Ten Years of Caring and Sharing: Canberra Community Pantry

In May 2022 the Communities at Work Tuggeranong Community Pantry proudly celebrated ten years of caring for people in the Canberra community and sharing food with those who in need.

Graeme at the Community Pantry in Tuggeranong

Volunteer Graeme has been with Communities at Work’s Canberra Pantry for the past decade.

Helping Canberrans in need for a decade over

Our Canberra Pantry has grown from one small Tuggeranong-based site to fully operational two large-scale pantries (the Gungahlin pantry opened six months after the one in Tuggeranong), in 10 years, welcoming thousands of people a year through their doors since May 2012, providing food and essential items to people experiencing hardship.

We sat down with Graeme Matthew, a long-term volunteer at the Tuggeranong community pantry, to hear his story of the pantry’s journey over the past decade and the significant impact it’s had on the people of Canberra.

“I started my volunteering journey with the Tuggeranong pantry only a couple of weeks after it opened,” recalls Graeme. “In those days, it was called Care and Share. And that was something that really struck a chord with me: the name ‘caring about people and sharing the food’. It’s why I chose to volunteer with Communities at Work. The organisation stood out as one that really gives back to the community.”

Growing in space and equipment to provide food support

“Boy, oh boy, were we tiny then!” he laughs. “We were in a much smaller space and were lucky to get even three or four baskets of fruit and veggies and other food stuff each week. Now, we order two pallets of food each week from Foodbank, get crates of food from our food rescue van and OzHarvest, and generous food donations from members of the Canberra community.

“I remember we had one old domestic fridge that somebody had donated and one old freezer that would have about six inches of ice on it every day. But you know, we had to start somewhere. Now, we’ve got 13 commercial fridges and freezers and a walk-in chill room. It’s made a huge difference to our storage capacity and food safety.

“Since COVID, we’ve also got a bigger, much nicer space now, and some storerooms that we didn’t have before,” Graeme said. “We also used to have volunteers that would come in to cook and freeze meals for pantry clients. Now we have two full-time chefs who cook frozen meals for Communities at Work’s child care centres and food pantries.”

“But the really nice thing is that the actual nature of what we’re doing hasn’t changed,” Graeme points out. “The pantry is still about providing quality food for clients at much cheaper prices. The same principles that we had ten years ago haven’t changed. We’ve refined them a little. We’ve gotten better. We’ve improved our level of professionalism and efficiency in how we do things. Before, everything that we were doing was trial and error. But the essence is still the same.”

Community Pantry Communities at Work during COVID-19 Lockdown

Canberra Pantry Communities at Work during COVID-19 Lockdown

COVID brings in a new era for the community pantries

With the onset of COVID-19, the Tuggeranong pantry had to dramatically change the way it operated.

“COVID-19 was a real learning time for us,” explains Tanya George, Tuggeranong Pantry Coordinator. “We had to close down for a while, so clients couldn’t visit the pantries to choose what foods they wanted. Instead, we were providing food hampers from our loading dock, pre-packaged by the Canberra Relief Network. Many of our older volunteers had to stay away for health safety and really missed the personal engagement they had with the pantry clients.”

The new COVID-19 distancing and hygiene rules also meant that the pantry processes and physical layout had to change. This, together with the growing demand for food support from the economic fallout of the pandemic, led to a decision to double both pantry spaces.

“More people were becoming unemployed and experiencing hardship for the first time in their lives. We knew there’d be more demand for our pantry services. So we decided to move both our pantries into much bigger spaces with nice lighting and new fridges, freezers and shelving,” said Tanya. “Our clients and volunteers just love them! They say that it’s a friendly, nice atmosphere and the two metres between shelving gives plenty of room to shop and work.”

Positive impact on people in need in Canberra

Community Pantry Volunteers at Communities at Work Canberra - Community Service

Graeme with a fellow volunteer at the Tuggeranong (Canberra) Community Food Pantry, Communities at Work 

Over his ten years with the Tuggeranong pantry, Graeme says he’s seen first-hand what a powerful positive impact the pantry has had in the community and he’s proud to have played a part in helping many people through tough times. But he emphasises that providing essential food is just part of why the pantry has been so important to clients over the years and why many feel they couldn’t survive without it.

“I feel that the pantry has become a community hub for our clients. It’s now much more than just a place where they can buy some discounted food. Many of our clients often live by themselves, and it gets lonely. So they come to the pantry to see a friendly face and enjoy a chat. For some, that’s their only social contact for the week.”

Graeme says that some clients even coordinate with each other to visit the pantry at the same time each week just so they can have a chat and a coffee outside together after their shop. “They need the social interaction that visiting the pantry always gives them. They’re really grateful for that,” he explains.

