It’s a logistical mammoth feat – even bigger than when he was chef and manager at the Continental Music Hall in Prahran, hosting live music shows for headliners like KD Lang and Harry Connick Junior and “Piss took the heat and sweat off.” [the kitchen] when the papers pile up and you’re done by 1am, still full of adrenaline and knowing you have to be back for the breakfast shift by 6″.
Despite this, he insists he is the most reserved of the McNamara clan. (“We were usually the loudest family at the restaurant growing up.”) Perhaps more quiet than reserved, McNamara has been at the center of many of the storms that have plagued the state since joining Foodbank in 2008. In fact, it’s only been eight months since the job, when the then-CEO was on furlough, that he ran the show during the devastating Black Saturday bushfires. “What nobody really explained to me at the time was that not only do we supply to charities, we do [a key plank] of state disaster relief,” he says.
They helicopter food to flooded cities and load army trucks to supply evacuation centers in fire zones (with extra energy bars for the firefighters). “We learned a lot after Black Saturday so we were ready when Black Summer came. We ended up using an oil rig carrier to get the first groceries to Mallacoota after they were hit.”
He admits that he still trembles when he recalls the generosity of the people this summer: at the height of the crisis, almost 1,500 people came every day with car trunks full of food to donate. But more devastation was to follow as the worst pandemic in a century shut down much of the world — including supply chains.
Suddenly – the shelves were empty in this first spate of panic buying – Melbourne had “a taste of what one in six people here deal with every day, not getting enough food,” says McNamara. “It used to be people on the street. Well, it’s people in your street too. Well, people helped with the fires. So we started giving back to them with the drive-throughs.”
Before he strayed from groceries, IT, and even a stint in banking (“I hated it”) into the charity sector, McNamara always thought it’s just bad sleepers who need free food. But when an old friend from his cooking days went through a mental crisis and going through tough times, McNamara visited the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen, which he had “raved about.” In this large dining room were families, old pensioners; “a whole cornucopia of mankind”. But “then I looked at the food, which was served with the absolute best of intentions. And I was like, ‘Oh my god my buddy is eating this’. That’s something I can fix.”
He gave up his restaurant career and turned the hall into a free French and Italian bistro, bringing in a second chef and training many of those using the service as baristas and kitchen hands. “We introduced color and fabrics to make the dining room less institutional and within a few months you would only notice the change in the noise. There was even more laughter. People had started filling in their faces, they looked healthier.”
The buzz he remembered from his own childhood, “hearing amazing stories from around the world” at the dinner table, was now in the air.
A few years later, after complaining about the lack of fresh produce at the food bank that supplies Sacred Heart, he found himself as the newest employee. Since then, he’s put healthy food at the heart of his mission – going straight to farmers for their “ugly,” unsellable produce and hosting pop-up fresh markets in charity parking lots (“often they just work out of a regular fridge”) or in mobile ones Supermarkets converted buses so people can choose what they need.
It all costs money and forces the charity to source outside government grants. Before the McNamara era, the food bank was “more of a surprise chain than a supply chain.” “We had to take what we could get. Now we have gone from 35,000 kilos of fresh fruit and vegetables a year to over two and a half million.”
And what else do people need? “Exactly what you do: bread, milk, meat – meat is a nightmare – pasta, pasta. We want people to thrive, not just survive. They are already being forced into this poor diet.”
Like his restaurant days, McNamara admits he doesn’t always get much sleep, despite maintaining the lockdown habit of daily ocean swims at Williamstown Beach. (His eyes light up as he tells me about the seal that appeared next to him the morning before.)
He has also mapped deprivation across the state, interviewed charities and examined government statistics to better understand how to tailor offerings to each neighborhood’s social and cultural needs. “This is a sector that is run with passion, but math never hurts,” he smiles. When it comes to risotto, he easily rattles off the numbers. “If you are food insecure, you need 50 kilos of food a year, that’s at least 100 meals. We want to compensate for about 70 percent of this, i.e. 35 kilos. Right now we’re sitting at around 21.”
This leaves the goal of procuring 14.2 million kilograms of healthy food over the next four years.
A shortcut? Feed the weakest – children – first. Since Foodbank worked with the Victorian Government to launch a free breakfast program in public schools in 2016, it has expanded to more than a thousand across the state, which also offers emergency lunches and school holiday meals. A school applied for the program after a boy was falsely scolded for chewing gum – it turned out he was chewing paper as there was no food at home. “But it’s not just ‘poor kids are having breakfast,'” says McNamara. “It’s all students, it becomes a community. You see truancy going down, bullying going down, even grades going up.”
He remembers an eight-year-old he met at a local school – half his family was in prison and he was already in trouble with the police. “The Breakfast Club changed that, he came back in and they found out he loved dancing. He even showed me a dance. Now he is in secondary school and he is still dancing. “
There are also plans to work more closely with health services and to offer a ‘food prescription’ for consumables in consultation with doctors. The Foodbank’s lively cooking class for parents and students has already proved a hit – everyone gets a box of fresh ingredients and a recipe book to take home.
“It’s about engaging the kids, helping families to open up to each other so they can feel the tingling that I used to get cooking with my mom and nana.”
Big picture, McNamara wants to “do what Rosie Batty did for domestic violence: remove the shame of not being able to support his family”.
As the plates are cleared, he recalls once asking a reporter how singer Sting could truly call himself a social activist while sipping champagne in a mansion. “And Sting said, ‘I think everyone should be able to live like that.’
“Well, everyone should eat like this,” says McNamara. “Everyone deserves a seat at the table. ”
The Bill please
Bellota Wine Bar, 181 Bank Street, South Melbourne.
https://www.smh.com.au/national/then-the-cops-had-to-shut-us-down-the-ex-chef-stopping-victorians-going-hungry-20220616-p5auaw.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_national the ex-chef who keeps the Victorians from starving