THEY'RE the unsung heroes with a hunger to feed millions of Aussies down on their luck.
Bundaberg's Trevor and Wendy Cross, Charleville's Brian and Nerida Egan and Sydney's Paula Zrilic are strangers united in a common goal - reducing a disturbing trend that's eating into the lives of 3.6 million Australians every day.
A Foodbank survey out today shows 15% of Aussies are struggling to fill their cupboards with food and more than a quarter of them - 28% - come from regional areas like ours.
This year's Hunger Report - released to coincide with World Food Day - reveals rising utility bills, increased rents and mortgage payments and reduced working hours are feeding "food insecurity" across the country.
Foodbank is the country's largest food relief organisation, acting as a "pantry" to 2600 charities and community groups that deliver about 172,000 meals a day to vulnerable Aussies.
"It's sad that in our lucky country people are going hungry," Foodbank Queensland CEO Michael Rose told NewsRegional.
"It has a bigger impact on those in regional centres because they have more extreme feelings of depression and insecurity associated with that general food insecurity, in part due to the isolation."
Mr Rose said there was enough food in our country to feed all Australians but getting meals on everyone's plates needed government, corporates, charities and communities to band together.
"It's a multi-faceted issue and we need everybody to help address it," he said.
That's where people like Wendy, Trevor, Brian, Nerida and Paula really shine.
A donation people in crisis can bank on
THE Cross family will this year donate thousands of tonnes of the produce they grow on their 800ha Bundaberg farm to Foodbank.
The Egans will deliver a lot of that produce to some 10,000 people living in the outback. Paula will ensure hundreds of south-west residents will get their fair share of donations from the Crosses.
Trevor Cross said it made perfect sense to donate to Aussies in crisis the excess tomatoes, capsicums, chillies, zucchinis, snow peas, watermelons and pumpkins his family grows.
Last year, the Cross family gifted 850 tonnes of produce - worth more than $1.2 million ¬- to Foodbank and this year they have pledged to donate 1300 tonnes worth about $1.75 million.
"I used to tell everyone I do it because if you do good things, good things will come to you," Trevor said of being Foodbank's biggest fresh produce supplier.
"But that hasn't happened - we've had hail storms, bad prices, flood, rains - so it doesn't work like that.
"It is just a good gesture - we know it's going to people in need and that's a good feeling."
The donations comprise blemished produce the supermarkets don't want, stock that was grown in excess of orders and also produce that buyers no longer want.
It also means the farm's 450 workers are taken care of when times are tough, because the Cross family chooses to pay them to pick the produce bound for Foodbank instead of letting it go to waste.
"Instead of stopping the picking because the crop is not good enough or the price is too low, we'll continue to pick so our people also benefit and get paid," Trevor said.
The little charity with a big heart
JUST over 800km inland from the Cross's farm is Charleville, home to a charity called Aussie Helpers.
Started by Nerida and Brian Egan about 16 years ago, the organisation has become a vital lifeline for people struggling to make ends meet in rural and remote areas.
The Egans have had their fair share of tough times.
In the late 1990s, they were forced to leave their drought-ravaged farm and to make matters worse, post-traumatic stress disorder knocked Vietnam veteran Brian for six.
"My family had to get emergency housing in town because we didn't have any income and I had to go into hospital in Brisbane," Brian said.
This meant Nerida and their four daughters had to rely on the goodness of others for the basics including food.
It took a couple of years, but the Egans eventually found their feet and once they were on solid ground they decided to turn their hard luck into something special.
Aussie Helpers now provides groceries, pamper packs, stockfeed, boarding school fee donations and funeral funds for about 10,000 rural and remote residents.
"We get food from Foodbank and we pack that up into hampers for farmers and their families," Brian said.
"We put things like cereal and canned food into them and we also give every lady at every station a pamper pack full of cosmetics and other girly stuff like shampoo and conditioner and stuff like that.
"It brings a smile to their faces straight away."
Brian said it was tough in the bush, with many families struggling financially because of drought and fluctuating stock, grain and feed prices and that was leading to higher rates of domestic violence and depression.
