Cootamundra Red Cross’ Bradon Lambert and CGRC Deputy Mayor Dennis Palmer. Photo: Christopher Tan.

What began as an idea over coffee between Cootamundra Red Cross (CRC) volunteers Helen Eccleston and Bradon Lambert has now flourished into reality.

Last Friday at CRC’s shop was the grand opening of the food bank after many months of lobbying for the need for it in Cootamundra.

On the opening day itself, there were more than 20 people registered to purchase these items.

Individuals needed to register with CRC to be able to purchase items from the food bank.

As suggested by Foodbank NSW, food items stocked and shelved in one of the cleared-out back rooms at CRC are each priced at significantly reduced and affordable amounts.

Can foods on the shelf. Photo: Christopher Tan.

It is a unique system itself for those most in need within our community, as a single $10 spent at the food bank allows them a selection of around 10-18 items such as grocery and household items.

Examples include 20 cent can foods, 50 cent shampoo and a coffee jar for $3 instead of the usual $10, to name a few.

Household items on the shelf. Photo: Christopher Tan.

Funds for food items purchased for the food bank are completely derived from cash sales of CRC through the sale of community-donated items.

Bradon Lambert has been involved with Cootamundra Red Cross for a number of years and has been both vocal and active for this initiative to go forward, ever since the idea was first brought up.

“Helen is a very determined woman. If she sets herself up a goal, she will get there,” Bradon said.

“I have been in a position previously where I was in need of food and an initiative like this in the area would’ve helped me a lot.It is a bit hard for people to swallow, to have to ask for help. Coming in here and getting many essential items for just $10 still gives them self-respect and dignity that they are paying for it, and I think that’s a big step for some people.”

An assortment of items available during the first week of the Foodbank. Photo: Christopher Tan.

One passer-by visitor that morning spoke to The Times about his experience and said the food bank will help many in the community realise that help is there if they want to reach out.

“Before I met my wife when I was 16, I did not have a very good home life. I slept on the streets, on mate’s couches and I did not know what I was going to eat each day,” he said.

“I tried to make my money last with whatever I had until I met my wife and we had kids and then I did better for myself.

“You don’t want to ask for help sometimes because you feel like you are being judged.

“But half-of-the-time for those that are in their situation, it’s not their fault. It’s just a situation that happens.

“With the food bank they will get the sense that they are not helpless, that they are contributing a little bit. But the reality is that they are getting a lot more which is going to get them a little bit further.”

Helen Eccleston and Cr Dennis Palmer. Photo: Christopher Tan.

The process for the food bank began last year when CRC shop coordinator and full-time volunteer Helen Eccleston was involved in talks with Member for Cootamundra Steph Cooke MP.

Ms Cooke suggested that Helen should pay a visit to Grenfell to have a look at their food bank setup.

Following Helen’s visit to the church hall in Grenfell with Bradon just before Christmas, she described it as an amazing “chock-a-block” setup of goodies.

That made Mrs Eccleston’s mind think, “If a small community like that can pull it off, what would it look like in Cootamundra?”

Then in February this year Helen applied CRC to be registered with Foodbank NSW.

Since acceptance into the program, CRC volunteers have been busy rearranging the shop which included emptying out one of the rooms.

The first order received from Foodbank NSW was said to be around 2,000 items of basic food and this included biscuits, long life milk, coffee, Vegemite, instant noodles, can food and long grain rice to name a few.

On-lookers that witnessed the delivery drop two Thursday’s ago could not believe their eyes with multiple pallets of food loaded and transported on the forklift and into the back of the shop.

Today at the shop there is a book at the front counter for customers to include suggestions on what they need and what they think is needed, in the food bank room.

CRC volunteer Helen Eccleston who works at the shop five days a week said she is hoping for it to be successful as time goes by.

“I hope that people will know they can come in here anytime and get what they need. It’s not just a food bank, but a place for people to come in, sit down and have a chat,” Mrs Eccleston said.

“What really pleases me is that I have people coming in and say they love the atmosphere in here and you know.. there is always laughter in this shop.

“I don’t have many volunteer staff here, but they are all happy people and that’s what it’s all about.”

Helen has been lending a helping hand in the community for many years now and said her theory for the food bank is that it is a “hands-up” approach rather than a “hand-out”.

“It’s a funny thing but you’ll just know the genuine from the non-genuine,” she said.

“People that rot the system will be bold, out at you, and you can just tell.”

Also in attendance last week was Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council Deputy Mayor Dennis Palmer.

During his speech prior to the official “ribbon-cutting” and tour of the food bank room, Cr Palmer said it was a great outcome for the community.

CGRC Cr Dennis Palmer reading out his speech at the opening. Photo: Christopher Tan.

“I am proud to be here today to congratulate our local Red Cross volunteers and their efforts to bring the food bank here, to Cootamundra,” Cr Palmer said.

“Not only should they be proud of their efforts but the Cootamundra community should be too.

“The volunteers are the essence of what rural towns have been built on for decades.”

During inspection of the room with Helen, Cr Palmer seemed impressed that with just $10 those in need are able to gather lots of essential food items.

In other news, the Cootamundra Ex-Services Club have graciously donated a fridge to help kickstart the initiative and this will be in place shortly.

With the support of a fridge will be the ability to stock perishable items.

“I am sure this is not the last thing you’ll be asking for,” Cootamundra Ex-Services Club President Michael Willis joked during his speech.

“We are very pleased to be part of your organisation, as what you’re doing is incredible and important.”

The food bank opening last week was also joined by Mick Reid and Trish Kelleher from Cootamundra Vinnies, Salvation Army’s Kate O’Brien, recently retired CGRC councillor Craig Stewart, Red Cross Zone 19 representative Noleen Hazel, Red Cross Wagga office Megan Naughton and CGRC media officer Maxine Imrie.

Red Cross Cootamundra is a not-for-profit organisation comprised of 12 passionate volunteers and is seeking more numbers to strengthen its work to help the community.

Interested individuals are encouraged to walk into the shop and have a chat with Helen or apply directly on the Red Cross’ website.

Cootamundra Red Cross food bank is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10am to 2pm.

Christopher Tan