Providing Food During Pandemic – Interview with Peter Pilt (CEO, Foodbank NT)

Image courtesy of Foodbank NT

The Foodbank Hunger Report makes for sobering reading as we tuck into our smashed avo breakfast and second chai latte, or rip into a chicken parmigiana and included pint of tap beer. That bar bill you’re stumping up for could put food into the mouths of many starving Australians who might not have the luxury of three square meals a day.

If you’ll crave an indulgence, the author spent several years in the mid 2010s when $10 could and did provide enough groceries to keep going for three days. Necessity is the mother of invention, and you might be amazed at the creative ways some people are forced to employ just to provide themselves with the most essential sustenance to keep alive.

“Foodbank is Australia’s largest food relief organisation, operating on a scale that makes it crucial to the work of the front line charities who are feeding vulnerable Australians. Foodbank provides more than 70% of the food rescued for food relief organisations nation-wide.” – What We Do, Foodbank website, https://www.foodbank.org.au/hunger-in-australia/what-we-do/

In late June 2020, I met with Peter Pilt at the Berrimah warehouse of Foodbank NT to find out more about their operations with special interest in their work during the pandemic of Covid19. No further preamble is necessary. Peter is one of the most eloquent, passionate, and driven individuals I’ve had the pleasure to interview, and the audio needed no editing:

Peter Pilt, CEO of Foodbank NT talks about their operations

Bill Q: Good morning from beautiful Berrimah in the Northern Territory.

Now, for anybody who might be listening in around the country, it’s the start of winter in Australia, and I’ve got to tell you it’s currently 29 degrees and feels like 31 degrees. So if you’re suffering in the cold, hunched around the fire, so sad for you.

But anyway that’s enough of that. I’m speaking with Peter Pilt, and Peter runs the Foodbank NT out here at Berrimah.

G’day Peter.

Peter Pilt: Hey, how’re you doing? And hi to everyone listening.

BQ: Tell us a bit about Foodbank NT.

PP: So, Foodbank NT is here to help the most vulnerable Territorians, particularly when it comes to hunger.

And we serve the equivalent of about 31,000 meals a month to remote schools, remote communities, urban schools and we have about 124 affiliated organisations that come here to the warehouse that will shop.

Places like Meals on Wheels, Mission Australia, and the Salvation Army.

They then take the food and use it, about 31,000 meals.

With Covid19, our demand has spiked and for April we served the equivalent of 53,000 meals of food.

What was a challenge about that was it emptied our warehouse, and because everybody was panic-buying, we weren’t able to get food up here because all the trucks that were coming up were all full. And so it basically emptied our warehouse, emptied our shelves, and was certainly a pretty big deal.

But right now, thankfully, our warehouse is now full. We have plenty of food, and we are absolutely just smashing it in terms of getting food out again to some of those vulnerable Territorians.

Image courtesy of Foodbank NT

BQ: So what’s your source? Where are you getting the food from? Is it donations, are you purchasing it? How does that happen?

PP: We do food rescue, so there’s seven Woolworths stores in the Darwin area, and nine Coles stores, and a couple of IGAs. We go around on a Monday and Thursday, we have trucks here and vans, and we go around and do food rescue.

So if there is food coming up to best before date, then Coles and Woolworths will put that out the back for us, and we’ll pick that up.

Other places: we got a whole stack of bottles of Coke from the hospital, again heading up to best before date. And so yeah, they’ll donate.

A lot of organisations around Darwin know that if they need to get rid of some food they can donate it to Foodbank, and then we’ll get it out as much as we can. We also buy food from Foodbank South Australia, so it comes up through the centre.

BQ: Tell me a little bit about that because I noticed there are Foodbanks around the country, and some of them might be NSW/ACT. Is there an affiliation between them all, or do you sort of stand alone?

PP: Look it’s a federation, so we all stand alone, but we work together. It’s kind of a little bit like the states of Australia.

BQ: Oh god! That bad?

PP: No, not that bad. No, we actually all work well together.

Foodbank Australia has a head office in Sydney, and they co-ordinate the federation, and we all work together well.

Again, through Covid19 we’ve all been Zoom-ing [live streaming via video on the internet] every week just updating each other.

It’s a great organisation, and they do an amazing amount, and it is an honour for me. I’m fairly new here at Foodbank NT; been here for about five and a half months, and it’s an honour to be part of a great organisation.

Image courtesy of Foodbank NT

BQ: Wow, you’ve sort of got the lucky door prize, didn’t you? You came up here how long before Covid?

PP: About six weeks. Moved up to Darwin, didn’t know anybody, and they closed everything down including the airports.

BQ: Welcome to the Northern Territory. If you want to go back to where you came from, you can’t.

PP: And the good thing is it is probably one of the safest places in the world. We haven’t had any community transmissions and no race riots.

BQ: Ah, hello to our friends in America.

Now tell me, just going back to sourcing the food. Are you in the market like if somebody is out there listening and thinks ooh we’ve got some extra food we could happily donate. Is that something?

PP: Look, we’ve actually just had last week our first panic buy donation., where somebody had gone out six weeks ago, bought a whole stack of rice and then realised they’re not going to use it.

So they’ve bought it in and said, “Hey look, you guys can have the rice”.

But look, honestly the more food we have the more people we can feed and whilst our warehouse is full at the moment, we are concerned about the cliff they’re talking about: the financial cliff at the end of September when all the payments stop, interest payments go back.

So we’re actually now starting to gear up to make sure that we have a very full warehouse for people at the end of September.

If they get into trouble we are able to assist.

The other group we are starting to invest more into are the working poor. Normally, to shop at Foodbank you need a health care card or a pension card, but at the moment we want to be generous. And so if people turn up to our Food For Life hubs and they’re hungry, we’ll feed them.

Image courtesy of Foodbank NT

BQ: Fantasitc, and tell us about those Food For Life hubs: how do people find out about those?

PP: If you go to Baptist Care NT, then you will find the addresses of the six Food For Life hubs that we run across Darwin. They run from Tuesday to Friday and members of the public can shop. We’re also looking, because at the moment at the warehouse you can’t shop here, members of the public can’t shop. You have to be an affiliated organisation.

But we are looking at opening up on a Saturday to members of the public to be able to come to the warehouse and shop.

BQ: Now, where do you see yourself? Are you going to stick around with this for a few years? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? Sounds like I’m advertising for a job, doesn’t it?

PP: I saw a meme the other day that said, “Nobody that answered the question in 2015: ‘Where do you see yourself in five years time?’ got it right”.

So it’s a 64 million dollar question. But look, my whole life I have served others, and this is the second charity I have been CEO of, and I love helping people.

We have expansion plans underway we’ve got some great strategic direction. And I really appreciate the support not only of Foodbank Australia, but Baptist Care down south and look, yeah five years’ time? I might be the Chief Minister.

Image courtesy of Foodbank NT

BQ: Stranger things have happened. Peter, thanks so much for talking to us today. I have one more question which is right out of left field: do you have a sports team and if so which one?

PP: Wow, that is left of field.

BQ: Ah, I’ve got him.

PP: I don’t really follow sport.

BQ: That’s an answer.

PP: So I’ll pick one, go the Maroons.

BQ: This interview is going nowhere that’s being trashed now.

Peter thanks so much for talking to us today about Foodbank NT.

Image courtesy of Foodbank NT

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