The community food co-op feeding one of Tasmania’s most disadvantaged suburbs


Two volunteers hand out ready-made meals at the Waterbridge Food Co-Op in Gagebrook, Tasmania, March 2019

Key points:

  • The Waterbridge Food co-op is changing the eating habits of people in Hobart’s most disadvantaged suburbs.
  • Using vegetables grown on site, thousands of healthy meals are cooked to sell cheaply to the community.
  • Organisers are struggling to attract new grant money to keep the enterprise going.

A community food project is changing the eating habits of one of Tasmania’s most disadvantaged suburbs.

Helen Manser is the manager of the Jordan River Service, which has run the Waterbridge Food Co-op at Gagebrook for the past six years.

Helen Manser outside the Waterbridge Food Co-Op vegetable patch in Gagebrook, Tasmania, March 2019

“I do believe the only way to start is changing people’s eating habits and diets within the community,” she said.

“I think we save the health budget a lot of money, but it’s certainly not recognised as it should be.”

The co-op has a community garden on site which grows vegetables, and the produce is sold cheaply from a store front known as The Pantry.

Kylie Truswell from the Jordan River Service helps run The Pantry, and said the aim was to beat the big supermarkets on price to encourage more people to eat vegetables.

“Everything we grow here in the garden we keep at $2 a kilo because we’re able to sell it at a low cost … we source other things from local farmers.”

The shop also sells frozen meals which are cooked on site by volunteers and people on work-for-the-dole programs.

“They’re packed full of goodness … you’ve got your meat, you’ve got your veg and they’re affordable,” Ms Truswell said.

Cooking for a whole community

Last financial year 5,000 meals were made in the kitchen at the community centre.

This financial year 12,500 meals have already been made.

“So there’s a clear indication of how successful that is. The group was only originally cooking one day then they went to two and now they’re on three days,” said Ms Manser.

Wally Douglass buys up to 14 meals a week for himself and his teenage son.

His favourite menu item is the meatloaf.

Wally Douglass standing next to fresh vegetables at the Waterbridge Food cooperative in Gagebrook, Tasmania

“My son he loves the spaghetti bolognaise, but he’s changed that I think to the meatloaf as well,” Mr Douglass said.

The meals help him get by on his fortnightly Centrelink payment.

“[If] we know that we’re not going to get through the week or the fortnight we can come and know we’re going to have food on the table,” he said.

“We’re not going to be sitting there hungry and we don’t have to rely on going to Salvos or St Vincent de Paul for a hand out.”

Those cooking the meals have benefitted too.

Belinda Joyce started working in the kitchen as a work-for-the-dole participant.

“I literally had never even peeled a potato until I came here,” she said.

“I’d never touched chicken before. I’d never boiled an egg, and now I can go home to my mum on the weekends and cook food for her.”

She is now a regular volunteer for the service.

“I’m proud to say I am 20 kilos up. I’ve gained 20 kilos since I’ve been here and I even eat carrots now,” she said.

Two volunteers preparing chicken in the kitchen at the Waterbridge Food Co-Op

Volunteer Janet Fedezyszyn taught Ms Joyce to cook.

“When she came here she had no knowledge at all of cooking and I am so very proud of her,” Ms Fedezyszyn said.

“She’ll tell you she couldn’t even make custard, and now she does that. She makes pies, she does cakes, pastries.

“Everyone that comes in here and volunteers, they love it that much when their time’s up on their work-for-the-dole they come back again.

“They get so much advantage out of it and some people have even got a position to be a chef and I love teaching everything from scratch to them.”

Success no guarantee of ongoing funding

Ms Manser said she believed the success of the program was clear, but that the co-op would no longer be able to cook and sell healthy meals to the community if it did not attract urgent funding.

“They’re now making dishes at home that they’ve never made before using ingredients they’ve never used before,” Ms Manser said.

“I spoke to a mum here a while back who said her kids won’t eat vegetables, but they ate the pumpkin soup that was sold in The Pantry.”

But she said the future of the program was uncertain.

Volunteer Tanya Langdon cooking vegetables on the stove at the Waterbridge Food Co-Op in Gagebrook, Tasmania

“We can only see us going until June I think. I do the budget all the time and it’s like where can we rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said.

“There’s no funding, we rely on the sales from the pantry now to keep us going and we need those to increase dramatically.”

Ms Manser said the project has received government grants in the past, but they were becoming more difficult to get.

“They want sustainability and innovation, it’s an innovative project but it’s been going for 6 years so it’s hard.”

“We know it works, the community knows it works, we don’t want to lose it but it’s denied access to many grant programs because it’s not new.”

Ms Manser said she would continue to seek state or federal government funding.