Funding food relief in tough times


Brian Bakes says pensioners, single parents and rough sleepers are the most likely customers at his low-cost grocery store

By late morning, Howard Street has succumbed to a surge of dense rainfall. While grey haze descends and local storefronts seal up to ward off the deluge, the doors of one building stretch wide to welcome Nambour’s damp passers-by.

Coated in an unassuming white, Suncoast Care should be low-key and easily overlooked. Instead, the low-cost food outlet pulses with activity. Customers shake out their umbrellas and windbreakers on the entry mat before roaming into the warm commotion of the building.

To the left, regulars chat at quiet tables and thaw out with mugs of coffee, fresh from the in-store café. To the right, the sprawling grocery aisles overpopulate, and checkout queues stretch. For many customers, the weekly shop and community catch-up are underway before lunchtime.

But among the cacophony of the spacious store, a pattern emerges. Most men and women who pass through the open doors are sodden with more than just rain. Marked by dishevelled clothes and forlorn expressions, it’s clear these people come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While the organisation embraces this community, the distinct lack of customers with financial stability could thwart the expansion of Suncoast Care and other food relief services.

After two years of directing Suncoast Care, manager Brian Bakes rarely finds high-income customers between the aisles. He says pensioners, single parents and rough sleepers most often visit the outlet.

“Some people come in two or three times a week because it’s almost part of their community,” he says, after greeting customers and volunteers with warm banter on the way to his office. “We’ve had some people say to us: ‘We could not live without you guys being here.’ And it’s more than once we’ve heard it. We know it helps community. We know it helps individual families.”

Founded in the 1980s as the outreach arm of Suncoast Church, the organisation transitioned from an op shop into a low-cost grocery in 2007 as the local need for food relief increased. Before Brian stepped in, customers could only access relief services if they were receiving welfare payments.

Today, the grocery shop and the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen are available to individuals of all income brackets. The Emergency Relief program, which provides food vouchers and debt support, usually requests proof of financial difficulty. But even this service can make exceptions for those in genuine need.

Despite this, low-income and homeless individuals still occupy the heart of Suncoast Care. Nambour resident Jenny Hebbard, 58, peruses the outlet’s dinner aisle to feed her family while avoiding the stress of steep grocery bills. “We’re not struggling, but we’re not sound,” she says. “With the cost of everything going up, you just got to shop where you can.”

Gail Parker, 67, another local, accesses Suncoast Care biweekly to buy food for her neighbours and elderly friends. “The quality of the food here is amazing,” she says, resting at a café table with a friend and a store volunteer. “We’re not spending anywhere near what we used to on groceries and feel like we’re assisting.”

The affordable nature of charitable produce appeals to those seeking food relief. In fact, Foodbank Australia says financial difficulty is a prevalent cause of food insecurity among Queenslanders. According to the Foodbank Hunger Report for 2019, 47 per cent of Queenslanders have experienced food insecurity due to a low income or pension. As a result, Foodbank assists almost 250,000 Queenslanders every month.

Yet the number of high-income individuals receiving food relief remains uncertain. One possible assumption suggests those with financial stability don’t need discounts and will never access them. To buy low-cost food would mean taking from the destitute.

From his experience in charity work, Brian also suspects the outlet’s association with welfare causes high-income groups to “feel they would lower themselves to come in and shop”. Brian wants to eliminate these assumptions. After supporting high-income customers who “might be asset-rich but cash-poor”, he says food relief should be available to everyone, regardless of their financial situation.

“They’re not going to take food from other people because we always get the supplies,” he says. “I would like to encourage people to come and do their normal grocery shopping here. Not so much people in need, but … supporters. One, you’re getting healthy groceries, and two, your surplus is helping us do good in the community.”

If more individuals and families choose Suncoast Care over supermarket chains such as Woolworths and Coles, profits can be allocated towards future projects instead of shareholders. Brian says the organisation wants to construct additional premises to replicate their relief services beyond the Sunshine Coast. Suncoast Care also wants to expand its current building to provide better services for the Nambour community.

“I would like to have crisis accommodation for … older women who have had a marriage bust-up or been kicked out,” Brian says. “A dream is to be able to have facilities where homeless or rough sleepers could leave their gear.”

Suncoast Care currently provides food for the Sunshine Coast Homelessness Hub at the Sunshine Coast Stadium, which offers support services for rough sleepers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The organisation also produces breakfast for local schools and weekly meals for Nambour Caravan Park residents.

As well as donations and government funding, the income earned from someone’s weekly grocery shop makes these community initiatives possible. This is how financially comfortable individuals and families can ensure aid organisations like Suncoast Care flourish.

But swapping a commercial grocery for a non-profit one doesn’t just facilitate relief efforts. It normalises them. If local communities recognised low-cost food outlets as junctions of all income levels, they would discard misconceptions about food insecurity and assistance. People needing food relief may also overcome barriers such as embarrassment or guilt to seek support.

Suncoast Care is calling on local communities to integrate charity-based food providers into the public consciousness. Once this happens, these organisations could be more than unseen services, perceptible only to those who need them. They could be visible to everyone.