“That’s why we’ve worked so hard over the years to create a really welcoming and comfortable environment for our clients and develop positive relationships with them – so they feel very safe about coming in and empowered to do their shopping with dignity. It gives them a powerful feeling of self-esteem. That’s really important for them – and rewarding for us.”

So where does the food come from?

Since 2012 we’ve been building valued relationships with other charity partners, local supermarkets and businesses to keep our pantries stocked for clients. Much of the food is donated, but we also use financial donations and our own funds to purchase pallets of discounted food from Foodbank NSW & ACT and to buy quality fresh fruit and vegetables.

“In the early days we only received donations of food from OzHarvest,” explains Tanya. “Then we set up our Yellow Vans, that picked up food from supermarkets, bakeries, cafes and private functions and delivered it to 90 community organisations so they could distribute food to their own networks. Each month we rescued over 20 tonnes of good food that would otherwise end up in landfill, and which provided over 60,000 meals to people in need. It was a great initiative. I’m sure a lot of people probably still remember our bright Yellow Vans driving around! We collected a lot of interesting food. Probably our most interesting pick up was from Government House after a visit from the Queen. There was a lot of food left over from her entourage, including a three-kilo wheel of Tasmanian brie cheese!

Listen: ABC Radio Story on Yellow Van Pickup Trip: December 2013

“Sadly, because we weren’t getting any government funding for the vans, they became too expensive for us to run, even with the donations from local businesses. So we had to scale back the program after six or seven years. These days we have a volunteer driver that picks up food and other essentials from Coles and other supportive supermarkets twice a week for our pantries and we use the saved money to buy fresh fruit and vegetables and pallets of food from Foodbank. This way we have better control over what food comes in, and can better match what our clients are asking for.

“We also get food from OzHarvest, from government organisations and businesses that run donation drives for us, from donation bins at shopping centres like Cooleman Court, Calwell and Gungahlin Village, and from people dropping in grocery bags at our Tuggeranong and Gungahlin Community Centres,” Tanya explains. “Each year our Christmas Appeal also brings in much-needed food and gifts so that struggling families can still enjoy a Christmas meal.”

A trip down memory lane: Communities at Work pantry in Canberra over the years 

Tanya recalls that when pantry stocks were running low they used to run ‘can drives’ internally. “Every program within Communities at Work would have fun collecting cans and other essential items and constructing them into creative displays,” Tanya said with a smile. “We’d have a friendly competition to see which program could create the best CANstruction. There were some really amazing creations like an octopus, a ute, a shetland pony, a doll’s house and even Lake Tuggeranong complete with the office buildings and tinned tuna in the ‘lake’. The teams had a lot of fun working together, so it was also a great team-building exercise!”

That initiative was later adopted by the Department of Finance, which now run an annual CANstruction can drive for us, their major charity. Their staff collect over 3,000 cans and other items each year, which is invaluable in stocking our pantries with basic needs.

We don’t know about you, but that made us so nostalgic! We enjoyed the trip down the memory lane for our Canberra pantry in Tuggeranong supporting people in need with food and essential items. We hope to continue to support the community for years to come! 

Like to donate food?

We’re always looking for organisations and people to help us stock our pantries and make a real difference to someone struggling to put food on the table. If you’d like to set up a food donation drive, please get in touch. Or phone 02 6293 6500 or email socialprograms@commsatwork.org. We’d love to hear from you!

Find out more here about the type of items you can donate to our pantries to help provide food access to people experiencing hardship and vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the Canberra community.

Pantry Coordinator, Tanya George, at Communities at Work Pantry in 2021

Pantry Coordinator, Tanya George, at Communities at Work Pantry in 2021

About our Community Pantry and Support for people in need in Canberra

Communities at Work operates two community pantries, one in Tuggeranong and one in Gungahlin. These pantries provide food assistance in a safe, friendly, and dignified environment, where people who are struggling or experiencing hardship can shop for free and heavily discounted basic food, household and personal care items, cleaning products and toiletries. For more information about our community pantries and how they can help someone in need, please visit our Food Support page.

Food Support is one of our many Community Support services. Besides providing food and essential items at our community pantries, we also offer Crisis Support services for people who are suddenly struggling and/or in need of emergency relief.

Our Clothing Program helps our vulnerable clients dress for important occasions (such as job interviews, court proceedings, funerals etc) while our Reach Home program provides transitional accommodation assistance for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

If you, or someone you know, is in need of help, please direct them to our Community Support Services (Social Programs) team. There are no eligibility criteria to seek help.

Call 6293 6500 or use the get in touch form on our website to make contact.

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