Food and friendship for those in need
People experiencing hardship, homelessness or simply going through a rough patch receive a warm welcome, a hot meal and a cuppa from more than a few friendly faces in the City of Onkaparinga.
The doors open and life pours in. A couple of giggly boys eagerly recount their school days to mum and dad. An elderly lady’s face tells the story of a hundred difficult days. A woman holds a newborn whose eyes are brown and wide and seem to take in the activity around her with amusement. The smell of a freshly cooked meal is in the air — tonight it’s creamy bacon pasta followed by chocolate pudding, ice cream and strawberries. There are bursts of chatter and nods of greeting as the throng finds seats. Some are regulars, some might only attend tonight — but all are in need of a hearty meal and some kindness.
Welcome to Fred’s Van.
Fred’s Van is a volunteer-run service provided by the St. Vincent de Paul Society; colloquially known as Vinnies. Its purpose is to provide free meals and support for people experiencing hardship and disadvantage.
“It’s for people who are struggling,” explains principal volunteer Mary Dittmar who, with husband Bob, has been involved with Fred’s Van since 2002.
“They could be struggling because they’re unemployed, or they’re divorced or separated and can’t afford food. Food is the last item you buy after you pay for gas, electricity, water, everything like that.”
Of the 10 South Australian locations with a Fred’s Van service, two are within the Onkaparinga region. Fred’s Van operates from Wardli Youth Centre on McKinna Road in Christie Downs from 7pm on Wednesdays and Sundays. After the CBD-based Fred’s Van, this service is the state’s busiest, serving close to 4000 meals per year — and it’s where Mary and Bob volunteer. There’s also a service based at Aldinga Community Centre from 7pm on Fridays.
Fred’s Van is named after St. Vincent de Paul Society founder, the French academic and philanthropist Frédéric Ozanam, who in the 1830s began encouraging fellow students to join him in acts of service and generosity to support the poor.
It has operated in the Christies area since 1996, when catering was from a van parked at a local supermarket car park. It moved around over the years before finding a home at the council-run Wardli Youth Centre.
Volunteers use the commercial kitchen facilities to cook the meal — usually two courses, occasionally three. They prepare sandwiches for clients to take home and give away fruit, and bread and pastries donated by CJ’s Bakery. There’s friendly banter amidst the sounds of water bubbling on the stove and bacon and onion sizzling in the pan. It’s a happy production line.
Mary oversees the volunteer teams, creates the menus and coordinates the shopping. She’s also part of a cooking team rostered on about once a month. Coming from a big family, she is used to catering for a crowd, making a budget stretch as far as possible and turning inexpensive ingredients into hearty and filling meals with nutrition to boot.
“If you’re used to cooking for a big family, what’s 50?” Mary says. And Bob? “Bob is the understudy — he does the carrying!” she laughs.
It’s not just food the clients need though. According to Mary, it’s often the company. She loves sitting down with clients to have a chat. “There are some amazing stories,” Mary says.
“And I could be the only person who has spoken to them for the day.”
She remembers a very well-dressed woman who came in for the first time with her teenage son. The woman seemed completely lost and alone and was worried about taking too much. Mary found out her marriage had recently broken down and she had nothing — no money, no food. “I said to her, ‘you need a hug’, and gave her a hug,” Mary says. The woman was so overwhelmed and appreciative. “I sent her home with some sandwiches and extra groceries.” She never saw them again but often wonders and hopes they were able to turn things around.
The clients aren’t the only ones getting something out of the connections. “It feels like you’re doing something worthwhile,” Mary says. “It’s a really ‘feel-good’ feeling.”
Vinnies’ programs like Fred’s Van don’t receive government funding — they’re funded through Vinnies op-shops, the CEO sleepout and donations. The City of Onkaparinga supports Fred’s Van through subsidised rent of the Wardli Youth Centre, as well as free use of Aldinga Community Centre.
When the centre was renovated recently, Fred’s Van temporarily went back to its roots and provided meals outside from a barbecue supplied by the centre. It was sausages and onion thick and fast for a while there, Mary jokes, but the volunteers appreciated being able to continue serving clients throughout the works period, and it was great when the kitchen reopened for use.
“Council has been really good to us at the centre — if there are any issues they see to them immediately,” Mary says. “They’ve bent over backwards for us.”
New Fred’s Van volunteers are always welcome. To find out more, click here.
New clients are also always welcome. Simply arrive at your closest Fred’s Van service at dinner time (and make sure you’ve brought your appetite).
COMPASSION IN EVERY DISH
Mary Dittmar helps prepare dinner for people experiencing hardship; take-home sandwiches; Peter Sheerat, Tracy Harper and Helen Telford cook up a storm with other volunteers.