Sophie Gray runs the Good Works Trust food bank.
If you’ve ever cooked on a budget, you’ll know her as the Destitute Gourmet, or, you might remember her as that voice in the supermarket as the editor of Food magazine.
But at the moment, rather than cooking the food, she’s organising the distribution of it.
And she’s doing it from a place you might not expect – in Hillcrest on Auckland’s North Shore, one of New Zealand’s wealthiest areas, and just up the road from some of the country’s most expensive real estate.
Every day she gets requests flooding into her inbox from various agencies – including Māori social services, the Ministry of Social Development, Victim Support, Hospice, Barnados and Oranga Tamariki – to help families in crisis. Families isolating with Covid-19 have “added a whole other level to the work that we do”, Gray says.
You might think a food bank on the North Shore would be on fairly light duties. But things have changed.
“There’s been a massive amount of infill housing and a huge amount of investment by Kāinga Ora in creating new housing for low income households,” she says.
“There are big housing developments with lots of people who don’t have very much money, and alongside that a lot of those whānau have been displaced from the community where they were. For example, they might have been in Northcote where they were walking distance to a supermarket, and now they’re in Beach Haven, where the nearest supermarket is several bus stages away – and it’s a New World. So that is one aspect of the problem.
“Also the rapid escalation in rental prices has really driven a massive amount of need, so people who never needed to worry about food before, do now.
“The cost of fuel – the fact that on the Shore our public transport is pretty patchy so you’ve got to get in a car to go anywhere.
“It costs around $450 a week to rent a garage to live in on the Shore. Every single motel and apartment building on the North Shore is emergency accommodation. You’ve got whole families living in a motel unit with a tiny little motel fridge and a two-element burner while they’re waiting for accommodation that they can actually afford to live in.
Suburbs on the North Shore like Takapuna often feature among the most expensive areas to live in Auckland. Photo: Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye
“All of that is driving this escalating need.
“And then we have this issue with food prices, which is a global issue, but impacts the people who are on the margins more than most.”
This food bank operates on a different model to some others. Gray says the common picture of people lined up in cars being handed bags of food is not what they do. Their clients come from agency referrals so they have a lot of information about what the recipients need and the food is then delivered by volunteers.
“We are supplying for people who are in a crisis,” she says.
Good Works also operates a school lunch programme run through teachers who know which kids are hungry – they’re given meal kits and lunchboxes so that when they come to school, their lunch looks just like that of the child they’re sitting next to – there’s no charity stigma involved.
About 70 to 80 percent of the food the bank distributes is bought. Gray spends thousands of dollars each week buying basics like milk, bread, meat, fresh and frozen vegetables, canned foods, biscuits, crackers and hygiene products.
The rest comes from donations from NZ Foodlink, KiwiHarvest, supermarkets and Bakers Delight.
Gray says Browns Bay New World for example has been phenomenally generous, and most people would not know when they shop there how much help the business gives to them. “It’s very low key.”
Other companies are also happy to pitch in, without any demands for recognition.
Just last week Gray made a desperate pitch to Driveline North Shore, a car leasing company, explained what the organisation did and what it needed, and a week later they had a vehicle to use. The company is paying all the associated costs.
“Just an absolutely incredible thing,” she says. “And his observation to me was ‘we are doing well. Times are tough. We have been thinking that we want a way to support our local community. So we’re going to help you’.