In a coastal town 230 kilometres south of Sydney stands a small outdoor cupboard that's filled with basic grocery items including eggs, bread, milk and fresh produce.
"Take what you need, give what you can," is the motto plastered along the top of the wooden structure set up outside the local scout hall, designed for people to help themselves to food to feed their families.
The Little Free Food Pantry in Ulladulla was set up by local woman Coralie Smith and her mother Melissa, who were on a mission to reduce food waste and give back to their community as the cost of living continues to take hold.
Much of the food is donated by the local Coles store, which provides a range of baked items, meats and fresh produce daily. Woolworths also offers grocery items weekly, and it's topped up by generous locals, sometimes several times a day.
Local woman on one meal a day is finally 'eating more'
Local woman Michelle has been using the service for almost three months. Before then, she'd eat just one meal a day.
"I'm working three jobs because of the high interest rates and the cost of living," she told Yahoo News Australia. "When I collected my first hamper all I could do is cry".
The first time she was offered food she felt extremely "overwhelmed" but "now I'm definitely eating more, and am able to keep up with my mortgage and bills".
Increased grocery costs contributing to financial distress
Michelle is one of about 1200 people who follow the Little Free Food Pantry Facebook group where the organisers share updates and find people in need of help. At first, the Ulladulla local was hesitant saying "it's only me" and felt "there were lots of families that could need it more". But the organisers insisted, she claims, and so she accepted the help.
Food is the main non-housing expense driving increased inflation, the 2022 Foodbank Hunger Report showed, and the increased cost of grocery items is the top cause for households not getting enough to eat. So it's "amazing" what's being done, she said.
What food is available?
Pictures of the pantry show it stacked with a range of grocery items including fresh food, pantry items and sometimes toiletries. What's available changes each time it's stocked up, but often includes baked goods and produce that would otherwise be thrown out.
Recent offerings have included:
Bread, cinnamon doughnuts, fresh pastries and cheese and bacon rolls
Fresh fruit and vegetables including potatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, cleary, apples, oranges and more
Meat including steaks, chicken breast or thigh, sausages and pork belly
Other items include eggs, pasta, instant noodles and snack packets
Melissa, Coralie and their scout helpers also regularly put together food hampers offering them to any local people who need them.
Coles Ulladulla donates as part of its partnership with Secondbite — an organisation on a mission to end food waste and hunger. "I've been involved since February, but it started before that," store manager Lance said. Yahoo News has been unable to ascertain how long the free pantry has been running for.
"We donate roughly 10 banana boxes worth of stuff every day — stuff that's still edible but that we can't sell in-store", he said. An example might be veggies that are too ripe to sell but are still perfectly edible.
More than 17.7 million kilos of food donated
In the past 10 years, Coles has donated the equivalent of over 200 million meals to local charity partners and community food programs across Australia, including Ulladulla’s Free Food Pantry. "In the past 12 months, Coles has donated more than 17.7 million kilograms of unsold, edible food diverted from landfill, equivalent to 35 million meals to SecondBite," a spokesperson told Yahoo.
In June of this year, Foodbank — which is the largest hunger relief charity in Australia — received 128,000 calls for assistance — a "particularly bad month" according to Foodbank WA CEO Kate O'Hara who says it's "only getting worse".
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