Now open: free Melbourne supermarket for international students

Darren Lee & Dave McNamara (CEO, Foodbank)

For Melbourne’s international students experiencing hardship, a free supermarket is helping them get by.

Originally from Malaysia, 19-year-old Darren Lee touched down in 2015 to begin a Bachelor of Biomedicine at The University of Melbourne.

For him, the choice to study in Victoria was a no brainer: “Melbourne was voted as the most liveable city and The University of Melbourne was one of the most prestigious universities in Australia.”

He rented an apartment in Melbourne’s CBD and promptly fell hard for the city: its culture, its layout, its people.

Life was good. And getting better.

Image of an A - frame sign which says - Welcome to the Foodback International Student Pop Up StoreUndergraduate degree complete, Darren landed a one-year research assistant role in 2020 in his Honours year at a Melbourne University laboratory, enabling him to be self-sufficient.

Until coronavirus (COVID-19) took hold in March, that is, and his hours at the lab were cut back.

With no access to Australian Government financial support such as JobKeeper or Jobseeker and unable to fly home, for the first time in his life Darren worried about losing his job and wondered how he was going to be able to get by in the longer term.

Then a Victorian Government sponsored pop-up supermarket caught his eye. Operated by Foodbank Victoria, the site at 230 La Trobe Street was gifted by property developer UEM Sunrise and fitted out by Coles.

“I heard about it through Study Melbourne’s Facebook group,” Darren says, “and I’ve been going about once a week.”

Launched in November and running until at least the end of the year, the pop-up only requires a student card and a BYO shopping bag to access free groceries.

It’s being supported through Study Melbourne which provides international students with free wellbeing and legal services, social connections and building employability skills.

The international education sector is a key part of Victoria’s economy, in 2019 contributing over $13 billion in export revenue and supporting 79,000 local jobs. International education brings other benefits to Victoria like the attraction and retention of skilled international talent, the development of trade and investment connections through alumni, and adding to our vibrant multicultural society. Both students and the sector have been significantly impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

There are currently around 120,000 international students from over 100 different countries in Victoria, down from roughly 250,000 in 2019 due to travel restrictions. Since March this year the Victorian Government has supported international students through the $45 million International Student Emergency Relief Fund, a $50 million Emergency Hardship Support Program, a wide range of free services through the Study Melbourne Student Centre, and support for programs like the Foodbank Pop-Up.

Student shopping for groceries at the Foodbank pop up storeAbout 500 students attend the pop-up food store each day, representing 65 different nationalities and 194 education providers.

Over 4000 students have shopped there so far, which is not surprising since a massive 65% of students surveyed by Foodbank Australia have lost their casual or part-time work due to the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 crisis has affected everyone, but international students have been hit particularly hard,” says Foodbank Victoria CEO, Dave McNamara. “Many of them support themselves by working within industries that have been completely shut down, such as hospitality and cleaning services. Effectively they are trapped here with no way to support themselves as they normally would. Foodbank Victoria recognises that the international student community is critical to the vibrancy and economic success of our CBD.

“There’s a great need to continue a service such as this until these students can be back on their feet. One of the key messages we keep hearing from the students is how much they enjoy the fun atmosphere, the incredible choices on offer and the dignity of being able to select culturally appropriate foods they can then prepare across the week.”

Darren agrees. “There are many great initiatives out there by other organisations that provide care packs or free food for international students, but they may not be culturally inclusive,” he ventures. “For example, I have Muslim friends from Malaysia who couldn’t benefit from free food provided by some Malaysian restaurants here as they’re not certified as halal. But this initiative allows students of all different backgrounds to select their groceries of choice.”

To maximise participation, culturally diverse fruits and vegetables have been a big hit, as has fresh bread. Dairy products such as yoghurt and dips and cheese are also flying out the door and big movers in staples are rice and naturally, noodles: that ever-present student pantry essential!

“Most of my student friends are unaware of this amazing initiative despite living in the city,” Darren adds, “but after sharing the news on my social media, we plan on visiting the store together soon.”

He considers himself one of the lucky ones.

“As a student still blessed with a casual job, I wouldn’t stand in line for free cooked food by charities as they usually cater for students in dire need of assistance. Conversely, this pop-up caters to all international students regardless of employment status. I feel supported, knowing there’s an option of free groceries when needed. That gives peace of mind.”

Foodbank International Student pop-up store

The Foodbank pop-up store is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10am to 2pm, until at least the end of the year. Find out more on the Foodbank website.