However, their biggest COVID-19 food drive has just begun at Melbourne’s public housing towers where residents are under an unprecedented police-guarded lockdown that has been likened to being contained in “prison.”
On Sunday the volunteer-run organisation provided 1,325 meals – all funded by donations – to residents in the Flemington and Kensington towers, and on Monday they strived to provide more to meet increased demand.
“We are preparing 1000 meals for lunch and nearly 1000 more for the dinner, according to their demand,” one of the organisation’s founders, Manpreet Singh, told HuffPost Australia.
“It’s all freshly cooked vegetarian,” he explained, saying meals are made by volunteers in the organisation’s own professional kitchen in Devon Meadows.
He said residents have been grateful for the fresh deliveries, telling him and other volunteers, ‘Thank you, this is the first time we are seeing a hot meal’.
As a migrant who came to Australia in 2005 from Punjab, India, Singh said he understood many culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) residents are used to food from their own culture.
“People are not used to eating from outside for so many days,” he said.
Singh and the other volunteers have set up a table just outside the housing commission buildings, where residents can pick up a container of hot food after getting tested for COVID-19.
“Yesterday [Sunday] morning we decided to go there around 12 o’clock and we prepared 650 meals. We talked to the authorities, they had a discussion and they allowed us to come inside,” said Singh.
As the organisation founded in 2017 has a track record of feeding the homeless and providing food to those in need during the bushfire crisis, Singh said the “police were cooperative” when they arrived.
The volunteers have been wearing protective masks, gloves and glasses and making “no direct contact” with any of the residents. Instead they’ve left the food on the table and spoken to them from a distance.
“So we were staying away from the table and we were just telling them this is the food and this is what is inside the food. We also had a special list of the ingredients on each container so they can read it because mostly people were asking for halal or vegan.”
Sikh Volunteers Australia is funded by donations, and on Monday morning asked for cash or grocery contributions ahead of another day of up to $600 worth of food deliveries.
After the lunch delivery on Monday, Singh and the other volunteers will remain on site at the housing towers before another van arrives with the evening meal supply.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Melbourne has surged in recent days, prompting authorities to enforce strict social distancing orders in 30 suburbs and put nine public housing towers into complete lockdown.
On Sunday Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews defended his decision to send 500 police officers to the Flemington public housing estate to keep almost 3,000 residents inside for at least five days.
“This is not going to be a pleasant experience for those residents, but I have a message for those residents: this is not about punishment but protection,” Andrews said in a televised conference on Sunday.
Promising two weeks of free rent and hardship payments to the residents, Andrews said public health workers would test every resident of the buildings, except those who have previously tested positive.
The state reported 127 new COVID-19 infections overnight, its biggest one-day spike since the pandemic began. It also reported one death, the first nationally in more than two weeks, taking the country’s total tally to 105. The border between New South Wales and Victoria will close from Tuesday.
With additional reporting by Reuters.