Whether on Masterchef or at Samaritans, food connects people

A graphic that says "Samaritans blog read the latest"

A word from our CEO, Brad Webb:

Food is central to our culture, and our wellbeing. It provides sustenance, it brings people together.

We see this on TV shows like Masterchef, where food connects contestants and viewers to the joy of cooking and experimenting with flavours.

Food is also a connector at Samaritans. Often the first connection people have with us is when they collect an emergency relief food package. However, unlike Masterchef, the joy is bittersweet.

An Emergency Relief (ER) food package is made up of donated food from the local community. For many people this is a lifeline after having spent all their pay packet on rent and bills.

Samaritans ER Centres see in excess of 11,000 people every year across the Central Coast, Newcastle and the Hunter and the Mid North Coast. The centres offer help with food, utility bills and referral, and our appointments are always fully booked out. It isn’t surprising that the ER page on the Samaritans website has been the most visited service page for the last five years.

At Samaritans we see the impact on families when there is just no money left for a necessity like food.

Recently the ER team shared with me the experience of Heidi* (*an alias name she chose herself).

Heidi is a single mother who has worked her entire life. She’s in her late 40s and lives in Lake Macquarie with her 21-year-old daughter.

Heidi hasn’t always struggled to make ends meet, but right now times are very tough. Heidi has only been able to find part time work, meaning the income she gets each fortnight does not cover her rent and bills.

In the past Heidi has visited a Samaritans ER centre in what she describes as “desperation”.

Like a lot of people, Heidi has a passion for cooking and saved up to buy a professional knife set. But now she has to sell it, as she can’t afford the foods she likes to cook and eat. It’s a stark contrast to what’s happening each week on Masterchef.

With her permission, I am sharing Heidi’s moving story with you. I encourage you to read her words, as it provides a real insight into the struggles people are facing when they find their way to Samaritans. It shows that people like Heidi are our neighbours, our colleagues, our friends.

For all my life I’ve always worked, since I was 15. I started renting at that age too.

I’ve never had support from family, I had to leave home very young and not by my choice; this was my parents’ choice. I had a very dysfunctional family; there was no structure or love in the home. I never felt warmth nor nurtured. That’s why I’ve provided for my daughter. I wanted to break the cycle.

Due to verbal abuse which escalated to violent abuse from my daughter’s father, I chose to be a single parent. I chose this so I could give my daughter a safe, secure, loved and nurtured upbringing, free from any domestic violence and insecurity that it may have had down the track.   

She’s 21 now and she is still living with me, I always wanted this and I didn’t have this when I was her age. We both have a really good, open and trusting relationship, we communicate well, she’s very grateful for everything, for the small things in life. 

Several years ago I left a job at Hunter New England Health because I wanted another challenge, to give something else a go. I worked in a doctor’s surgery but wasn’t getting the hours I needed and that’s when it all started to go pear shaped. 

What I’ve learnt over the last seven years is that not many employers will commit to giving a full-time, permanent job. Almost everything is either short contract or not full time. Ever since leaving HNE health it’s been a downward spiral. I’ve been in and out of organisations, to be honest I could write a book about highs and lows.

I was applying for so many jobs but not hearing back. Every single day I would spend hours on job applications, submit it online then not hear anything.  It’s really disheartening. I went on Newstart and I couldn’t even live on it. I got $350/week and my rent alone is $380/week.

I knew I had to break the cycle of insecure work. It was time to re-train, so I studied, and I have now completed my Certificate III in Disability. When studying I applied for a one-off student grant of $208 through Centrelink. But I was told I was not eligible because I hadn’t been unemployed for 12 months or more.  The system makes it so hard.

I have struggled for a while now, more so than ever in the last four years.

Over my working life I have saved and bought nice things in my house, like a nice lounge, good fridge, nice corporate clothes and handbags whilst having to work in a legal office – I’ve sold them to survive.

Consistently from October last year I’ve been selling things just to put fuel in my car to get to studies, to go to a doctor’s appointment, to go get groceries.

I sold my dining table a month ago, that money went to a week’s rent, but now we don’t have a table to sit at. I’ve sold most of my clothes too. I like cooking but I can’t afford to buy ingredients to make things I like to cook, so I’m selling my good set of knives I originally saved up for just to pay my rent.

They’re such desperate measures. I don’t want to sell these things but if I didn’t have online sites like Gumtree to sell them I wouldn’t be able to make rent. I would be homeless.

I’ve just started work again, since my study finished.

I got paid yesterday, $458 from my job this week; out of that $380 for rent, $50 to my Telstra bill, and the remaining $28 has to get me through the next fortnight.  So how do I pay for some food for the week? I will need to sell something else this week – I am looking around my home to see what I will part with next.

I recently went down to the Central Coast for a 3-day work orientation. I couldn’t afford to fuel my car so I took the train. I took my own water and a can of tuna for lunch because they weren’t providing lunch. I know I can’t buy lunch or a coffee. It’s embarrassing, and I make up stories to cover.

When everyone went to the café for lunch I said I brought mine with me, and quickly ate my tuna can while they were gone. They asked if I wanted a coffee, but I lied and said I’d had two already. I hate lying to people and making up stories.

Another person in the orientation lived near my house and offered me a lift home. I could have kissed her. If she didn’t offer I would have had to ride the train without a ticket. There was no other option; I had no money. I’ve recently been offered an additional day of training for work so I can grow my skills, but I can’t afford transport to get down to the training centre. I’ve got so much pride, it’s so embarrassing.

I always buy markdown food like fruit and veg, meat, reduced milk and yogurt – I never buy full price as I simply can’t. If it’s not been discounted I just do without. I’m used to that; I’ve had seven years of that.

When I go to the supermarket I see everyone that has full trolley of stuff and when I glance at it I think, maybe one day that will be me. 

I do everything to save money on electricity. In winter I don’t have the luxury of a heater. I have a hot shower if I’m cold, just to warm me, and then I just go to bed.  

I mostly live in darkness. I use the rangehood light in my kitchen to make a cup of tea, because my rental has mostly downlights and they’re expensive, so I don’t turn them on. I only use the bathroom light because it’s fluoro and it’s cheaper.

My daughter has learnt that too. She’s amazing, she’s seen me struggling. I can’t even buy her a 21st birthday present next week. I promised her that I’d buy her one when things get better.

If I didn’t hold my inner strength, I don’t know where I’d be. There’s been so many nights I’ve just cried and cried. I’m just numb now. It’s been so hard for so long.

You wouldn’t want to wish it on anyone. I’m constantly drowning – not with my head above water, lower than that. With only my nose and mouth above the water. I’m drowning financially, drowning from job instability; I have no quality of living or social life.

Samaritans has never given up on me. I’ve built a rapport with [ER worker] John; I’ve come to him for help at different points over the last few years. John is always thinking of ways to improve my situation. He’s genuinely been there for me. At the end of the day he’s always looked out for me and has given me a lot of tips – referring me to different energy providers for example – he knows his stuff. He’s very passionate and sincere.

It’s the continuity and the trust, and I feel like I’m not a number when I see John. Janine is very good. There’s a genuine warmness, they care. They may not always be able to help with a voucher for my electricity bill, but they can always help with something. If nothing else, they can give a bundle of food and bread. I leave with a sense of not feeling cut off, because that food got me through a night when I’d otherwise have had nothing.

John has always been there for me and I said to him last week, don’t take this the wrong way but I don’t want to see you anymore!

Work told me that there should be more hours for me soon. I hope so.