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Taste of Compassion

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is turning the wheels of hope, and nourishing the spirit of compassion with its Food Justice Truck

Featured article from Issue 3 #gather

Interview by Cynthia Sciberras /
Words by Renae Robinson /
Photo by Tim Turner

“I wanted to create a place of hope and welcome where no one was turned away. A centre that stood for justice, that was willing to be at the coalface when and where it mattered to people. Where dreams of freedom burned brightly in the hearts of all who entered.” Mr Karapanagiotidis

How to nourish ourselves, asylum seekers, the community, local farmers and the Earth? Simple. Take one community ecosystem, an army of volunteers and a crowd of internet funders, add a set of wheels and a dash of imaginative compassion, and there you have it – the Food Justice Truck.

This award-winning social enterprise by Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre aims to reach ‘the others’ – the asylum seekers who cannot access the centre’s services through capacity constraints. There are more than 10,000 people seeking asylum in Victoria who are on bridging visas, and who face growing food insecurity.

The Food Justice Truck is a mobile fresh food market, where I or anybody can shop at regular supermarket rates (or even slightly less) while asylum seekers receive a 75 percent discount. The produce comes from Victorian farmers, and the truck itself aims for zero waste.

ASRC Humanitarian Services Director, and Food Justice Truck pioneer, Patrick – the inspiration behind the truck – describes it as a “triple bottom line shopping experience”, that is financial, environmental and social.

“The reason it exists is the social benefit, meaning the impact of the nutritional landscape of asylum seekers who shop there,” Patrick says.

“The financial benefit is obviously to asylum seekers – the 75 percent discount is quite profound – but also for the general public who shop there. We aim to ever so slightly undercut supermarket prices,” he says.

“So we are not charging a premium for our services to assist asylum seekers – it’s just a fair price.”

That discount, however, is a massive help when you consider that the average asylum seeker has about $20 for food a week, compared with the average Australian male’s food consumption of $130 a week.

The truck has also received pro bono support from artist and eco-entrepreneur Joost Bakker – founder of Melbourne zero-waste restaurant Brothl, which has now closed.

“If we can create a world where everything we use can be recycled back into a product again – so, endlessly recyclable – then most of our problems are solved,” Mr Bakker says.

“And that’s what I’ve tried to implement with the Food Justice Truck,” he says. “I feel like I’m finally able to do something.”

The truck is a diesel-electric hybrid, which makes liberal use of recycled timber internally. Fruit and vegetables are delivered in plastic crates, which are returned to the providers, to limit the use of cardboard.

The produce comes from Victorian farmers – saving on food miles – via Spade & Barrow, a proponent of the ‘ugly fruit’ movement, which salvages produce rejected by the big supermarkets on appearance grounds.

Patrick says: “So the carrots aren’t necessarily between six and seven inches long and not perfectly straight and all that kind of stuff. It is about taste and nutrition, rather than the visual appeal.”

The ASRC is no stranger to the problem of food security. It was founded in 2001 by Kon Karapanagiotidis as a food bank for asylum seekers, 90 percent of whom come to the centre “food insecure”, Patrick says. These days they hail mostly from the Middle East, West Papua, the horn of Africa and China.

“In 14 years, we have now grown to a staff of 70, a volunteer base of 1,200 and almost 200,000 followers and likes on Facebook. So the notion of community is essential to what we do,” he says.

Good nutrition, fairness and dignity underpin the centre’s food bank model, which sits alongside a hot meals program that feeds 240 people every weekday. About half of them are asylum seekers, and the rest staff, volunteers and visitors.

“We are all in there, as many of us as possible, all in there together breaking bread. Food is our common bread, our universal experience … it’s a really important part of what we are doing,” Patrick says.

Combined with its other services for asylum seekers, the centre has become the home of hope.

“It’s not just a place where you get one service and then you go home. It’s a community, it’s its own ecosystem,” he says.

That ecosystem is fundamental to the workings of the Food Justice Truck, which won Social Traders’ Social Investment Award for 2015.

It is set up at Footscray Primary School every Friday afternoon from 3-7pm, every Tuesday at Thomastown Primary School and aims ultimately to have seven locations, staffed by up to 50 volunteers, across the city. On 12 August, it will officially launch in the CBD at City Square and will be a permanent fixture at Wesley Uniting Church on Lonsdale Street every Wednesday.

“I think the one really good thing about the truck is that it gives a lot of people who care about the asylum seeker issue an opportunity to do something,” Patrick says.

Those people who care gathered online to crowd-fund the food truck, with the ASRC not wanting to ask its existing philanthropic funders for more.

“So that’s where we took a first step for the organisation into the area of crowdfunding,” Patrick says. “And crowdfunding not only relies on the community that exists but, if it’s successful, builds community as well.”

Successful it was – raising $153,000 to pay for the truck, its manager Russell Shields (who can name the farms and farmers who supply his tomatoes, coriander and chillies) and his first 12 months of employment. The names of all 900 donors are printed on one of the walls of the truck.

“The 900 names on the truck really emphasise how we see this as a community project,” Patrick says.

But he cautions that it’s possible the unique financial model on which the food justice truck is based will not succeed.

“It’s kind of the people’s truck. And the only way to succeed is by the people who care about asylum seekers actually getting there and shopping at the truck, as well.”

Patrick describes such compassion as “the ability to imagine what it is like to be someone else”.

“And I think that the co-component of compassion is imagination. Imaginative compassion is a term that I like to use, which to my mind isn’t really different to any other form of compassion – it just highlights the fact that imagination is a co-component.”

It is something Patrick – who trained as a classical pianist – believes artists are particularly good at.

“Whether they know it or not, they have a bit of focus on human rights in their own lives because they are very good at imagining what it is like to be someone else,” he says.

“And if you can do that, it is pretty hard to passively or actively be OK with the other person having a shit life. You are uncomfortable with your life with relative comfort if someone else is having a life of tremendous challenges that really no one should have to overcome.”

CEO Mr Karapanagiotidis says that when he founded the ASRC in 2001, his vision was simple.

“I wanted to create a place of hope and welcome where no one was turned away. A centre that stood for justice, that was willing to be at the coalface when and where it mattered to people. Where dreams of freedom burned brightly in the hearts of all who entered.”

While he says great changes have been achieved, there is still much to be done to create true equality for all asylum seekers.

“I ask you to join me in this journey. A journey whereby you just opening up your heart and offering your hand in support and solidarity can change the world forever.”

That’s one journey we can all make on the Food Justice Truck.


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