Answering the Lord's call

Last updated 16:25 06/06/2008
Peter Meecham
Kerry Bensemann: of 0800 Hungry, says God spoke to him personally and told him to doit.

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A reformed drunken West Coast trucker on speaking terms with God is ruffling feathers in the business of getting free food to the poor. JOHN McCRONE investigates. 

With a nervous laugh they ask have you heard about Kerry Bensemann, the 0800 Hungry food-bank guy? He thinks God spoke to him personally, tapped him on the shoulder one day and told him to do it.

Even the managers of Christchurch's other food banks, most good Christians themselves, find it unsettling, this claim of a direct link to the Creator.

They don't quite tap their foreheads, but make it clear they are used to God working rather more discretely when it comes to organising a town's social services.

Bensemann, a 58-year-old reformed drunken trucker from the West Coast who saw the light after a messy marriage break-up and the suicide of his brother, a good Catholic altar boy turned Pentecostalist, has been ruffling feathers for a few years now since setting up his warehouse-scale operation in Wainoni, which takes in food-industry leftovers by the pallet-load and redistributes them to the poor and needy from Halswell to Rangiora.

There are a lot of mutterings about this holy joe character in genteel circles. One is: did you know you have to say a prayer before his delivery people will hand over the food? You can imagine how embarrassing that must be for some food-bank clients.

And then there are claims his warehouse is hogging all the food. The more he gets, the less there is for the more traditional outlets. The rumours continue: Bensemann is going to drain all the money. He has already got cash from the gaming trusts to set up, now he wants $4 million for a still bigger warehouse.

Of course, God will have told him it was the right thing to do. God is who Bensemann answers to. But here in the real world, we expect charities to fit into a more usual system of governance with boards, chairs, committees human oversight not rely on some divine authority.

Then there is an accepted way to do things when it comes to food banks.

You do not just dish out groceries to the desperate. That makes us look like a nation where pensioners and beneficiaries are on the brink of starving.

Given all the talk, it is easy to imagine what Bensemann will be like in person. Except, naturally enough, he turns out nothing like that at all.

Tuesday morning at 0800 Hungry and Bensemann is catching up after a two-day break in Melbourne paid for by air miles he hastens to add. He is not a rich guy.

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Neo, a rainbow lorikeet, squawks and flutters around the office, allowed free run until it threatens to nip me.

The hunger line phone has been turned off so we can talk, otherwise it would ring without break.

The God stuff happens to be all true. Bensemann is not the slightest bit shy about his intimate connection to the Lord. Although it was only once he literally heard the voice.

He was driving a delivery truck much too fast down the Kaikoura coast when he was sternly told: "You're going to be no good to me dead."

"It was like a voice speaking from the seat next to me," Bensemann recalls.

Yet his office is completely bare of crucifixes, bibles or religious slogans. And Bensemann has neither the oozy righteousness of some God-botherers, nor a frankly bonkers stare.

Instead, he seems solid, honest, grounded as he says, a classic case of a troubled soul whose life is now harnessed to a purpose, with God simply there to give him a nudge in the right direction when it is needed.

There was a time when a food bank was a church larder with a few donated cans of beans to feed derelicts and winos found sleeping rough under a neighbourhood bridge.

Then National's 1991 "Mother of All Budgets" saw welfare benefits slashed and New Zealand's food-bank industry took off.

In Christchurch, the big four are the Methodist Mission, Christchurch City Mission, Catholic Social Services and the Salvation Army (with six branches around town).

By 2001, there were enough food banks to form associations and hold national conferences. A temporary charitable response had become a fixture.

The Government was suitably embarrassed. But Social Services Minister of the day, Steve Maharey, vowed that with the economy going great guns, and empowerment services to get beneficiaries into jobs, food banks would soon be history.

The economy did boom. However, as food bank managers like Tony McCahon, of Richmond's Delta Community Trust, and Michael Gorman, of the Christchurch City Mission, report, the effect has just been to widen the gulf between society's haves and have nots.

Gorman says where once it was only beneficiaries lining up outside his gate in the morning, now it is also the working poor on a wage, but a burger-flipping, office cleaning, wage.

McCahon says it is no secret that low income earners are really struggling to cover the basics.

"The initial concern was the electricity and housing increases. But now, of course, it's food and petrol. It's all compounding to a degree that I can't see there ever being a time where there are no food banks, unfortunately."

So like it or not, there is plenty of demand for the super-sized food bank Bensemann opened in 2001 in what used to be an old aluminium window factory.

Bensemann starts the tour of the warehouse. He pays a commercial rent of $10,000 a month. Yes, quite a whack. On top of that there is the $1000 for power, $950 for phones, the diesel for the trucks. You can see why he is always in need of funds.

In fact, he had to shut down for part of last year because he had run out of money.

But then God intervened although publicity in The Press and on the evening news did help. A gaming trust, the Mainland Foundation, came through with enough to cover the next three months. There was a flurry of private donations. Yet it is still a hand-to-mouth existence.

At least the warehouse is humming this morning. Four or five "staff" loyal volunteers and special-needs helpers are opening boxes, filling shelves, bagging vegetables, burrowing in the freezers.

