The security of food supply in Aotearoa New Zealand emerged as a pressing focus as the country went into COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. The community food distribution sector faced enormous pressure from a daunting increase in demand. Over a year later we’re checking in with the country’s three City Missions to hear what life is like now and the learnings that are influencing their future direction.

Auckland City Mission
Helen Robinson has been in the role of Auckland City Missioner since only 2 April.  The learning curve for such an influential position was perhaps less steep than it might have been had she not previously been the Mission’s General Manager, a role she held for four years. Before that she held leadership roles in the Mission’s homelessness and food security teams – all valuable experience in preparing her for the reality that, in her new day job, nothing is simple.

Certainly, working to transform the persistent, gritty systemic issues of homelessness, food insecurity, addiction and affordable health-care is anything but simple. That’s before you throw in a pandemic.

For the Mission, things got very focused very quickly last year. Helen says that prior to COVID-19 lockdown and response, the Mission was distributing 400-500 food parcels per week.

“Once we got to level 4, that number rose to between 1300 and 1500 per week. Then, back down in level 1, that number has settled at 900-1000 parcels per week.

The Mission’s expectation is that it will have distributed 50,000 food parcels by financial year’s end. “And we’re just one organisation,” says Helen. “The particular issue we face here in Auckland is one of scale – how do we respond to the depth and extent of the issue?”  It’s a question that shapes a dual focus of the Mission. “Ultimately, we want to end the need for food parcels. This country produces enough food to feed all its people. So production is not the problem; the problem is around who gets what.”

And that’s due to the shortcomings of systems and infrastructure.

“In the meantime, people are hungry now, says Helen, “they need food now.”  To balance the tension between the now and not yet, the Mission has one primary focus to ensure that it has the best quality food – and enough of it – while also working towards changing the system that creates the inequality.

“We need a national conversation in Aotearoa New Zealand around how we plan to feed ourselves well and sustainably in the future. Helen notes that such a conversation necessarily pulls up the deeper issues. “Talking about food security pushes us into the territory of wealth distribution.”

Helen says that a significant number of New Zealanders simply don’t have enough money. “Current benefit levels, and even the living wage, aren’t adequate despite the latest increases. Someone on the minimum wage and paying rent, will end up with, say, $100 left to pay for food, power and everything else. It’s even more challenging for those who are trying to raise a family on a benefit.

“Living in survival mode is exhausting. And dehumanising.”

Helen says that people have got that there’s a housing problem in Aotearoa New Zealand. “They understand that there is a considerable number of people who do not have access to quality, appropriate, safe and affordable housing”. She attributes that awareness to the high media focus over the last four to five years. “But New Zealanders don’t understand that we have a food problem.”

The good thing, she adds, is that while most New Zealanders don’t understand the problem, they are willing to hear about it. That gives Helen hope. “The wonderful thing about this role is that I get to see the generosity of Auckland. I get to see the undergirding of compassion.”

That generosity is most recently visible in the development of the Auckland City Mission’s 80-apartment development HomeGround. The Mission is in high gear for the development’s opening in November.

In conceiving of HomeGround the Mission wanted a place where pragmatic hands-on services support those who need it most. As well as providing safe and permanent shelter for Aucklanders who have been rough sleeping, HomeGround will also provide a healthcare centre, including a pharmacy and dental practice, a state-of-the-art detox facility, and a community dining room catering up to 250 guests per day. The site also includes spaces that will be available for social enterprises.

Helen says that development embodies the Mission’s ethos that housing people in need, and providing wraparound services to support them, is paramount to changing the circumstances of those experiencing homelessness.

“Having all the services under one roof will make the enormous task of supporting those in need, a reality.”

Wellington City Mission

Murray Edridge, Wellington City Missioner describes the last year as fascinating, “Dickensian, even”… ie, the best of times, the worst of times. “Clearly, the last year brought challenges,” says Murray. “We faced enormous requirements at a time when, theoretically, we had restricted access to resources. But there was also celebration around what we achieved, like the responsiveness of local and central government, and just unprecedented levels of support from the general public.”

Challenge and Celebration are only two-thirds of Murray’s COVID equation – the 3 Cs. The third component? Change.

“The lockdown response period gave us an opportunity to examine everything that we do here at the Mission. What we said to ourselves is let’s not revert back, let’s not go back to doing anything that we’ve not tested and evaluated as optimum.”

It’s this evaluation that, in Murray’s words, has irrevocably changed the focus of the Mission.

The outworking of that change can be seen in the reinvention of the Mission’s former drop-in centre. For decades[?] the drop-in centre has provided a hot meal for both breakfast and lunch, four days a week. “People would queue up, pay a modest sum for the meal, eat then leave. There’d be no one in the place after 1.30pm.

“What the period of COVID response showed us is that people were actually getting food okay. But what they weren’t getting was community,” says Murray.

It is the focus on building community that became the driver for the decision to stop providing the two daily meals. In its place is a community lounge offering café-style food. “We took the tables out, removed a few walls, laid down carpet, repainted, added lights and sofas. The result is a warmer, more welcoming space. People can stay all day and be nurtured and encouraged, and treated with dignity and respect.”

Evidently, it’s touched a nerve. “In the first six weeks, 3,000 came through the door – with no advertising, just purely word of mouth.”

The community lounge has in effect become a test-run for the Mission’s bigger future plans. As part of the Mission’s development of Whakamaru, a multi-purpose community hub in the Wellington CBD, it is planning a public café, a space offering a nice meal at a reasonable price. “And the best coffee in Wellington,” adds Murray, “which means the best in the country.” Whakamaru, meaning to shelter, to safeguard, to protect, is due for completion September 2022.

