for people… I can do something about this!" Knowing she still had access to her premises on King Street, in South Newtown, she sent out an email to see if she could get financial backing to start offering free lunches on Fridays to those in need.

"I've been completely blown away with what has happened, with what we've done at Heath & Soul honestly," said Jelley. Now, she has dozens of volunteers and her suppliers are all refusing payment in support of feeding their own.

For eight weeks, every Friday, she has served anyone who needs a meal. "It's just this incredible world where every part feeds every other part and just to see that come out of one email really is amazing," she said. "It's a real testament to how our community is coming together during this time."

"I'm just about sharing and bringing back that real kind of base to what food is… it's physical nourishment but it's also spiritual nourishment," Jelley explained. "We're only just beginning to understand that now I think."

OzHarvest , Australia's largest food rescue charity, says more than 5 million people now experience food insecurity in Australia. This number is constantly rising, with new families joining the ranks firstly due to drought, the recent bushfires and now COVID-19.

'Food is the ultimate connector ... It transcends everything, language, culture, even location … it feeds you in so many ways.'

Just over a kilometre from Hearth & Soul lies another community project born of the pandemic. The Newtown Blessing Box is a form of "street pantry", created by Maureen Lee, Michelle Gomes and Joyce Akimpe after they could see how visitors to the nearby Asylum Seekers Centre were struggling in the wake of COVID-19.

On March 25, the trio of housemates sourced a cupboard from the backstreets of Camperdown and stocked it with Weetbix, beans and crackers from their own kitchen. In just a few hours, the Newtown Blessing Box was operating from the corner of Bedford and Station Streets. Though the pantry has only been operational eight weeks, it's quickly built up a community.

"In itself we've just got a cupboard with a pen and paper," said Lee. "It's the community that's made more of it and that's what's powerful, that is the bit we could never have predicted."

Initially, they filled the pantry themselves but after seeing how quickly food disappeared, they realised that wouldn't be sustainable.

"We literally did an initial letter drop of only 37 pamphlets because our printer ran out of ink," said Gomes. "We set up Facebook and Instagram and ever since ... the whole community has really gotten around it."

The pantry has seen donations of non-perishables, fresh bread, gift cards to local restaurants and even bottles of wine. The inside of the cupboard has been papered with notes from visitors, carrying messages of hope, thanks and promises to return the favour.

"We wanted a whole pantry - the whole concept was 'come into this pantry, it's your home'," explained Lee. "This is a bigger problem we're seeing, it's not just a food shortage, it's a human contact problem … we've never talked to so many neighbours."

Volunteers at Gurdwara Sahib temple have seen a recent surge in need for food support.SUPPLIED

In north-west Sydney, at Glenwood, just off the M7, the Gurdwara Sahib Sikh temple has always practised dasvandh (literally translated as one-tenth from Punjabi), which means giving away a tenth of your income to those less fortunate in order to recognise that everything comes from God. Every Sikh temple has a langar (communal kitchen) designed to produce huge quantities of food for those in need. During the lockdown, Gurdwara Sahib Glenwood and their community have been providing around 300 meals a day via an at-home delivery service during the coronavirus crisis.

"Recently what we have seen is there has been a surge in Centrelink areas, as I was saying these services are for those who are impacted by COVID-19, whether financially or their health," said Jatinder Singh, a volunteer at the temple. Prior to COVID-19, he estimated they served around 1500 people every weekend and 300 to 400 on weekdays.

"Of course, food and hope [are] connected, but I would also add into the mental wellbeing. Food is not just giving you the strength, it is giving you the mental ability to think through," said Singh. Like many Sikhs, he lives by the principle "first food, then prayer".

Rachel Jelley practises "conscious cooking".YASMIN MUND

In times of crisis, humans often rely on food to say what words cannot. We celebrate milestones with cakes, we make our biggest decisions over meals with family and friends, and when somebody dies, we bring a plastic-wrapped homemade meal. Though coming together was harder during COVID-19, in Sydney, food provided that bridge.

In the eight weeks of the lockdown, word of the pantry has spread, there has been media coverage and requests for advice from other communities inspired by the Newtown Blessing Box. The 2044 Community Pantry at Tempe and another in Petersham are underway in the Inner West. There are no plans to close the Blessing Box. This week the Newtown Blessing Box was nominated for a Time Out Sydney Homebound Heroes – Community Spirit Award.

As restrictions ease and restaurants along King Street slowly re-find their feet, Jelley will continue to offer her free meals on Friday for another three weeks. When she spoke of her philosophy surrounding cooking, she talked about food as a community in itself. "Food is the ultimate connector," she said. "It transcends everything, language, culture, even location these days … it feeds you in so many ways."

Some of those ways are unexpected. Jelley recently took to Facebook to announce some "big news". "I'm re-opening Hearth & Soul! Yes, you did hear that correctly – I've had SO much fun being back in the Hearth kitchen for the last few weeks that I've decided to open her back up for a series of beautiful dining events." A series of "Intimate Autumn Dinners" kicked off on Friday, May 22.


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