Call it the feeding of the 5,000: a mini miracle is keeping a much-needed church food service open in western Sydney despite fears the COVID-19 crisis would force it to close.
The generosity of local people and businesses has allowed the Ignite Food Store at Emerton to keep re-stocking its rapidly depleting shelves and continue offering cheap, high-quality food where it’s needed most.
“Yes, it’s a miracle,” said Claire Thomas, manager of schools and community engagement for Jesuit Social Services Western Sydney, which runs the food store at the Holy Family Parish, Mt Druitt.
“I am seeing the best of humanity where I’m standing. We’re in an extraordinary situation but I am seeing extraordinary generosity from people motivated by the love of God, of self and of other people.
“A week ago it looked like we would be forced to close, but we are daring to stay open.
“If we didn’t have the Catholic community the shelves would be empty. People are literally giving from their own pantries and our schools are saying, ‘Can we do more?’ ”
A dozen schools in the region take part in monthly food drives to keep stocking Ignite, augmenting the generosity of food vouchers from Vinnies, regular donor companies including Harris Farm Markets, Coles and IGA, and a parishioner who runs a number of local butcher shops.
Their endeavours help Ignite to offer, for example, $20 and $30 hampers including meat, fruit and vegetables, milk, bread and non-perishable items which would cost around $100 elsewhere.
Shoppers buy the same brands that are available at big supermarkets. Food is never given away but sold cheaply to “honour the dignity” of customers. All income levels are welcome but a “trust system” helps ensure the neediest benefit most in an area where the average weekly income is $300 per person.
Needless panic buying which has caused the big supermarkets to run out of items such as toilet paper, rice and pasta has had a domino effect, making life more difficult for Ignite and the people it serves.
Dave Hammond, general manager of Jesuit Social Services Western Sydney, acknowledges: “We are struggling to keep the doors open, frankly. We have never been so low on food. But our little team is committed to remain open. This is a once-in-a-lifetime challenge.
“We are now asking for help in keeping our essential service open for families experiencing disadvantage.”
Ignite, which is open from 8.30am to 3.15pm Monday to Friday, serves up to 150 people a day or 750 a week in the Mt Druitt area, though this number has been fluctuating wildly during the coronavirus crisis as word gets around the community about supplies waxing and waning.
Claire Thomas said she was astounded by the offers of help, adding: “A lot of people want to engage in showing solidarity with people who are chronically under-resourced.
“It’s what motivates me every day. COVID-19 has been a great leveler, affecting rich and poor, but everybody wants to give.”
Schools helping Ignite include Gilroy Catholic College Secondary College Castle Hill, Caroline Chisholm Glenmore Park, CathWest Innovation College – Penola Catholic College and Loyola Campuses, St John Paul II Secondary Schofields and Nirimba Campuses, St Andrew’s Catholic College Marayong, St Luke’s Catholic College Marsden Park, Our Lady of Mercy College Parramatta, St Agnes’ Secondary Rooty Hill, St Columba’s Catholic College Springwood, Parramatta Marist High School Westmead and Catherine McAuley College Westmead.
Jesuit Social Services aims to help communities break out of cycles of disadvantage by developing local answers to local problems. Research by Social Ventures Australia has shown Ignite to have the lowest priced standard basket of groceries in the area.
People can help Ignite by donating money online at www.ignitefoodstore.com.au, or by calling (02) 9628 7272.
They can also donate food, either by dropping it off at 254 Luxford Rd, Emerton, or by calling Claire Thomas on 0417 269 623 to organise a pick-up from their homes.