Providing Culturally Appropriate Meals for Diverse Communities in Need

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Hundreds of volunteers from diverse communities unite in the kitchen to carry out Mental Health Foundation Australia’s meal distribution initiative.

With the demand for emergency food rising to record levels during the first wave of COVID-19, the need to provide meals has only increased during the second lockdown. ‘Foodbanks across Australia reported a 20% increase in the number of people seeking food relief,’ Mr Dave McNamara, CEO of Foodbank Victoria, said in a statement.

While this time of need and struggle has led to many initiatives of kindness and support from all over the community, with many organisations providing meals for the needy, The Mental Health Foundation Australia (MHFA) is carrying out its meal distribution initiative by uniting diverse communities in the kitchen.

G’day India speaks to Mr Vasan Srinivasan, MHFA Chairperson, about the organisation’s inspiring project.

On Sunday afternoon, the three industrial kitchens of Imperial College in Oakleigh are filled with people of many different ethnicities- South Africans, Indians, Japanese, Italians, Croatians, Malaysians and Afghans. Masked up and following social distancing requirements, they’ve come along with their aprons to dedicate their day to cooking culturally appropriate meals for diverse communities in need. Since the start of August, volunteers of many different nationalities have come together and prepared over 10,500 meals as part of the MHFA’s meal distribution initiative.

While the MHFA had distributed food during the first wave of COVID-19 at the end of March as well, responding especially to the need of overseas travellers who had to self-quarantine and could not go out to procure food or groceries, this time, their inspiration was different, and the need, far wider. Mr Vasan said that this time around, the idea of the initiative had started as a response to the difficulties faced by the residents of the public housing towers that were locked down in July.

‘They were provided with meals that were not appropriate as per their culture, such as non-halal, etc., which they couldn’t consume. As an organisation which is supported by almost 200 nationalities, with various multicultural communities involved, it wasn’t appropriate for us to watch when people were suffering.’

Compelled to help and provide food that was in line with the cultural habits of diverse communities in need, the MHFA drew upon their community and government connections, finding both people and organisations who came eagerly to their aid. With groceries being provided by various community groups, the preparation of meals is being coordinated by Tandoori Junction, assisted by Sri Ananda Bhavan and Saravana Bhavan (Indian Vegetarian restaurants), all of which send their chefs to cook once a week each.

Mr Bruce Wong, CEO of Foot Solutions, sponsored a refrigerated vehicle for delivery of food, the distribution of which the Department of Health and Human Services and the Salvation Army help with.

Mr Param Jaswal from Imperial College offered the use of his three commercial kitchens, and volunteers of different ethnicities began to pour in, with around 20 people helping in each of the kitchens, preparing around 3000 meals a week.

‘The community engagement is so heavy, and the volunteers are diverse from young to old. Often mothers who are leaving their family behind at home are coming down with their aprons to assist us in preparing culturally oriented meals for the communities that are struggling. They’re willing to come and spend their time and prepare these meals with love. The givers are happy, the deliverers are happy, and the people who get the food are happy. All our meals are nut-free, gluten-free and animal-product free, which means people don’t need to worry about what they’re eating and whether the food is kosher or halal or suitable for their cultural background or not, those issues are completely covered and they can close their eyes and eat,’ said Vasan.

With volunteers from diverse backgrounds coming together, there are always a variety of meals being prepared on the three days a week during which they cook. ‘While one kitchen is constantly operated by one of the three participating Indian vegetarian restaurants, with the other two kitchens we bring in the cultural connection with the community,’ Vasan stated. ‘Just yesterday we had one kitchen operated by two Japanese ladies, one Italian and two Croatians. They managed to cook 300 meals of Japanese-style vegetable fried rice. In the other kitchen around four to five young South African girls came down, we gave them help to cook and clean and they prepared around 300 meals of South African curry and rice. In the Indian kitchen we made around 600 meals of rice, lentils and kidney beans.’

Particularly thrilled to see more Indians coming forward to support the initiative, Vasan says that the organisation was inundated with calls from community groups, ‘we all believe in giving to people, especially the Indian community, because we believe that the biggest charity is a meal. We also support lots of international students on a daily basis, yesterday about 200 of the meals we delivered were to international students of different backgrounds.’

Speaking on how the propensity towards mental health issues has increased during the stage 4 lockdown, Vasan said ‘The pandemic has brought three generations to work under one roof – the grandparents, the parents who are working from home, and the kids who are studying from home. We’ve never seen anything like this before. We can’t go out, so the anxiety level is so high even just within the family, and anxiety leads to depression. All of us are going through difficult times. 1.3 million people have lost their jobs in this country, but we’re lucky to live here where we can get support from the government.’
Bringing various multicultural communities together and working to provide culturally appropriate meals to a wide range of people in need, The MHFA offers community education and support, and is the oldest mental health foundation in Australia. Having been established in 1930, it is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. While initially starting the initiative with the plan to deliver food for 30 days, the organisation is now thinking of extending it as long it is required.

In a time where anxiety rises in the minds of millions, it is initiatives like this, which remind us that compassion, generosity, and care for each other are also rising in our communities. For every instance of suffering, there are organisations like the MHFA which perceive the need of the hour and rush to action, along with hundreds of volunteers, to help, heal and give.

By Shivani Prabhu