Food Link connects a community

Food Link founder Amy De Paola clearly recalls the surrealness in March 2020 when toilet paper became an unlikely precious commodity as Victoria was on the brink of its first COVID-19 lockdown.

“That crazy week (March 23 to 27), where we went from normal life to lockdown being imminent was so rapid; everything was happening on the spot and it felt insane,” Amy says of the alarming pace of breaking news.

Equally, the sudden overwhelm of uncertainty was widespread.

Amy recalls her husband Mark, a Shepparton optometrist, “and other friends who had good solid businesses looking worried. People didn’t know what to do, they were wondering ‘What does this mean?’ ”

Like many, Amy watched news reports in solemn disbelief as hospitality businesses reeled from bookings evaporating overnight.

“Straight after that there was a story about Foodbank and FoodShares becoming nervous because panic buying in supermarkets was leaving no surplus stock to donate to food relief,” Amy, 49, says.

“To me there seemed to be an obvious fit: if we could raise the funds to pay one group (eatery businesses) we could also help the other (food relief agencies). There was no lightbulb moment. The idea just emerged.”

Amy had little notion of the immense impact her idea would have on the community: by Christmas Eve 2020, the initiative had raised $100,000 to pay “local catering businesses who were doing it tough, to make meals for people who were doing it tough”.

After two lockdowns in 2020 sparked two rounds of the initiative across 36 weeks, Food Link had supported 14 businesses and delivered 9230 meals to 11 agencies and four schools in the Shepparton and Mooroopna area.

Deciding to commit

Delivery of meals commenced two weeks after Amy’s initial concept, but having recently survived breast cancer, she admits to initially “trying to palm off the idea” to others in the Greater Shepparton community.

After finishing six months of cancer treatment in March 2019, Amy’s focus had been on her recovery and family; so, she worried the timing (in March 2020) was wrong to commit to a new, time-intensive initiative.

“I liked the thought of giving back to the community – I’m always happy to do that – but to do it in a big way at that stage of my life was daunting; I thought it would be something I would do later in life, once the kids had left home or I was retired,” Amy says.

“I knew Food Link was something that would require a lot of time and energy, so I had to go through the process of deciding ‘It’s not just me; if I throw myself into this, my family has to come along for the ride,’ plus I still had to manage full-time work.”

With the encouragement of Mark and their children Zoe, 17, Alex, 15, and Tom, 13, Amy decided to take action.

Call for support

Concerned about the complications of comedian Celeste Barber’s well-intentioned Facebook bushfire fundraising appeal in the 2019-20 summer, Amy was adamant the Food Link appeal needed to be set-up with expert assistance to ensure immediate impact for the intended recipients. She contacted Greater Shepparton Foundation chief executive officer Cheryl Hammer for support.

Within three days Cheryl had rallied $10,000 to kick-start the Food Link initiative ̶ $5000 from Greater Shepparton Foundation and $5000 from the Fairley Foundation. Amy, a graphic designer, set to work on the Food Link logo.

Week One: Round One

On April 6, Food Link kicked off its pilot week: 100 meals were ordered from The Woolshed at Emerald Bank, which had adapted to home deliveries when lockdown forced the cancellation of weddings and other functions.

Week Two

In week two, Food Link placed a second order of 140 meals with The Little Gourmet Food Company and set a goal of delivering 150 to 300 meals a week for 12 to 16 weeks, largely subject to fundraising.

Amy found herself in the spotlight at the Food Link media launch, alongside Cheryl representing Greater Shepparton Foundation, Fairley Foundation chief executive officer Amanda McCulloch, and Little Gourmet Food Company owner Ineka Rowe and staff.

As momentum built, Amy and Food Link supporters discovered the initiative was doing more than helping businesses stay afloat: the meals were also nurturing community connection and mental health.

“It helped maintain a bit of community spirit and positivity, and I think it helped employers and staff maintain a healthy mental state; I think that was more significant to the businesses than what the finances were,” Amy says.

“Many weren’t charging us what they would normally charge for a meal, so it wasn’t necessarily profitable, however it did help with cashflow and the large orders kept them busy; it also gave them a sense of purpose and the opportunity to help those doing it even tougher than they were.

Week Eight

“People often asked ‘How did we know who to deliver the meals to?’ The answer is we didn’t, we knew the agencies were best placed to know who in our community were most in need.”

By week eight, nine local eateries and catering businesses were providing filling, nutritious meals for varied agencies to distribute to a broad range of vulnerable people. By now, meals were also donated to four primary schools to deliver to families needing extra support in isolation.

“For teachers and school welfare staff, knocking on the doors of families with a meal was a way to connect and check on families during that time of remote learning,” Amy says.

She recalls in those early weeks the practical and emotional lifeline Food Link had also given workers at agencies which supported people in need.

“Some of the first meals went to Life Op-Shop in Mooroopna and when I first met Sandy there, she looked overwhelmed because there was little to offer and they had more people coming in for food relief.

“Sandy looked exhausted and she said ‘If you hadn’t delivered these (60) meals today, I would have gone home and cooked tonight.’ She was doing that just to feed the people she couldn’t turn away.”

Week 12

On June 22, StreetSmart Australia’s Smartmeals program provided funding which enabled Food Link to reach its 16-week milestone.

Week 16

In the week beginning July 20, Food Link delivered its last meals for Round One, having raised $44,000 in 16 weeks and delivering 3660 meals. Life seemed to have settled into a new COVID-normal for businesses and agencies.

Three weeks later, on August 4, regional Victoria went into a second lockdown.

Week 17: Round Two

With businesses and agencies again having to adapt to COVID restrictions, Food Link kick-started round two on August 10. Initial funding was again provided by Greater Shepparton Foundation ($5000) and Fairley Foundation ($5000).

Week 23

As COVID fatigue impacted the second round of community donations, Food Link welcomed an $11,000 grant from the Australian Communities Foundation and ongoing support from StreetSmart Australia’s Smartmeals program, totalling $46,000.

Week 36

Christmas eve, 2020: Food Link delivered 300 Christmas dinners – its final meals for round two of the 2020 initiative.

Reflecting on 2020

Reflecting on the challenges of 2020, Amy is naturally proud of Food Link’s role in the COVID response: $100,000 raised in 36 weeks to deliver 9230 meals, supporting local businesses and countless vulnerable members of the community.

The experience gifted Amy an insight into the work of those involved in social welfare for the homeless and vulnerable.

“It was a really lovely way for me to be involved with a community outside of my usual circle,” she says.

“I enjoyed meeting people from the various agencies and seeing what services are available for vulnerable people. These individuals and organisations are doing some wonderful work and I was so pleased that Food Link was able to support them.”

On a personal note, Amy is glad she overcame her initial hesitation to lead the project as she emerged from her cancer journey.

“The cancer recovery experience was all consuming, so having been the recipient of care and coming out of the other end, Food Link was a nice way to give back. It was a nice way to sort of redefine who I am, and what I do, and how I can contribute.”

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