The afternoon pressed down on us, hot and thick. Rain threatened, then came, falling in fat, warm drops on forklift drivers and rubbish collectors and scavengers and organic wine makers and bargain hunters and stallholders and us, the five rescuers.
We rescuers wore hi-viz vests that said “Second Bite: food for people in need”. A half eaten apple hovered next to the Second. I got my trolley and headed north, a fellow volunteer by my side.
SecondBite salvages surplus fresh food – fruit, veges, meat and bread – from Australian markets and supermarkets and then redistributes it to people who don’t have enough to eat.
I have been volunteering for them since May. I started off doing a weekly pick up and delivery on Monday mornings. I would drive over to their warehouse in Kensington, say hi to Emily (the volunteer coordinator), push through the cool store door, put on the scungry hi-viz vest and look for Amber.
Amber was in charge of deliveries. She also supervised the people who picked through the food and chucked out the stuff that was no good. Amber would put the food for the Flemington high-rise on a trolley and someone else would help me load it into my car.
The lead up to my first delivery was terrifying. I had done plenty of worrying about how it would all work. The picture in my head was of a UN food program, those TV images in which a couple of volunteers are mobbed by hundreds of starving people, except in this new disaster scenario I replaced the aid worker and the Subaru replaced the military-style vehicle loaded up with bags of rice. How would I decide who would get the food? God, what was I doing volunteering for this nightmare?
Not only was this picture ludicrous but it also demonstrated my wonderful imagination, an imagination so strong it can manufacture anxiety from almost any situation.
At Flemington, as elsewhere, there is a system for distributing the food. Faith ran the program at the high rise and each Monday about half a dozen people would be waiting for me. The first week I tried to carry a box of apples in myself but a tiny woman with burning brown eyes soon wrestled it from my arms.
“Gosh, you’re strong,” I said.
“Yes. I Hercules,” she said, smiling.
Too bloody true! I let the residents carry the boxes of food after that. It was a good deal for everyone. Each week the food was different. One time, there were lots of purple cauliflowers and strawberries. Other weeks it would be tomatoes, spinach, eggplant, broccoli, mandarines.
I took my kids along with me in the school holidays. Amber gave them a box of strawberries to share. I swallowed my lecture on gratitude and let them enjoy the fruit.
When I couldn’t manage the weekly drop-off I switched to once a month on a Sunday afternoon at the Vic market. Last Sunday was my third shot and the usual gang of student dieticians and radiant residents of the University of Melbourne halls of residence were absent. There was just the driver and four volunteers, two young and two middle-aged.
I teamed up with another woman, a veteran SecondBiter. We swapped stories about our food delivery work. We hauled two boxes of cantalopes onto the trolley. The stallholder waved us towards some peaches and miniature cucumbers.
“So, are you semi-retired?” the woman asked me.
“What!” I said. “No. I am not semi-retired. I am 45. How old do you think I am?”
“Oh, you’re the same age as me,” she said. She was shocked, almost shaking her head amazement.
Only a few years ago, a colleague had asked me if I was pregnant again. No! A few years before that, when my youngest daughter was a newborn, an old duck sitting next to me at the Pier Street pharmacy peered down at my sleeping child and asked: “Is that your granddaughter?” No! And now, it appeared, I was almost ready for the pension.
We unloaded the trolley and I took off on my own. I worked my arse off for an hour and a half, hauling boxes of Dutch carrots, artichokes, cucumbers, apples, kiwis, celery, kale, spuds, broad beans, coriander, broccoli, mangoes and tomatoes.
Rain and sweat dripped off me. My hands were sticky with juice from burst capsicums and my back was sore but I felt so satisfied. We filled a whole truck with food, the five of us, and I had to go back to the bottom aisle and tell the generous stallholders that we couldn’t take any more.
Not bad for a semi-retiree!