How a food hub tapped into a community’s passion

17 Nov 2023

Some of the hard-working volunteer team at the Brighton Community Food Hub at Bridgewater, outside Hobart. Photo: supplied by Brighton Community Food Hub.

The Brighton Community Food Hub is about more than helping families put a meal on the table.
Once a fortnight in Bridgewater, a small suburb on the outskirts of Hobart, a team of volunteers is hard at work unloading delivery trucks and stacking groceries onto trestle tables. They’re getting ready to open the doors to a pop-up shop offering affordable food to the public.

But the story of the Brighton Community Food Hub is about more than helping families put a meal on the table as living costs rise. This small but mighty initiative is empowering a community and changing lives.

“Every second Thursday from my office, I see the cars line up and people going into the food hub. It makes me smile because I know we've met a need,” says Joselle Griffin, an Australian Red Cross Community Programs Officer in Bridgewater.

"It's social support as well. You don't just get your groceries. You get a volunteer who supports you if you need it; say, somebody can't push a trolley. If you can't afford food, there's a referral to someone who can help. And it's become a big meeting place for the community."

Bridgewater is home to some 4,500 people and has one of Tasmania's highest urban First Nations populations. It's also a suburb where many people struggle financially.

It is one of a number of First Nations communities where Australian Red Cross provides support through a place-based program. These programs focus on solving specific community issues through local involvement.

“I truly believe the only people who can understand the complex issues in communities are the communities themselves,” says Joselle.

Across Australia, people have been struggling with inflation and cost-of-living pressures. Photo: Pexels .

“They're not easy issues. They’re not individual issues. They're complex and interrelating … And the only ones who know the solutions to the problems are the people facing them.”

Finding out what people really need

Joselle’s role is about working alongside local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. “That doesn't mean that I'm not working with the wider community, but it means the aspirations, the specific needs I'm looking at, are raised by First Nations people first.”

It is about listening, finding out what people want and need, and empowering them to shape their future. “We find out what they want to focus on, their passion. And then, together, we look at what we could do to fill that gap. We activate community.”

So, when the people of Bridgewater told Joselle they wanted to tackle food insecurity, that’s precisely what she set about helping them do. “There are food relief centres in other parts of the state, and people said, ‘Why can't we do it here?’ My response is always, ‘Why can't we?’

“We visited some of these centres and looked at how they were set up. Emergency food relief is a finite resource. That means services have to be careful about who they're giving to and ask a lot of questions. That can make people feel bad.”

Joselle says the people of Bridgewater wanted to create a service for their community that combined affordability with dignity.

“This was about the next level. The community didn't necessarily need emergency relief. But they did need a helping hand and access to good, affordable food, and they were happy to pay.

“They also wanted to create a social space, where people didn't have to face the stigma of going to emergency relief and all of these other compounding issues.”

Joselle and the community researched the food hub idea for nine months. In one survey they ran, 95% of people said they had felt stressed about not having enough food, and 93% had been short of money to buy food.

Then, with their concept mapped out, they secured a start-up grant to run a pilot, says Joselle. And when that proved the food hub could succeed, the community took over.

Giving choice and control

“They took it with both hands, ran with it and decided they were going to be incorporated. But it was theirs all along; we worked with community in such a way they knew they could do it themselves.

“I was chuffed about that. And it happened quickly because we'd picked exactly what they were passionate about. It's the beauty of working with community: they can be inventive and innovative.”

“It's not like a supermarket shop. They are basic items. But before, you might not have been able to afford meat because you had to buy all those basic things at supermarket prices. The idea from the start was to put more money in people's pockets so they could make choices.

“Just because people need food assistance doesn't mean they don't want to be active participants. They don't want to feel like second-class citizens. It’s about taking back a bit of control.“

Deliveries are unpacked ahead of the fortnightly food hub. Photo: supplied by Brighton Community Food Hub.

And while the idea for the hub, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, came from consultation with the First Nations community, it's now supporting the whole community.

Joselle says the key to lasting and sustainable change lies in activating communities. “When you find a small group of people passionate about an issue, they will bring in the other volunteers to help. And all of a sudden, you can achieve great things.

“They are focused primarily on feeding people, but they've also had a housing forum … The community think, ‘What can we what else can we do? What else can we build?’ … The food hub is the first rung. It doesn't end there … they can go out and achieve amazing things themselves.”

From small beginnings

Geoff Hull, president of the Food Hub, says it has quickly become an important part of the community. "We get that feedback all the time. It's a great success story.

"We're assisting between 600 and 700 people each fortnight, and we've had a 50% increase in people accessing our service since the start of this year. That's how difficult it is for people with the rising cost of living.

"People say, 'This is wonderful. I can afford my medication this week', or 'I can put a bit away for the back rent that needs to be paid', or 'I can buy things for the kids this week.''

Recently, the food hub was named a finalist in local government awards, while its volunteer team took out the Volunteer of the Year award. "Our volunteer base is around 30, and they are solid volunteers. They're there every single time ... It's pretty amazing the way this thing has taken off and the support it's got."

But Geoff says it would not have happened without Australian Red Cross. "The support has been invaluable.

"Red Cross played an absolutely vital role, the establishment, the foundations ... Red Cross gave it structure … we couldn't have done it without them."

An example of one of the hampers available at the food hub for $20. Photo: supplied by Brighton Community Food Hub.

The food hub is such a success it has already been replicated in another Tasmanian community, he says. "We've had lots of discussions with other communities about our model. It reminds me of the Paul Kelly song 'From Little Things Big Things Grow.'"

Though Geoff wishes it was a service his community did not need. "But that's not going happen for a long time. Particularly in this part of the country, wages are 20% lower than the mainland, and the cost of living is just as expensive; our rents are up through the roof."

Helping then stepping back

For Joselle, what she loves about her role is that she does the work and then steps away.

“I stay until things are sustainable. But ultimately, it's about local ownership right from that first meeting. That's where place-based programs are different; it's not done to people; it's done with them.

“These things might not have Australian Red Cross on the banner, but that’s what place-based programs are about. We don’t need to be at the forefront. I’m leading from behind … We get community in a space where they can do it themselves, and then we can look for the next space to fill.”

Now, she is working with the people of Bridgewater on a centre for local youth. ”There's been no youth worker or any action in that space in the community for a long time. We are working on a co-designed space with young people to provide support services. It would be the first ever in Bridgewater.”

Of course, she is still there to help the food hub team if they need support. “I have a strong relationship with them. I was the returning officer for their AGM. We don't lose our relationships. We build them. It’s quite lovely.”

For Joselle, the Brighton Community Food Hub shows what can be achieved when a community works together.