For Murray, a fundamental component of the concept is creating spaces where people find themselves alongside ‘others’.“That’s when people discover that ‘others’ aren’t bad, aren’t evil, that they’re just like ‘us’.”

Whakamaru will embrace that intentionality of community, not only in the café space. The complex will incorporate 35 supported housing units alongside office space for the Mission’s staff and volunteers.  “Our staff and volunteers will be sharing common spaces with the residents so we’re clearly pushing some boundaries. But again, how else do you build different connection with people?”

Another significant shift for the Mission is a transition away from the provision of food parcels. This shift came about through asking some hard questions. How do we provide people with dignity when they are in a place of need? How do we remove the whakama/shame? The answer, says Murray, is by providing them with the dignity of choice – and so the social supermarket was birthed.

Currently running as a trial, the Mission’s social supermarket is a joint venture with Mission supporters [partners?] New World.  “Foodstuffs really got on board with what we wanted to do and essentially built us a supermarket. It looks exactly like a supermarket with some 3000 products on the shelves.”

Shoppers at the social supermarket are hosted and supported to select an appropriate range of products to meet their needs and those of their whānau. As they accompany the shoppers, the support workers or volunteers are able to determine whether an offer of budgeting or other support may be helpful.

Murray says what matters most is the user experience. “The thing that elicited the most emotional response from shoppers is being offered a trolley. For these shoppers, trollies represent equality – that they are like everyone else; that they are going to actually be able to fill a trolley.”

Another mana-enhancing aspect of the Mission’s supermarket is the range of products. “It’s not all budget lines on the shelves. We aim to provide the best we can offer.” Again, dignity and respect.

In transitioning to the social supermarket model Murray says he believes the Mission is helping more Wellingtonians than through food parcel distribution. That said, he is proud of the Mission’s long serving of food distribution. “We still have emergency food provision and always will. But we would love to be at the point where we don’t need to distribute food at all.”

Murray acknowledges that it will take some significant effort to change the core underlying issues. But he is hopeful, believing that it is possible to change the current societal settings.

Christchurch City Mission

Christchurch City Missioner Matthew Mark said that before March 2020, the Mission was seeing a consistent trajectory upward in the demand for food parcels. During the lockdown period of COVID-19, that demand trebled, and then plateaued for around six weeks at a slightly lower level. “Now we’re back to a consistent growth in demand month on month,” says Matthew.

The Mission closely tracks its activities to determine the drivers behind trends.  “We know that for the first four months post lockdown, 40 percent of those coming to us were first-time users, people who’d never engaged with a social service before.”

That cohort has lessened in more recent months. “While demand overall is still increasing, those who’ve never previously engaged with social service agencies is sitting around 12-13 percent.”

Matthew says the Mission is on target for distribution of 67,000 food parcels by the financial year end.  “There are still a lot of extra people who’re needing the practical support of putting food on the table.”

So how is the Mission meeting that continuing trajectory?  It uses a two-fold approach – a process and a pathway.

“The process is that we meet the immediate need of the family or individual. The pathway is finding a long-term sustainable solution so that they don’t have to keep coming back to get that support. We take a long-term view with the people with whom we work. This may mean that they receive food support from us for a month, maybe six weeks, while we find solutions to the reasons they’re in a place of need.”

The Mission draws its support from a number of sources. Since the country went into COVID-response mode, it has been receiving MSD funding but it also partners with New World in particular, and more recently, with the wider Foodstuffs network. The Mission is also part of a network across Canterbury that share resources across a number of foodbanks. “This ensures a fair distribution of products and that there’s no storing up of resources that could get out to places that we might not reach.”

The rest of the Mission’s food support comes through the Christchurch community and the Mission is seeing that community generosity increasing. “Over the last four months particularly we’ve noticed an increase in groups getting on board and more ingenuity around the ways organisations and corporates are approaching social responsibility.”

Few would argue that Christchurch has had it rough over the last 10 years. If earthquakes, acts of terrorism and COVID-19 aren’t enough, the recent flooding in Canterbury added to the response burden for support organisations.

“Our South Canterbury cohort was more impacted by the flooding, but we still had around a dozen suburbs that were affected.” The Mission moved into the familiar gear of distributing household items and food support but came up with another idea. “We filled a minivan with men that were staying in our emergency accommodation and drove them to Ashburton where they helped clear debris from farm fences.”  Matthew says it was a way of giving back to those who give to them. “I say to the people we serve, that the Mission works at the privilege of the community. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without their generosity. The guys jumped at the opportunity to give back.”

That simple initiative of doing something for others reflects the Mission’s desire to work with people in ways that are mana enhancing. To do that, though, requires an understanding of where people are at. Matthew says that how the Mission had to adapt its food distribution logistics during lockdown impacted its ability to get alongside people. “By delivering food to people rather than them coming to us, we were missing having meaningful conversations. We weren’t able to gain an understanding about the drivers behind their needing that food support.” Armed with such understanding, the Mission is able to connect people with its other services such as budget and financial mentorship programmes, education, and work readiness programmes. “When people come in here there’s a whole suite of things to which we can connect them, to give them the best outcomes.”

Matthew says that food poverty is mostly just a symptom. “While we address the food need it’s really about those other drivers, like mental health. And those things require the creation of meaningful sustainable societal change.” So for everything the Mission does, it applies the lens: what is the impact on creating that meaningful and sustainable change in our community?

With an eye to positioning itself as the agent of change for the future, the Mission is progressing a massive building development. The now fully-funded project incorporates a 15-bed transitional housing facility, along with the Thrive café and catering business, the Mission’s social enterprises.

A second stage of its development plans include support worker spaces, a warehouse, and a self-serve foodbank. The self-serve foodbank will follow the same lines as the Wellington City Mission’s social supermarket.

“Once again, it’s about enhancing peoples’ mana, by providing an environment where they have choice.”