Life

In a community centre in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner west, thousands of food hampers are being packed for people impoverished by the Covid-19 lockdown. Each day come more calls for help, and the response grows more elaborate.

By Mark Mordue.

Sydney food charity builds lockdown ‘war map’

Volunteers organising food hampers in the Addi Road Food Relief Hub.
Credit: Matthew Abbott

There’s a map of the city being drawn on the earth at our feet. Rosanna Barbero uses a stick to carve what she calls “corridors” across the ground. Then she places stones in key locations.

East, west, south, then Sydney’s inner city. Barbero is between excited and concerned, hoping I can see the point of her urgent cartography. She gets down on her hands and knees to make it clearer.

As the chief executive of Addison Road Community Organisation, and the force behind its Addi Road Food Relief Hub, she is trying to give flow and shape to what she describes as “keeping three weeks ahead of what is happening during this pandemic as we get stricter and stricter lockdowns”.

People walk past in Marrickville, telling us news is just breaking that a curfew from 9pm to 5am will start tonight in the red zones of Sydney’s south-west. Soon we will have to wear masks wherever we go, whether inside or out in the open.

It’s not a surprise. Barbero has been picking up signals from Addi Road’s team of volunteer drivers, as well as the civil society groups, police and the Australian Defence Force, who are distributing its hampers.

Eight weeks into the New South Wales Delta lockdown, Addi Road is now working with five different area commands. It is also combining forces with local government, notably Inner West Council and Randwick City Council. The latter have learnt from Addi Road’s emergency food hamper model, quickly setting up a hub of their own from which to distribute hampers to people in need.

One idea sparks another. The notion of an interweaving alliance of food distribution hubs and civil society groups working in partnership with local authorities is something Barbero thinks Addi Road is helping bring into being. She dusts the dirt off her knees and hands and decides I need a clearer picture.

“Have you seen my map at the office?” she asks.

I’m ready for something out of Winston Churchill’s war room, but the map is an itty-bitty thing on a large sheet of kindergarten cardboard. “A big military-type map is being bought for me,” she says, “along with loads more pins and coloured cotton.”

The pins and string will depict the supply lines and food hubs she is helping establish with others. The spokes being drawn are ones of need, as more and more of the city slides into financial hardship.

Addi Road will serve as the central hub, the main supplier where the food hampers are made. Adapting to demand and practical needs, it also supplies culturally appropriate hampers for Middle Eastern and Asian families and Elders.

I work here part-time doing media but rarely get to see the full scale of it. On the ground, there are six full-time staff – including Barbero – running the entire emergency operation.

“Just under 300 people volunteer every week,” she says. “They are the backbone. Without them we would be nothing. It’s not just the hampers they make, it’s the drivers with their own vehicles, and the two food pantries we also operate in Marrickville and Camperdown. And the ways that the volunteers work with their own communities to keep us in touch with what is happening.

“We have been averaging just under a 1000 hampers a week since the lockdowns began. Last week we made and delivered over 1200 hampers. Based on phone calls and requests, we know that will increase in the next fortnight to well over 2000 hampers a week.”

These increases are not something Addi Road can meet on its own. The additional food hub created by Randwick council is just the start. Lighthouse Community Support in Norwest and the Greater Western Sydney Giants AFL team in Lakemba have started working with Addi Road. “Remarkable human beings,” Barbero says, like it’s an essential observation. The GWS Giants are looking into using their Homebush stadium as another food relief hub, to receive and distribute Addi Road hampers. “I was talking to them this morning and they’ve got 30 people who have put their hands up to deliver them. That can give us further reach into Blacktown, Pendle Hill, Penrith…”

Leaning over a large round table at the centre of the office, Barbero grabs a ruler to emphasise what she means. She points to the hubs she wants to see fully formed and working together. “Here, here and here,” she says, tapping her tiny map. “To me that’s a beautiful geometry.”

“And each depository develops its own distribution. It’s perfect in my head. Each hub has to create their own civilian army – which they do have. The south-west is already totally mobilised. And the gaps that occur, we can fill with the police and the ADF who we are working with now.”

The different-coloured cotton on the map, what does it actually mean? “The blue cord represents the corridors of distribution of the hampers between the main food hubs. Each hub then develops its corridors of distributing to people that need it. They’re all strategically placed to most efficiently reach their communities. Those lines are arterial, the main spokes off which the actual deliveries will be made.”

A phone call comes through. A community police team we are working with is rounding off the day and reporting in. They operate in plain clothes and from an unmarked van. They’ve just delivered food to a family with five children, all of whom are Covid-positive. The police tell people who they are once a delivery is made, letting them know there is nothing to be frightened of.

The team says they need a lot more baby formula. Nappies. There are quite a few young mothers on their own who really need help. For now, they’ve done what they can. “The van is running out of gas. We gotta head back.”

Barbero says she can sort more baby formula for them. Monday morning pick-up, it will be there. “Love you. Love you,” they say, two deep-voiced men, their words echoing in a noisy van somewhere on a road in the west. “Thanks.”

It’s Friday afternoon and what can be done has been done. It’s not enough. There is still much to do. Staying three weeks ahead of the pandemic is no easy thing. But step by step, the plan is coming together.

“Last night we had another 124 homes to add to what I wrote here,” Barbero says, the new numbers marked in Texta above the small map stuck on white cardboard. “So it’s nearer 800 homes now in just our area that we directly supply. Then there is all the work our partners are doing around here, too.”

Over the weekend, she will get an email from Corey Tutt of Deadly Science requesting food hampers for Gilgandra, Goodooga and Walgett, eight hours’ drive away in northern New South Wales. “My people are desperate and battling Covid-19 … In Gilgandra, 40 families have missed out on food drops. If we could help them it would mean the world to me and the community.”

Barbero does not want the Addi Road Food Relief Hub or the volunteers packing hampers and doing deliveries from their own cars to collapse under the growing pressure. She does not want the stricter lockdowns to strangle the food supply lines stretching out from Addi Road. She’s got the plan here; hubs are being sorted; more alliances and friendships are being forged.

Her invisible city trembles on coloured cotton as her iPhone vibrates with new messages and needs. “Three weeks ahead. It’s how we need to think and plan,” she says. “Wait ’til I get my big map.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "Map for an invisible city".

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Mark Mordue is a writer, poet and journalist. His latest book is Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave.