Food for the soul
Invercargill soup kitchens are facing surging demand as more line up for a free meal. Reporter Collette Devlin visited the city's six kitchens to talk with the unseen community.
It's Steve's* first visit to a soup kitchen. He has brought his wife and three children.
Six months ago he was a chef - a man providing for his family. Then he was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease.
Soon he will be down 10 per cent of his vision. He can't work any more so depends on a benefit and the help of others.
Tonight he has heard about five other soup kitchens in Invercargill and this gives him hope.
He does not care about pride because he can feed his family again.
He points over to the table where his sons, aged 13, 12 and 10, are laughing with their mother.
"This is a night out for us, it's like going to a restaurant."
Steve and his family might be new to the soup kitchen but they are not alone.
Volunteers at Invercargill's six church-run kitchens say demand has gone through the roof. Each kitchen dishes out between 70 and 100 meals in a sitting.
They all see the same faces as people move between them but they also talk about others in this town who are in need but too proud to reach out for help.
Some have the wrong idea that only those in dire need can use the service.
Anyone in the community can come. Organisers are firm on this: no-one will be turned away.
Not all the kitchens serve soup. Some dish up nutritious meals and most serve dessert.
They are not overflowing with the homeless. Students and people on benefits say they find it hard to pay bills and eat.
They are just ordinary people down on their luck, struggling to make ends meet.
Many also go for the company, to feel like part of a community.
They come to meet friends, who understand their problems and do not judge them.
Some have mental health issues and feel isolated from the community - this is their only source of interaction.
Volunteers know that some people are poor because they have supplemented benefits for loans and habits.
"At the end of the day, they still need to eat, " they say.
James has been homeless for a large part of his adult life, sleeping in parks and under bridges - where people threw sticks at him or, worse, ignored him.
For now he is "walking on eggshells" living in a shelter.
It was hard to integrate back into society, with its rules, after being homeless. He had a job and tried being part of society but says it spat him out.
"Some of us choose this life, in many ways it is a better life."
He does not want sympathy - but asks for empathy.
"We are seen as a burden on the system, a problem and ignored. If this continues nothing is going to get better."
There is no quick fix, he says.
"All I ask is that we respect each other and show some common courtesy."
He says he is humbled to be on "the bottom" and does not feel like the world is out to get him.
The trick to life is being happy with what you have and sharing it, he says.
"I look at the wealthy people and their problems. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders."
He uses the soup kitchen because no- one else will give handouts and you can only get so much from authorities.
He gets frustrated when he talks about how people are going hungry while supermarkets discard food into monster dumpsters.
Many people in Invercargill need help but fear society will judge them for using the kitchens, he says.
He feels comfortable in the kitchen, has a laugh and reflects on his week.
"I would go without if this place wasn't here. I would be talking to the birds and picking up cigarette butts."
It's a warm Sunday morning; most at St Mary's Parish kitchen have gobbled up their share of the pizza and taken a dessert of icecream and gloopy pudding outside to sit on the steps.
But James remains seated at his small table, a well-used hymn book gripped tightly in his hand, waiting for Fr Tom Keyes to start singing.
At St John's Parish kitchen, Alan and AJ are catching up. They are "kitchen friends" who meet during the week at various kitchens.
Outside this place they live very different lives. AJ is in his early 20s, while Alan is older, perhaps in his mid-40s. Both are neatly dressed.
Alan struggles to "exist" living on his benefit, while AJ battles with being mixed up in a gang.
Both are shy and, when not together in other kitchens, sit alone to clean their plates.
AJ is nervous. He is staring into his bowl, stirring the golden liquid and occasionally dipping in some toast.
He politely asks a volunteer for juice.
When she is out of earshot, he looks up from under his eyelids for a brief second:
''This town is not good for me, I need to get out of it.''
His life changed for the better when he cut his newborn brother's umbilical cord, he says. Now he wants to make a clean break but "just can't".
In the meantime, the kitchens are his escape - a place where he can relax and everyone has a smile, he says.
"When I come here I leave any badness on the street."
Alan has five children, aged between 11 and 23, who do not live with him but they are his priority in life.
"They come first before I feed myself."
He finds it difficult to take care of his family and "survive" on his benefit.
He is grateful for the kitchens. Often they are his only meal until the next kitchen.
Originally from Auckland, he has lived in other New Zealand cities but has never found help like he has in Invercargill.
"Life would be hard without this help and some of us would resort back to crime to feed ourselves and keep a roof over our heads. It's a good community here."
Alan used to get anxious thinking someone he knew would see him at the kitchens.
"I was paranoid and always looking over my shoulder. It was a real pride thing but I accepted help and now things are getting better."
He knows of others who are too stubborn to come to the kitchens, so go without food for weeks.
They also fear "bible bashing", but that is never the case, he says.
Joe, who lives alone in Invercargill, has no friends and says his grown-up family have disowned him.
He has issues interacting with people.
The Central Silo in Deveron St is close enough for him to retreat home if it gets too much.
He has a little food at home but it's the company that brings him to this soup kitchen.
"I'm trying to work on my social skills and it keeps me sane getting out of the house."
Jean is a Southern Institute of Technology student and was introduced to the Central Silo and Salvation Army soup kitchens by classmates.
Students regularly use the kitchens because they worry how to make ends meet, she says.
She works a part-time job but her wage and student allowance are swallowed up by rent and power, with little left for food.
"I try to get at least two meals each week and that leaves me with enough money to buy food to make my lunch."
Christine says the people who attend Eastside Baptist Church are like her extended family.
She is autistic and says she has found it easier to get to know people since coming to the kitchen.
She uses the budget advice service, which has helped her get out of debt.
"I was over my head and now I'm no longer sunk, " she says.
She sits next to Dean, who says he likes the kitchen because he can just relax.
He happily slurps his second helping of vegetable soup.
He helps in the Glengarry community garden where the vegetables for the soup are grown, he says.
"I have bipolar disorder, OCD and schizophrenia.
"These people do not judge me. We are all concerned about each other and look out for one another."
Richard comes to St Paul's kitchen to socialise.
He says he has a mental illness and others at the kitchen are empathetic because they are in the same boat and help him deal with any issues.
Alice also lives with mental health issues and says there is a lot of stigma surrounding her health.
"I am considered too sick to get a job."
In the meantime, she is trying to upskill by taking a computer course and living off her disability benefit. She feels like she is being punished for being on a benefit and says no-one will help her.
"They only want to offer me counselling but I want help to get a job."
It was ideal having a place to eat most days and it took the pressure off life, she says.
Tommy and Anne queue up at St Pauls for a meal of sausages and baked potatoes, followed by fruit and baking.
Tommy also has a mental health issue but does not go into specifics.
He is living on his benefit and struggles because he can't get a job and is in debt and owes money to different people.
He tries to save money for food by turning off the heating and hot water in his house.
Anne says the kitchen is a marvellous place.
Food is so expensive.
She recalls the time she put items back on the shelves after getting to the checkout because she did not have enough money.
It was embarrassing and without the kitchen she would go hungry, she says.
* Names have been changed.
INVERCARGILL SOUP KITCHENS