Looking around is a real eye-opener. The place is stacked to the rafters with food. And not just baked beans or bags of rice.

The first aisle starts with salad dressing balsamic, caesar, ranch all from an upmarket range. Moving along we come across cartons of organic soy milk, bottles of extra virgin olive oil, bags of sweet muffin and continental cheesecake mix, cans of special country chicken soup, party-size bags of corn tapas chips and pistachio nuts.

In the freezer, Bensemann picks up a bag of ready-to-bake chocolate croissant. Along the chiller are rows of brie and camembert my favourite brand, too.

"Yum, yum, pig's bum," Bensemann agrees.

And so it goes on. The largesse extends to tampons and nappies, detergents and cleaners the items that can really add dollars to your shopping bill.

Then there are the one-tonne bins of carrots, potatoes, onions, oranges, tomatoes; the racks of bread and milk. We pass 80 pallets of bread mix, complete with sachets of yeast, on offer to the clients who can cope with home-baking.

The warehouse is light on cereal, but otherwise surprisingly well stocked. There is even pet food. A pallet of export variety with Korean language labelling stands by the door.

Bensemann grins that these have caused a few crossed wires. Clients see the Korean writing, the pictures of chubby puppies, and jump to the wrong conclusion. Offended calls are made asking whether he really expects them to tuck into this particular foreign delicacy.

Although perhaps even more alarming is the thought that some good folk in Aranui or Hornby might just shrug their shoulders, deciding well beggars really can't afford to be choosers.

Certainly it is a bit of a problem. Some of the luxury goods like camembert, olive oil and balsamic dressing might be outside the ken of quite a few recipients. However, the warehouse can put out an impressive shopping bag.

The grocery boxes are getting lined up by the exit ready to go. There are various sizes, depending on the number in the household. And each is delivered with large side-bags of vegetables.

One of the volunteer drivers he would rather his name not be mentioned as he has come in during work hours in the company van to make drop offs says he feels like Father Christmas arriving at a house carrying so many different goodies.

When people ring the hunger line they have to be vetted. Other food banks make clients come in personally. This is part of the empowerment model. They fill in a sheaf of forms to prove they are needy and may even have to present a letter from Work and Income confirming they have exhausted all the help there.

But 0800 Hungry delivers. Bensemann answers the phone himself he wishes he could afford a paid staff member and has to watch out for those who would abuse the service. But he reckons it is not hard. He has a database of names and details. The food is delivered to a known address. People are phoned to check they are home, the boxes are not just left on the doorstep. So mostly food can be given away with the minimum of red tape or intrusive questions.

"If we find they are calling us five or six times, using us as their supermarket, then we'll suggest they get budgeting advice. We can show them some tough love. But we believe in the saying, `mercy before judgment'," Bensemann says.

About half the food is delivered by his volunteer drivers, the other half by local agencies and churches. A steady stream of social workers and outreach staff have been dropping by to collect supplies for families on their caseloads.

Bensemann says it is all about efficient distribution. He has the pile of food. He then needs to channel it into the community networks. So any church can use the warehouse, regardless of denomination or faith.

"It makes no difference if you're Hare Krishna," he says.

What about this story you make people pray before handing over the food? Stuff and nonsense, replies Bensemann. Yes, some of his workers may be a little more enthusiastically evangelical, but he has told them sternly to leave their Bibles at home. We are not about selling Christianity at the door. Belief is something best demonstrated through your actions rather than your words.

Just where does he get all the food from then? It really is a pile.

Bensemann says this is the revelation he had, the vision God laid on him, when he happened to be managing the freezing works of a fishing company a decade ago. The big food producers create a huge amount of waste that normally goes for pig swill or land fill. He simply had to provide them with an alternative in a food bank set up on a similarly industrial scale.

There are many reasons why stock is junked apart from the fact it is past expiry date or because some idiot forklift driver has dropped the pallet and munted the boxes. A change of labelling, a different promotion, can leave a factory with a lorry-load of old product to dispose of. That is probably why he was suddenly donated these fancy packets of crisps.

And look at the crates of potatoes and carrots he picked up from the yards down in Rakaia at 5.30 this morning. Nothing wrong with the potatoes except half are too big, half too small. Fendalton housewives only want ones which are all the same size, so the rest get chucked away.

There is so much surplus. Surely it is God's will to see some of it recycled to the "have not" side of town. Far from hogging all the food as his detractors allege, Bensemann says there is plenty more available if only he had the capacity. This is why he is keen to build a new $4m warehouse on vacant land next door, then after that, export his industrial-scale food-bank model to other towns like Auckland and Wellington to feed their poor as well.

Will it happen? The truth is the wheels could fall off the existing 0800 Hungry operation at any time. Bensemann has little secure long-term funding and apparently not too many friends among those who control the purse strings in the genteel parts of town.

He also expects political resistance. If the existence of food banks makes governments look bad, a clamour for centralised warehouse facilities to feed the poor can only make them look really bad.

He had better get praying then. At least so far, Bensemann feels, the Big Guy has proved to be on his side.

- Canterbury

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