Foodbank Pop-up Store: Free Groceries for International Students

Situated in the heart of Melbourne CBD, the Foodbank International Student Pop-up store is located between Melbourne Central and RMIT University. It’s pretty hard to miss, there is usually a line of international students waiting to get inside. The store was set up by the Study Mebourne with donated property from UEM Sunrise in a bid to provide food relief for international students who might be struggling due to the impacts of COVID-19. 

I visited the store on Wednesday to experience what the pop-up store has to offer to international students. Stepping into the store, I was greeted with smiles from staff and volunteers on-site who warmly welcomed students as they streamed into the store. I was handed a green reusable grocery bag, which they said I could take home. 

With various COVID-19 safety measures in place, students had to fill up a contactless signup form and use the hand sanitiser provided before entering. The pop-up store was decorated with social distancing arrows and markers to remind students to maintain a safe distance when in-store.

Now onto what you can obtain at this store. They provide a whole range of fresh produce such as fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other key staples like rice, coconut milk and pasta that have been identified as popular amongst international students. What really stood out to me was the different types of milk on the shelves! Apart from UHT milk, the food bank also provides soy options for students who might have different dietary considerations. 

In a bid to find out more, I spoke to the store manager, Declan Foott about how the pop-up store has been operating.

“75,000 kilos (of food) have been distributed from this store with 6,000 students coming through this store to receive food relief,” he shared.

The pop-up store currently has approximately 450-580 students visiting for food relief each day. Declan expressed the store’s target to reach at least 600 students whenever its doors are open. 

“Students can contribute too by volunteering with Foodbank, making financial donation and sharing content on social media to help the store gain awareness,” Declan added. 

He also said that they regularly post recipes using the ingredients they have inside on their social media channels such as WeChat. 

Through speaking to Declan, I learned that food provided at the store is selected based on what students prefer to cater to food that better suit the international palate. The team, for instance, have swapped out some less popular items like pears for Asian greens and eggplant which seemed more popular amongst students. 

“They have been very grateful and thankful for the food they receive and we are more than happy to be able to provide that for them. It’s been a joy to do this project,” he said. 

At the store, I met Judith, a regular volunteer with Foodbank Victoria. Judith was patient as she went from student to student who was waiting in line, explaining the in-store procedures and reminding them to fill up the contactless sign-in. 

“I enjoy interacting directly with people, having lots of conversations, and it is really good to talk to people and hear their stories, situations, where they are from,” she explained. 

“Some of them are very young, some are maybe 18 years old and here living alone through Covid-19,” she added.

As I was leaving the store, I also got the chance to have a quick chat with some students, Huy and Chi who came all the way from Sunshine. When Huy lost his event planning job to COVID-19, he decided to visit after hearing about the store through Facebook. It was also his first time visiting the store after the 5km travel restrictions had been lifted. 

When asked what caught their eye whilst in-store, Huy commented, “fresh vegetables are really expensive in Melbourne so it’s good that we can get it here.”

Despite the 30-minute long commute to the Foodbank, Huy and Chi shared their pleasant experience, pointing out the warm and cosy ambience as well as the supportive volunteers on-site. 

“We lost our jobs in lockdown so this is a way to help us for our everyday meals,” the Torrens University students expressed. 

As I bid goodbye to the fellow students and made my way home, I could not help but reflect on the people I have met today. It warms me to know that international students like myself are supported during these times and there are many people like Declan and the Foodbank team who would step forward and make this possible. 

The pop-up store is open from 10am to 2pm, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (excluding public holidays). You’ll find the store at 230 La Trobe Street, Melbourne. It is still ongoing so check it out and don’t forget to bring your student ID and shopping bag! 

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