That time I launched my own food bank in Sydney

Joseph Merz

Like most Sydneysiders, I’m used to being approached for money when travelling through the streets. I’m used to seeing people curled up next to buildings in the CBD wrapped in sleeping bags… And every time I just assume these people need our help.

One morning, following an encounter like this, I decided I was going to spend a week doing whatever I could to help these people. So I began by contacting a few relief organisations to find out more about how it worked at their end and put together a list the things they were short on.

I must say I was surprised by the list. It was full of absolute sh*t food. Instant noodles, reconstituted juice boxes, chocolate bars. Oh well, I’ll try a few large manufacturers and see how it goes. I dialled…

“Hi, it’s Joseph Merz calling. I have a bit of a strange question, I’m starting a food bank to help out the homeless in Sydney, who would be best to speak to about that?”

The lady on the other end responded, “We already donate expired food to charities. So we can’t help you, sorry.”

“Expired food? What about the good stuff that isn’t expired?” But it was too late; she’d already hung up.

I tried another one, and another. The same response every time and nobody seemed to donate food before it’s Best Before date.

A little annoyed, I thought to myself if I’m going to do this for a week then I’m going to get the type of food I eat, healthy foods from quality manufacturers.

One of the first that came to mind was Preshafruit: cold pressed juices that use pressure in the ‘pasteurisation’ process instead of heat.

I picked up the phone to one of their BDMs. He said, “I’ll see what I can do, can I call you back later today when I’ve checked it out?” Great, sounded promising.

Carman’s Kitchen was another great brand, they also said they’d call me back.

I tried a few more and they were all going to ‘call back’. I began thinking, this isn’t as easy as it seemed. A few hours had passed since I had the idea and I decided to take a bit of a break. I wandered over the road to a local café and sat down for a drink.

I’d barely touched my drink when my mobile rang “You still want that Preshafruit?”

“Two full pallets? Yes please!”

My phone rang again, “50kg of muesli! Yes please!”

Over the next couple of days my phone kept ringing. More and more food was being donated. It was fantastic to see.

On the fourth day, people began offering to volunteer to help out and I started thinking that I should set this up permanently. I got a call from a food magazine saying they’d heard about us from one of the manufacturers and that they wanted to do a story and me to send a few photos.

I didn’t even have a logo! We quickly mocked-up something and had a couple of caps made. Also we sent stickers out to some of the manufacturers so they could clearly label products for us.

There was plenty of food and drink coming in but now there were logistics issues. Most of the warehouses were in Victoria. It would cost thousands to move that amount of food. Luckily I’d put a call in to someone at Toll a few days before, letting them know that this might be a problem for us and if they could help out in any way.

They got back to me just in time, and said they could pick up anything we needed in Victoria and deliver it at their Sydney depot at no cost. They would use trucks that weren’t full and would request the drivers go past the manufacturing plants before heading to NSW.

Wow, thanks Toll! So now I had thousands of dollars worth of food arriving in Sydney but still no way to distribute it.

I contacted a few other relief organisations and found one I liked the sound of. We worked out a date for delivery and I went in to see them.

There was barely room to fit the food because they had so much stored. They took me on a tour of their reserves and showed me how much more arrived daily. We talked a lot about the work they did. They asked about my motivations and I explained that I’d done it because I wanted to know I’d done something.

They were very grateful and worked out that in a few days we’d managed to feed a few thousand people. Before I left, one of them pitched a business idea to me, I told him it had already been done (quite well in fact) but I think this lead him to open up with me a little more. As I was leaving he said something that confirmed to me I shouldn’t pursue this any further.

He turned and said “You should know there are more people in Australia wanting to help the homeless than there are homeless.”

I probably wouldn’t have believed him if it hadn’t been for the events of the previous few days, or seeing the copious amounts of food arriving at just one Sydney facility, or for the Ozharvest vans lined up outside.

I smiled, as I knew this was the end of the road for my food bank effort.

I’ve learnt a lot more about homelessness in Sydney since then, and there really is plenty of help available for those who want it.


2 Comments

  • Paul

    Curious as to what the business idea was related to homelessness. I’m doing a project to help homelessness in Sydney too.

    • Joseph Merz

      Hi Paul. I’m not sure what you mean by “what the business idea was related to homelessness”? Can you clarify and I will do my best to answer for you 😀

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