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Make a Difference food van expands mobile meals to meet increasing community need amid rental crisis

It’s a cool winter’s morning in the New South Wales coastal town of Port Macquarie and a group of locals have gathered to serve warm breakfasts and hot coffee to those in need or sleeping rough.

A volunteer-run mobile food van is meeting an increasing need in the community, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a shortage of affordable housing.

Pete Rutherford is among those enjoying breakfast.

“They keep us well fed and they are humorous, nice people, good company as well,” he said.

“I’m going into debt paying rent … mine’s just gone up $70 a week.”

Another local, Craig, is happy chatting to regulars at the van.

“Me and my dog ​​are homeless, so we come here just for a bit of connection and emotional support, and food, but mainly for connection,” he said.

Craig enjoys going to the food van for a meal and to connect with others.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

Increasing demand for those making a difference

The food van is run by the Mid North Coast not-for-profit charity, Make a Difference (MAD), which was formed in 2016 by Erin and Rob Denham.

“We started with a small committee of like-minded people who have a passion for helping others,” the service’s volunteer coordinator Karen Faichney said.

Two women cook bacon and eggs outside and serve a man.
Volunteers serve breakfast at the food van.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

Ms Faichney said the need for the service had steadily increased in recent years.

“We’ve seen a massive increase in demand, especially with the rental increases and lack of housing in the area,” she said.

“Currently we have six meal services during the week where we feed homeless and disadvantaged people in Wauchope, the Camden Haven and Port Macquarie.

“We have had a massive volunteer intake as well, we now have 62 volunteers as well, they are amazing.”

High demand for the service is expected to continue, with continued limited availability of affordable rental properties in the region.

The latest Real Estate Institute of NSW (REINSW) Vacancy Rate Survey results for June 2022 show residential vacancies rose slightly in some regional areas, but tightened further in others, including Coffs Harbor where there’s a 1.5 per cent vacancy rate.

A sense of community

An older woman serves coffee at the back of a food van.
Volunteers share conversations with patrons who use the mobile food and coffee service.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

Ms Faichney said providing meals was important, but the element of social connection was also vital.

“The volunteers have amazing meaningful conversations with people who may not speak to anyone else in the week, so it’s really special,” she said.

“We see regular people attend certain meal shifts and they are starting to form a community, where they can sit and have a meal and a chat and a laugh and that’s so heart-warming to see.”

John Hopkins also regularly visits the food van to help out and talk.

“It’s nice to get together and have breakfast and you get to have a chat… I help with a meal service too, it’s good,” he said.

A man wearing a warm top and beanie holds a cup of coffee, with a river in the background.
John Hopkins enjoys sharing a meal and helping out at the food van.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

Finding different ways to help

Ms Faichney said when it began, Make a Difference’s first project was to secure a mobile Orange Sky Laundry Van for the Mid North Coast region, a service which provides a regular laundry and shower service for those experiencing homelessness.

“We wanted to bring the Orange Sky Laundry van to Port Macquarie and we raised $110,000 to bring that van here, it was a recognized need, as homeless numbers were increasing,” she said.

A woman stands in front of a food van, smiling.
Karen Faichney says the charity is all about “locals supporting locals”.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

Further fundraising then allowed the service to buy the food van.

“We decked it out with a barista-style coffee machine and that was to give our friends on the street a treat, a nice coffee or a hot chocolate, or chai latte,” Ms Faichney said.

“But it was also to ensure the longevity of our charity by providing a revenue stream, so we use the coffee machine at markets and other fundraising events and that helps fund our meal shifts throughout the week.”

Support during natural disasters

Make a Difference has also assisted during natural disasters on the Mid North Coast, including after the 2019 bushfires and during major flooding in 2021.

Ms Faichney said it became evident the charity needed larger facilities and it had just acquired a larger food trailer.

A food trailer at a market venue.
A new food trailer has boosted the charity’s meal service and generates more revenue.(Supplied: Make a Difference)

“We successfully applied for a grant through the Newcastle Permanent Charitable Foundation to help fund a mobile food trailer, allowing for greater meal production,” she said.

The food trailer was eventually launched last month during the organization’s annual fundraiser, Ride the Wave Festival, where it was used commercially to help raise revenue.

Ms Faichney said it was heart-warming to see what could be achieved at a grassroots level.

“I think COVID has really brought people together in a smaller community, to help those who really need a bit of extra support,” she said.

A food van with a sign advertising 'free meal'.
Make a Difference offers free meals at locations throughout the Port Macquarie Hastings region.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)


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