February 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Supermarket sweep

By Benjamin Law
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

It’s 4.20 am in Kingston, 30 minutes out of Brisbane, and already the place is a hive of human activity. In the darkness, people haul crates out of a huge delivery truck – the words “Tribe of Judah Care Services” printed on its side – and into a warehouse. A muscular Pacific Islander man reverses a packed forklift through the gate, when a bikie named Terry – tattoos, goatee, belly – rushes out to direct him. “Over here, Pete!” he hollers, gesturing like an airport tarmac guide.

In a few hours, 4000 to 5000 people from all over the Logan shire – an area that houses nearly 200 ethnic groups –will be lining up outside to receive bags of free groceries: 70 tonnes in total. The queue will be so long, it’ll stretch beyond the oval-sized car park and into the streets. Today is Free Food Friday, an event that the Tribe of Judah – an unlikely mélange of Christian church, Harley motorcycle gang and charity organisation – holds several times per year.

Terry Walker, also known as Pastor Terry, runs the operation. In a former life, he robbed banks, but that was before he found Jesus. “All I like doing now,” he says, “is helping people.” As for his modus operandi, Terry cites Ezekiel 47:12: “By the river on its bank shall grow every tree for food, whose leaf shall not wither, neither shall its fruit fail: it shall bring forth new fruit every month, because its waters issue out of the sanctuary.” In other words, everyone will be fed.

As the volunteers continue to set up pallets, Terry gives me a tour of the building. Years ago it was a bowling alley, before Terry bought it, gutted it out and transformed it into a church and a food warehouse. Everything you can imagine is stowed here in discrete compartments like the honeycomb of a beehive: potato chips, plastic cutlery, cereal, eye drops, tissues, sour cream, soda water, baked beans, fruit and vegetables. All materials are donated by local grocers, farmers and big corporations. The cave-like freezers out the back – worth $150,000 and donated by a supporter – hold $27,000 worth of frozen pies, pasties, gourmet cakes and puddings alone.

By 7.30 am, the queue has snaked out of the car park. Volunteers hand out flask-shaped bottles of water, imported from the US, called Liquid Salvation. (Its motto: “Pure Water for an Impure World”.) Everyone in the line, from hijab-wearing Hyam, 46, to pension-dependent sixty-somethings Margaret and Jenny, to tiny Tanzanian-born kids Samuel and Nzutu, tells me the same thing: Groceries are too expensive; that’s why we’re here.

In Australia average food prices have increased by more than 40% in the past ten years. The Rudd government’s doomed $4 million Grocery Choice cost-comparison website was designed to scare the big chains into discounting, only to be terminated in mid 2009 because of ineffectiveness. With “mystery baskets” of groceries compared in each region, Grocery Choice was less guide and more game show – and a sadistic one at that – where users spent more time guessing the brands of groceries than making informed decisions about food prices in their area. No one I spoke to queuing up for Free Food Friday had ever used it.

Over the past few days, Coles has donated 280 pallets of food and supplies to the Tribe of Judah’s cause. And Woolworths – which, according to Terry, throws out $40 million worth of food every year – approached him after seeing news footage of the last Free Food Friday. Now, both companies have their logos on the banners that line the gates to ensure the people know exactly who has provided their free bounty.

 There’s a bleak irony here: both Coles and Woolworths helped create the conditions that necessitate people queuing for free food in the first place. Australia’s grocery market is dominated by Woolworths’ 770 supermarkets (including Safeway) and Coles’s 740 stores (including Bi-Lo). Together, these two giants account for over 80% of market share. Choice magazine recently found that when competitors such as Aldi or Franklins entered the market, average grocery prices in the area decreased. Those same competitors are, however, often blocked from setting up new sites, because of private lease agreements between landlords and the big two: Coles and Woolworths. Drought and global economies are also factors, but the absence of proper competition in Australia has allowed grocery prices to soar.

At 7.30 am, I join the volunteers as they gather for prayer, before we all roll out together. Pastor Terry briefs us: each of us will be assigned a pallet, and each food item will be restricted. “If we say ‘one banana’, you give one banana,” he says. “Everyone’s going to get food. We agree today that somehow or another, we might be able to get the Gospel shown to those people in a nice, pleasant way – not a silly way. We don’t want no Christians being stupid. That is the worst possible thing for Christianity: being silly and crazy.”

Gates are opened. People are ushered in. We brace ourselves. Volunteers only let small groups in at a time and then set them on a pre-determined course between the pallets, as if they’re at Ikea. Somehow I end up manning a massive box of Visine eye drops that come in disposable dispensers. Apart from the elderly, everyone ignores me. It’s the potato chips, rice-puff cereal and bottles of guarana-filled soft drink that most people want. Feeling unpopular, I move on to handing out travel packs of tissues, which people adore. Women shove them into their handbags.

As the hot day wears on, the sky – completely void of clouds – looks like a smoky blue-grey bruise. People are sweating, and something smells like it’s burning, though that could just be our skin. Toddlers cry, squeal and lie on the concrete with their hands balled in distressed little fists. We’d offer them water, but we ran out of Liquid Salvation ages ago.

By the end of the day I’ve had several invitations to join different churches, all politely declined. The volunteers are pleased but exhausted, and we, too, leave with boxes full of stuff. In mine are bananas, potato chips, eyedrops and a 1.7 kilogram pumpkin, complete with dried maggots at the bottom, which I’ll wash off later. As the volunteers have said all day, “It’s still good.” Then, as I start the car, my partner calls and I realise we need toilet paper. We need eggs; we need broccoli. And on the way home, despite myself, I find myself stopping in at Coles.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.


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