On a freezing night outside a suburban shopping centre, hundreds gathered in the hopes of nabbing supermarket basics like produce, bread and pre-made meals.
On a freezing night in Sydney’s southwest suburb of Miller, the most popular spot in town is an outdoor square filled with the sounds of lively chatter and dozens of kids running around hyped up on chocolate.
Surrounded by otherwise empty streets and an idle shopping centre, 83 Woodward Crescent is lit by a portable flood light and the orange and blue glow of the Aldi sign opposite the community space.
Since 4.30pm, people have been lining up with empty trolleys, an hour and a half before the Community Cafe’s food and meal services.
In one night, the Community Cafe Outreach program will serve 300 meals and up to 200 people, not including the children. Since December the line has gone from barely peaking above 70, to an average of 210 people each night.
The last two months in particular have seen an influx of new faces, as the cost of groceries and petrol soar.
‘First meal of the day’
Mother-of-one Rebecca Deering had her first meal of the day at 7pm. Before that was a piece of meat loaf from dinner the night before.
The food she collects on Tuesday night mostly goes towards her four-year-old daughter’s lunch box.
“It’s not about the grocery bill going up, it’s more about what you get in your trolley is less because you don’t have the extra money,” she tells news.com.au.
“I only feed (my daughter) as it is.”
Currently on a sole parent pension of $970 a fortnight, Ms Deering spends $400 a week on rent. What’s left over goes towards bills, and the remaining amount kept for basic groceries like butter, milk and meat.
“I need a little bit so I’m not in pain but I mostly just feed the kid. She eats constantly,” she says.
“Three meals a day? Not for me. My daughter eats, I don’t.”
Pregnant mother-of-six Rachel de Bruyn has visited Community Cafe since the initiative began. At the time she was homeless and living out of her car while her children lived with her ex-partner.
“Graced or blessed” is how she describes the moment a kind Airbnb owner offered her a home for free, and then for a reduced rate of $100.
“It allowed me to get more stable and get a job, which I did,” she says.
Now working, but on maternity leave, she admits she doesn’t know “how they’d be able to afford anything”.
Ms de Bruyn says stocking up on household products like shampoo and conditioner, or washing powder can cost $150 in itself. With six young children, including two sets of twins, Ms de Bruyn estimates her grocery bill easily adds up to $500 a week.
“It’s too hard at the moment and you’re always looking for places that do good deals, but sometimes savings aren’t enough.”
‘The amount of people was overwhelming’
Elsewhere in the line, the CEO and founder of Community Cafe Incorporated, Kirsty Parkes, alternates between grabbing stock from her van, serving food or speaking to her regulars.
Ms Parkes and her volunteers are well-known faces among the community. During Tuesday’s service, a woman dropped by to donate $200 in cash to help Ms Parkes to reach her goal of securing a physical and permanent premises.
Volunteers know the regulars by name and every attempt is made to try and source the goods needed for certain individuals, whether it’s a few extra meals of chicken, a rice cooker, a fridge or a blanket.
“We have the opportunity to chat with people and work out their needs and find out their stories,” says Ms Parkes.
“For some people it’s really important they tell you that and share, because they want you to know their reason for being here.”
But Ms Parkes says the influx of people over the last three months has been “mind blowing” and “overwhelming”.
She’s observed the rising cost of living, from inflamed petrol prices to towering grocery costs has affected everyone, even people from affluent suburbs.
Ms Parkes also holds a second food outreach program from her home in Hoxton Park, where the number of attendees is also increasing.
“People are struggling everywhere, even in areas that look like they’re more affluent,” she says, referencing her own suburb of Hoxton Park.
“They may not mention it, or they may not access a service because of barriers like access or pride, but we try to remove all those barriers.”
‘Take what you need, no questions asked’
Ms Parkes’ philosophy for Community Cafe remains the same as when she began the operation in July 2021. At the time, controversial suburb-based lockdowns gripped Sydney’s Liverpool local government area, which meant people couldn’t travel more than 5km to access other outreach programs. Some who charged fees for their services also hiked up their prices to accommodate for demand.
However the goal for Community Cafe has always been a ‘no questions asked’ approach to community – not charity, she says.
“People can just freely access and take whatever they need and we don’t make any judgment calls on anybody.”
Her vision for the project has also been informed by her own experiences around seven years ago, when her own family was nearly homeless.
At the time, she and her husband had unexpectedly welcomed twins, which saw her family expand from three to five “overnight”. Priced out of childcare, this meant they family were relying on her husband’s sole income, which barely covered their expenses.
“It was overwhelming and we struggled. There were a lot of days and nights my husband and I just didn’t eat,” she says.
But her family was offered a lifeline thanks to a free food program offered by a Bankstown community group. Desperate, Ms Parkes remembers borrowing petrol money for the 20-minute car ride between Bankstown and Miller – where she lived at the time.
“I cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t believe it was free. I was like: ‘We’re going to be ok,’” she says.
“I said to my husband: ‘At some point we’re going to be in a position where I can give back’.”
The Community Cafe’s Free Food Service and Community Dinner operates every Tuesday from 6pm at 38 Woodward Crescent. You can follow them on Facebook and their website
Have a similar story? Continue the conversation at [email protected]