"A lot of people are under the impression that farmers are very rich people but it's quite the opposite - a lot of them are very poor," he said.
"We call into the cattle stations and the sheep farms for a cup of tea and to say G'day and that's when we find out what their problems are and how to help them."
Paula offers a hand up, not a hand out
BRIAN and Nerida's story is not that different to Sydney-sider Paula Zrilic who turned her rough patch into a little bit of awesome for others in food crisis.
Three years ago, Paula made a life-changing decision - to leave her abusive partner and build a life free of violence for herself and her daughters.
It was a tough call made worse by the fact that she had no money and very few possessions - it was so bad that Paula slept on a mat for months because she could not afford a bed.
Forced to rely on the generosity of others to feed her kids, Paula said asking charities for handouts of food was a "pretty dehumanising and de-moralising experience".
"I wanted to swap pasta for rice because my daughter is coeliac but I was made to feel that I should be grateful for what I got in the first place," Paula said.
"But having access to that food meant that I could get through those nights where I thought about taking my own life - it made those dark times better."
Three years later and life is on the up for Paula who is now helping other people in domestic violence situations and others in crisis.
It's been 35 weeks since she opened Our Community Pantry in Tahmoor and in that time donations of food into the cupboards of 750 Sydney-siders.
"We are different than other community pantries because the people we help get to pick and choose what they need and there are no limits on how much food they take," Paula said.
"My theory behind it is giving people a hand-up, not a hand-out.
"It's such a great thing to know that my story is making a difference and I am helping stop women taking their kids back to unhealthy relationships because they can't afford to feed their kids.
"This is the job that I'm here to do."
To help Foodbank please visit www.foodbank.org.au.
*For 24-hour domestic violence support call the national hotline 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. For 24-hour mental health support call Beyondblue on 1300 224 636, Lifeline on 131 114 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
HOW FOODBANK HELPS OUR REGION
- Mackay: Foodbank Queensland, through Anglicare Mackay, provides food for 350 local adults and kids.
- Rockhampton: Foodbank Queensland is working with St Vincent de Paul to provide support for local residents.
- Bundaberg: Foodbank Queensland has been helping local residents since 2007, assisting on average 250 families a week. The organisation provided extra support this year during Cyclone Debbie.
- Sunshine Coast: Foodbank Queensland has more than 12 frontline agencies feeding 12,000 locals each week and serving up 22 school breakfast programs.
- Fraser Coast: Foodbank Queensland has several frontline agencies feeding about 3500 residents each week via school breakfast and other support programs.
- Ipswich: Foodbank Queensland has 16 agencies feeding more than 1000 families a week.
- Gympie: Foodbank Queensland helps 3000 residents each week including children and 10 schools and learning centres.
- Toowoomba: Foodbank Queensland has six frontline charities supporting thousands of people across the region, and people in Warwick.
- Queensland Outback: Foodbank Queensland supports Charleville Aussie Helpers to feed thousands of rural and remote residents.
- Northern NSW: Foodbank supports a range of agencies, including Bush Church Aid, to feed thousands of residents.
Meetings the perfect place to harvest food for people in crisis
BY asking charities to harvest their unwanted food, offices across the could stop millions of Australians from going hungry.
Business leader Jonathan Rowley says the $8-$10 billion of food that is thrown away in Australia each year could make a big difference for people in crisis.
The Order-In managing director urged business leaders to put more thought into the how they could reduce their food wastage.
Mr Rowley urged them to contact OzHarvest or other food distribution charities.
"We have looked at the reduction habits of hundreds of our customers and found that the best practices to prevent food wastage at work, many of which can also translate to the home, are very easily implemented," he said.
"There are many charities or organisations that will happily collect your unused produce and reallocate to places or people in need.
"This is perfect for when you've ordered too much food or if a meeting has been cancelled at the last minute.
"We encourage all of our corporate catering clients to notify OzHarvest when they have a surplus of food that is perfectly edible.
"We urge all households and offices to do the same.