While the traditional role of the Parliament is to make laws for the State, allow Members to represent the views and needs of their communities, and provide scrutiny of the Government through the Parliament and its Committees, the COVID-19 pandemic provided new avenues for the Parliament of New South Wales to reach out to local communities.
In particular, the partnership between the Parliamentary Catering team and OzHarvest, Australia’s leading food rescue organisation which provides charities with meals to help feed people in need, saw the New South Wales Parliament engaging with the community to a degree not achieved before.
In fact, this Parliament became one of OzHarvest’s largest contributors, with more than 178,000 meals provided for homeless and vulnerable members of the community since the partnership began in April 2020. It was a significant community engagement initiative and a collaborative effort from all those involved across the Parliament and OzHarvest.
The programme showcased just what Parliaments can do to work with and support their local communities.
Besides our traditional role of community representation and support, we believe it is also incumbent on all Parliamentarians to have a social conscience during times of difficulty and do what we can in our personal capacity to help the homeless and underprivileged.
Teaming up with OzHarvest to feed and sustain people was an important and effective way of doing so.
Located within Sydney’s historic centre, the Parliament of New South Wales is the oldest Parliament in Australia. Originally built as a hospital in 1816 and funded by the rum trade, the New South Wales Parliament House has evolved to accommodate the two democratically elected Houses of Parliament - the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council. As most of us know, it is also home to a renowned dining and restaurant team.
Since the early days of the colony, a catering service has been available to sustain Parliamentarians while they work, often late into the night. Many Members of Parliament travel great distances from their rural and regional electorates to attend Parliament.
Since those early times, Parliamentary Catering has hosted formal dinners and receptions for visiting dignitaries and special guests, including on two occasions, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Patron of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
More recently, the Parliament successfully opened up its dining venues to the public. Offerings include fine dining at the Strangers’ Restaurant, functions in seven unique event spaces, traditional high tea every Friday, and a public café for visitors to stop for a coffee or light lunch. The Parliamentary Catering team is made up of permanent, casual and agency staff who work together to deliver a high-quality experience across all Parliamentary food outlets.
Our partnership with OzHarvest during the pandemic came about in response to the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown. As New South Wales entered its first COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020, the New South Wales Parliament was closed to the general public and staff were required to work from home where their roles permitted, with no customers for the catering kitchen team to serve.
Led by Parliamentary Catering Senior Manager, Lee Kwiez and Executive Chef, Vanessa Harcourt, the team began to look for ways to engage the Parliament’s chefs in meaningful work. It was also important to ensure that the team’s valuable agency staff could remain employed, many on international visas, unable to get home for the duration of 2020.
There was also a desire to use available resources to support the vulnerable, and those in need, within the community. Members of Parliament, too, declared their support for such an initiative, with all parties putting politics aside to come together and help get people back on their feet. The then Presiding Officers, enthusiastically took steps to ensure the idea became a reality in April 2020.
Lee Kwiez said that when OzHarvest came on board, it was exciting on two fronts - supporting OzHarvest in its efforts to feed the ever-growing number of those in need as staff had time and equipment to help, and supporting some of the more impacted members of the catering kitchen team who were not eligible for relief payments but could now continue to earn a wage during lockdown.
The Victorian Parliament in Melbourne had commenced a similar initiative and were kind enough to provide us with details on logistics, funding and staffing.
Funding for the initiative was jointly provided by both the New South Wales Treasury and the New South Wales Department of Communities and Justice. The Parliament’s Financial Services Branch was instrumental in seeking budgetary support for this important program, with former Chief Financial Officer John Gregor personally advocating to his counterparts in Treasury.
The day-to-day work has been led by the Parliament’s Executive Chef, Vanessa Harcourt. She spent many hours liaising with OzHarvest to work out quantities required, food preparation, delivery and pick up arrangements, packaging, labelling, and so forth to ensure the meals provided by the Parliament were suitable for families with specific dietary requirements.
All meals cooked for OzHarvest were simple, wholesome and with high nutritional value. They were produced to the necessary food health and safety standards and adhered to religious and nutritional guidelines. Once the food was prepared, the catering kitchen team was responsible for packing, labelling and blast- chilling the meals. OzHarvest would then pick up, store, and distribute the food according to its programme.
The numbers epitomise their efforts. During lockdown, the team cooked and packaged up to 1,000 meals per day. Outside of the stay-at-home orders, up to 700 meals were provided on a non- sitting day and 500 on a sitting day.
As Sarah Flomersfeld, OzHarvest’s New South Wales Operations Lead said, the impact of COVID-19 had seen demand for food relief hit an all-time high. In the last 18 months, there had been an unprecedented growth in the number of people seeking food support, many for the first time. As a result, OzHarvest scaled up emergency food relief programmes, including the provision of individually portioned, nutritious cooked meals to support the most vulnerable in our community. The OzHarvest chef team and partners such as the New South Wales Parliament, have now delivered more than one million cooked meals to individuals and via over 100 charities across the state.
OzHarvest deserves high praise. It services a vast demographic comprising individuals and families, and as a result the meals prepared by the Parliament have been provided to over 100 agencies. For many recipients, these meals are their only source of food as they do not necessarily have the skills to cook, the money to purchase food, or the space and facilities to prepare a meal.
More than 30,000 cooked meals were provided to an agency servicing families, representing the largest group receiving OzHarvest’s services. The second biggest recipient was a charity with a mission to help men who had been on the street for most of their lives and were now in housing, without the skills to cook.
The meals were also of huge support to international students at the height of COVID-19, with OzHarvest sending more than 1,000 meals to their Waterloo market each week.
Executive Chef Vanessa Harcourt said she was thrilled to have been able to create great food for a great cause, describing it as comfort food for the soul, which helped to boost people's physical and mental wellbeing during a challenging time. She was also very grateful to have kept all the agency and casual staff employed. And they should all be proud, as we are, that every single meal produced made a huge difference to someone’s day.
The New South Wales Parliament also provided support and resources to citizens of New South Wales during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 2021 school holidays, the outreach team devised and delivered free, fun, and educational activities that brought the Parliament of New South Wales into the homes of families via Zoom, during an extended period of lockdown with parents unable to access usual forms of school holiday entertainment.
The success of these programmes, with the sessions filled to capacity, highlights another way Parliaments can reach out and engage with their community during challenging times and beyond.
The institution of Parliament has a vital role to play in providing support and leadership for the community. By establishing relationships with organisations such as OzHarvest, Parliaments are able to help serve the community outside of the important work done in the Chambers and Committees.
With lockdown ending in New South Wales, the Parliamentary Catering team has returned to its usual work providing food for Members, staff, functions, and visitors.
The Parliament is still exploring options to continue to provide much needed sustenance to those vulnerable citizens in the community, including possible longer-term relationships with important organisations such as OzHarvest.
The Parliament of New South Wales is open to new and exciting ways to work with local communities around the State, outside of its traditional legislative role and functions as a Parliament, particularly where it is supported by government funding.