A Behind the Scenes Tour of the Yellow Van Headquarters

Published on 23 August 2013

Every year, 60 000 Australian families go without a meal or are unsure about where their next meal is coming from. Every month, the Yellow Van delivers over 16 tonnes of donated food to more than 90 charities to target the people that need it most across the Canberra, Queanbeyan & Yass region. This amounts to 1800 meals, every single day.

Hands Across Canberra is proud to have played a small role in the success story for the not for profit Yellow Van. We had a tour of the headquarters of the Yellow Van for a behind the scenes insight into what makes the charity tick.

Walking into the office evokes memories of a well loved home; colourful couches fill an open plan lounge room with a clean and crisp kitchen. Food and rescued products are organised throughout the house.

What began as merely a single desk in the Communities@work office in Weston, is now a three van operation delivering over four tonnes of food a week to over 90 charities.

“As we got more and more volunteers, it became impossible to stay in the Communities@work office,” commented David Burnett, Director of the Yellow Van food rescue program.

The Yellow Van’s current headquarters are located on Westwood Farm, a short drive out of Kambah. Only a 5 minute drive from the city, the office is a rural escape reminiscent of a family’s farm home.

“Previously, we would have had to have all the rescued food delivered the same day. Now we can make emergency hampers. We get calls from women’s groups that take women and children from domestic violence; they give them a place that’s theirs. A new start in life. They have nothing. We can now give them food, sanitary items, shampoo, pots, pans  – you name it.”

We walk to a bench nearby, where kilos and kilos of onions and potatoes are stored in bags.

“Hold this onion. You find something wrong with that onion.”

I must concede, I can’t find a single thing wrong with the onion. Before the food is loaded into the Yellow Van from the organisation donating the food, it is checked and triple checked for any fault. Anything past a ‘used by date’ is not accepted, and anything with a ‘best before’ date is carefully scrutinised.

“We don’t give out anything we wouldn’t happily eat ourselves,” Dave says gesturing to the food around the room.

We walk into what feels like a giant pantry, the kind of pantry you imagine exists in a mansion. Anything from shampoo to cans of Campbell’s soup line the walls of what would have been a bedroom.

“We often get 80 of these giant boxes of mescalin lettuce from Costco – places like Costco, we might get 4 or 500 kilograms of food a day – we give as much of the lettuce as we can to the charities. All the human beings first and then when they’ve had their fill, we go to the National Zoo and Aquarium and they have whatever they want, the bears love the stuff! We take all the second grade apples to Pegasus, we go to RSPCA and then our chickens get the mescalin as well. Even then there’s too much lettuce!”

We walk back into the large loungeroom, with a window that overlooks a large chicken pen.

“Now if you look out there, volunteers have built a veggie patch and a chicken coop. Anything we can’t use we give to the chickens or we put in the compost for the garden. Any of the eggs we get from the chickens, we take back to the charities.”

As we walk into an office where the gears behind the machine work its magic, Dave chats about the funding structure that keeps the charity sustainable. While Communities@Work is the major sponsor of the Yellow Van, it relies on sponsors and donations to continue to run.

“What keeps us going is community support,” Dave said.

“I mean, we just got $200 from the MG car club. That’s amazing! St Clare’s college gave us $5000. It’s not just us that it helps, that’s the thing, this money helps over 90 charities, countless people… Uniting church gave us $45. Every dollar makes sure we keep going, and that’s why it’s so important we have this community support.”

“It’s also the support from organisations like Hands Across Canberra that have kept us going. The $5000 we got from HAC for an industrial dishwasher meant we could get volunteers out of the kitchen and handing out more food. With 5 tonnes of food a week, you can only imagine how long it took to wash the containers. “

Back in the kitchen, he points to an average sized sink, and a dining room table.

“I remember seeing Pam at this table with rubber gloves up to her elbows, tea towels everywhere and this giant pyramid of drying tubs. Everyone wants to be out there rescuing food, not washing containers – but it has to be done. Every two days there’d be as many as 40 containers that’d have to be cleaned by hand.”

Today is a classic Canberran winter day; grey and wet. We look outside the kitchen window back to the sheds, contrasting with the ugly grey clouds.

“It’s too wet to show you, but the dishwasher is in the shed out there. With the weather we’ve been having lately, it’s become inaccessible for our vans to take the dirt road to the shed where the fridges and dishwasher are  – I wouldn’t even try. It’s all good stuff down there, but if it rains much longer we’ll have to walk the food out. “

“More funding would fix that road, making us accessible in all types of weather.”

Hands Across Canberra assesses the needs of local charities and gives grants on as needs basis that will make a difference to the Canberran community. To donate to the Hands Across Canberra Foundation click here.

To donate directly to the Yellow Van click here.