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The roadside cupboard fighting food insecurity and inspiring kindness

How Rachael Smith and Pantry4ThePeople inspired the Bayside community to build a lifeline for struggling families.

The rising cost of living has become a harsh reality for people all across the country. More people are skipping meals, going without prescribed medications, and struggling to keep the lights on.

With many families accessing support for the first time, community initiatives are working hard to help people get through periods of hardship.

One of those projects is the iconic Pantry4ThePeople in Botany, now in its third year.

From distraction to passion project

In December 2020, mother-of-two Rachael Smith was looking for a way to distract herself from lockdown life. She stumbled upon a community initiative in Newtown on social media and began donating items from her family pantry. But she wanted to do more.

That's when she had an idea: why not set up a roadside cupboard in her own area, where people could donate food and those in need could take it for free? "It didn't start with a business plan. It was more to get my mind away from the drama that was COVID," Rachael told the Bayside Beacon.

And so, Pantry4ThePeople was born. Initially, it started with an old cupboard from a friend that was bolted down on the commercial premises at 1555 Botany Road. But it quickly grew, and now it has been operating for over two years, helping people experiencing food insecurity in the community.

"I didn't ask for any permission when I put it there," Rachael admits. "We just made sure that it was bolted to the fence so that it can't fall over. And made sure that the doors hook back so that they're not encroaching on council property." It turned out the owners were more than happy to have it there.

The pantry in the early days. Image: Supplied

A community of givers

Pantry4ThePeople may have started as a simple roadside cupboard, but it has since become a symbol of community spirit and generosity. As Rachael started to post about the pantry on social media, the support from locals poured in. "When I started to post on social media on the [Facebook] community page, and then I set up its own Instagram page, it just went nuts," Rachael says.

The community has rallied behind the initiative, with generous donations pouring in from all corners. Many in the pantry itself, or delivered to Rachael’s home nearby. The pantry started by stocking non-perishable food and toiletries, but now Rachael encourages the donation of fresh fruits and vegetables that don't require refrigeration. "There are several local people that have amazing gardens, and then they grow produce and put it in the pantry," she says.

The support for Pantry4ThePeople has extended beyond individual donations. Local businesses have also stepped up to keep the pantry stocked with food and other resources. For example, Son of a Baker, which is right next door, puts pastries in the pantry every afternoon.

Other businesses like Bakers Delight Eastgardens, Mascot Charcoal Chickens, Three Blind Mice in Mascot, Two Fives Cafe in Rosebery, and Bay Bakehouse Maroubra have become regular contributors, while celebrity chef Manu Feildel and his wife Clarissa have also lent their support by donating surplus food from their nearby event space and kitchen.

"These [are] businesses that are not big corporations...that have got overheads. They are generous," Rachael notes.

Changing the conversation around food insecurity

As Pantry4ThePeople gained momentum and the community rallied behind it, Rachael realised that she could use her platform for even more good. "I was like, well, what do we need to do? We need to teach our next generation about giving and kindness, with no judgement. And that's a huge thing. It's the judgement part of it," she says.

Rachael now goes into schools to speak about kindness and giving, spreading the message of Pantry4ThePeople to the next generation. Many preschools in the local area have even set up their own pantries as part of their play spaces. "They will have a pantry that the kids go to in the morning and open it up and put in some boxes. They count and they do colours and shapes," Rachael explains. "It all becomes this amazing learning tool for them."

One of the key lessons Rachael teaches the kids is that generosity doesn't always have to be monetary. "It can be telling your friend that they've got a really cute t-shirt... or it can be saying you were really good at kicking the ball in our game today."

For high school students, Rachael's message takes on a different tone. She discusses some of the deeper issues that can lead to food insecurity, like addiction, crime, and relationship breakdowns. "For teenagers, I can change the conversation. And that will go into choices that you make as a teenager, and what path you're going to go down," she notes.

Big corporates chipping in

One child's actions can make a big impact. After hearing Rachael's message at school, a student went home and shared the story with her mum. The mum, who happened to work at Kellogg’s, took it upon herself to support Rachael and her initiative.

It wasn't long before Rachael received a phone call from Kellogg’s. They asked how they could help, and Rachael's answer was simple: "I said I need a new pantry." The old cupboard was looking tired after being exposed to the weather for 18 months. Kellogg's went all out with a purpose-built, rain-proof cupboard that could be there for years to come.

"They did a promo video, which was incredible because it went out on all of their socials," Rachael recalls.

Kellogg's commitment to Pantry4ThePeople didn't stop there. They pledged to give 150 boxes of breakfast cereal every month for at least 12 months.

Recently, the pantry received a facelift from a local artist, giving it a vibrant new look that reflects the energy and spirit of Pantry4ThePeople. Rachael was thrilled with the result: "It is fresh, new, bright, fun and has been given yet again a new look to keep it in the spotlight."

More than just food

From its humble beginnings as a simple roadside cupboard, Pantry4ThePeople has evolved into what seems like a full-on logistical operation, involving the picking up and sorting of donations, stocking pantries, packing grocery boxes, and delivering to families all over the area. The whole thing is completely voluntary and does not have any long-term funding arrangements.

“It's a labour of love,” says Rachael, who never imagined the initiative would grow to this extent. “I didn't envisage it would get to this point. I never envisaged I would need a calendar to run my week. My hallway looks like a Kellogg's factory.”

Despite the initiative's growth, Rachael remains committed to its community-driven spirit. Pantry4ThePeople has not registered as an official non-profit organisation, avoiding all the paperwork and bureaucracy that comes with it. “This belongs to the community, and how we look after it as a community says something about the people that we are here. It has never been vandalised.”

While Rachael is quick to deflect any praise, she has received formal recognition as the Westfield Eastgardens Local Hero in 2021 and the Bayside Citizen of the Year in 2022. “Winning the Westfield Local Hero put me in front of groups of people, ‘powers that be’ as such, that I could never have imagined,” she says.

Through the Westfield Local Hero events, Rachael had the opportunity to meet Renuka Fernando. Renuka is the co-founder of the Botany-based charity ReLove, which supports people experiencing homelessness, whether it’s women and children escaping domestic violence or men and women coming out of incarceration. They provide good-quality rescued furniture and household items at no cost.

Rachael and Renuka teamed up to put a pantry in ReLove's Botany warehouse. “So that when Ren and her team are delivering a whole truckload of amazing furniture, they can deliver a week's worth of groceries too,” Rachael explains.

For Rachael, the biggest rewards come from having conversations with people. “At the end of the day, I have realised that so much of it is not about the food. It's about turning up.”

She especially loves when a story comes full circle. One woman, who escaped a domestic violence situation with her child, relied on help from the pantry for a while. More recently, the woman secured a job and has donated items to the pantry, completing a cycle of giving and receiving.

More to be done

Originally inspired by the Newtown Blessing Box, Rachael hopes that others will continue the movement in their own suburbs.

“My hope going forward is that people see it and are inspired by it. And that's why I'm very active on social media.”

“I hope that people are inspired by whatever they see, and whatever I write, and they go and open it in their own community.”

The Pantry4ThePeople is located at 1555 Botany Road, Botany. It’s open 24/7 to take what you need or give what you can. Follow on Instagram @pantry4thepeople_sydney

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