27 May 2020

Community groups hope for better future after Covid-19

From Checkpoint, 6:02 pm on 27 May 2020

New Zealand's response to the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted a range of inequities across Aotearoa, with access to food perhaps the most noticeable.

As we slowly return to our new normal, community organisations which have been grappling with food and housing shortages say they do not want things to go back to how they were.

More than 16,000 food parcels have been distributed by Auckland Council's emergency response teams. That is in addition to the parcels being handed out by marae, food banks and other community organisations.

Those on the frontlines say food insecurity is nothing new, but the Covid-19 lockdown has highlighted problems that need dealing with.

The Auckland Emergency Management Centre is usually used during floods, fires or other natural disasters.

But for the past two months it has been used to take calls from thousands of people facing another type of crisis - hunger.

"We've supported just over 16,000 households, we've had over 34,000 calls in total. Many of those calls have been information, referral on to another agency, a local community. And we've supported just over 16,000 households directly with food," Auckland Emergency Management welfare manager Greg Morgan said.

Morgan's team has been supplying food parcels through Spark Arena, making calls to elderly households and supplying food to community organisations.

Not everyone who calls needs food, but many do, he said.

"People are doing it tough and all of the community organisations that have been active in supporting people realise that we've been in a response mode, and that giving people a food box is a way to get them through difficult circumstances.

"People's hard times are going to continue for many months, so the community partners are now starting to think 'what is a sustainable approach, a whānau-centred approach where there are more wraparound services, and it's not just the response of a food package?'"

At the emergency centre there is a dashboard showing how many calls have come in, with a map showing where they are coming from. The brighter the red, the more calls there have been from that area.

Manukau is notably brighter than anywhere else.

Moran said many community organisations are still seeing extraordinary need.

"Many of them say that the demand continues and they can see that it's only going to increase over the coming months because of the economic and social impact of Covid-19. So overall the demand continues and the phase we're in now is planning the transition for the support for communities in the coming months."

One of the front line agencies seeing that need every day is the Manukau Urban Māori Authority.

"We always knew that it wasn't so much the virus that was going to impact on our community but the fallout. The fallout is about loss of jobs, it's about understanding – the impoverished – the footprint just gets bigger," the authority's cultural manager Bernie O'Donnell told Checkpoint.

"Understanding that and trying to work with our people so they can get the basic necessities is our priority.

"Then we have to look at how do we lift our game, so this kind of need isn't as big as it is now."

O'Donnell is at Ngā Whare Waatea marae, where whānau can collect the food they need.

"They come here because they're hungry and don't have food. They weren't coming here just for the Covid virus, because living with life-threatening illnesses is nothing new to our communities, when they have to live with heart disease and diabetes."

When the service was first set up, so many people came that they were being turned away.

Now there is a smooth-running operation in place to keep people safely distanced at all times.

O'Donnell said Covid-19 has put a spotlight on the plight of many Manukau families

"Unfortunately what we see in the pandemic in terms of the need for help and assistance for our communities is the norm, and that's something we have to change as an organisation."

The struggle to get food on the table is affecting thousands of households across the country. About 36,688 emergency food grants were handed out in the week to 15 May. Families are grateful for the help on offer.

One woman at Ngā Whare Waatea marae told Checkpoint the food will keep her family going for about two weeks.

O'Donnell said while there are challenges for the Manukau community, there are plenty of strengths too

"This situation, although it's been our norm, should not be what defines us as a community. We're better than this. We have dreams and aspirations, if we just are armed with the tools for us to progress collectively."