Planetshakers food ministry serves over 1 million meals during COVID-19

COVID sparks 895 per cent increase in demand for social service

As things shut down in 2020 in response to COVID-19, Planetshakers Church in Melbourne ramped things up.

The Pentecostal megachurch had been running a food relief service out of its main site in Southbank for more than 10 years. In March 2020, they launched four additional emergency food relief sites in some of its other Melbourne campuses, in Pakenham, Lower Plenty, Ringwood and Geelong. The church spent more than $60,000 setting up the locations in response to what it believed would be an increased need.

A year after launching the new food services, the church says it has provided more than one million meals to Victorians in need.

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Pastor Neil Smith who leads Planetshakers, and is also CEO of its charitable arm, Empower Australia, says they saw an 895 per cent increase in demand for emergency food relief over that period.

According to Foodbank, Australia’s largest food relief organisation, three in ten Australians experienced food insecurity during the pandemic. Young people were hit hardest. From 2019 to 202, the number of people seeking weekly food relief doubled in NSW and ACT.

“As a response to the COVID-19 lockdowns, job losses and social restrictions, Empower experienced a significant increase in demand for our community support,” said Pastor Neil Smith, who spoke with Simon Smart and Tim Costello for the Centre for Public Christianity’s ‘Life and Faith’ podcast last year (just after the launch of their food initiative).

Before the pandemic, Smith said the Southbank food relief service served about 200 people, on average. By mid-April 2020, the number was almost 1300 across its five new sites. A year on, more than one million meals have been distributed.

“It’s less about the numbers …  it’s about the lives that we’ve been able to help.” – Neil Smith

Across the five locations, the church set up supermarket-style pantries. These allowed visitors to chose their own supplies from the donated fresh fruit, vegetables, non-perishable foods and everyday household items. For food donations, Empower Australia partnered with Foodbank Victoria, SecondBite, Fareshare, McCains and OzHarvest for food donations.

“I think it contributes to human dignity,” said Smith. “People feel like they can choose what is best for their family.”

International students have been regular visitors. They have rent and university fees to pay for but no jobs, as casual work in hospitality and retail were reduced significantly due to the pandemic.

According to The Age, more than 20 Victorian organisations offering food relief had to shut their doors due to a lack of volunteers, as people stayed home during lockdowns and ongoing restrictions. Charities that accepted food donations also received significantly less during 2020 than previous years.

Neil said Empower Australia has been able to keep its food services running with the help of about 50,000 volunteer hours.

“We’ve started connecting with people that we haven’t before,” said Smith. “It’s less about the numbers …  it’s about the lives that we’ve been able to help.”

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