‘Will I be able to provide for my child?’

Cans of beans don't meet the Prime Minister's expectations of a much-touted $30m scheme for food parcels. Those at the heart of it say it never should have been seen as a replacement for benefits in the first place

A food parcel is on its way to Udari*.

Her first child is due in one and a half months. She gets food cravings all the time, but tries not to mention it to her husband. 

"As a pregnant person you get a lot of cravings, but I don't tell him what I crave for...that would make him feel really helpless."

"He has that equal pressure on him that 'will I be able to provide for my child?'."

She is out of work, but her husband isn't. Yet.

His salary was slashed to the amount of the government wage subsidy, with the possibility he may be fired when the scheme ends. 

The pay cut has made his job uneconomic. They live in the Auckland suburb of Mt Wellington, but his job requires a 120km round-trip commute to Waiuku.

The wage subsidy is not enough to meet their weekly rent of $600, let alone his high commuting costs.

"He has to take it. The baby is going to come out in another one and a half months. We need some sort of income."

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded to a Newsroom story that a family of seven were provided a small set of canned goods, and no other income support, for the entirety of lockdown under a Civil Defence Emergency Management scheme to distribute food parcels.

"I am comfortable with the support being provided [to migrants] where that support is being provided as we would expect."

"And that [canned goods for a family of seven] does not meet my expectations."

"$27m was put into making sure that those services on the ground - who knew where the need was - had the flexibility to provide both food and support for accommodation to house people."

One-off food parcel support shouldn't be seen as a replacement for income support, Auckland CDEM says. Photo: Auckland Council

Auckland Emergency Management and a migrant advocate have the thrown the ball back in the Prime Minister's court, saying the scheme touted as a replacement for social welfare benefits was no such thing.

Ardern has chosen to assist out of work migrants with food parcels rather than time-limited social welfare benefits. The latter are allowed under provisions tied to the epidemic notice thanks to s64 of the Social Security Act.

Documents released last week show officials advised the Cabinet that it could authorise income assistance to migrants if it needed to.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said it was not possible for this country to support migrants with emergency benefits.

"In the end, my obligation is to the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders that are in big financial strife right now.

“How many people do you think...a 'just-under' five million population can support in this crisis?

"We asked them, and said to them, if the circumstances have changed so dramatically you should go home."

Living on the street

A wave of redundancies brought on by the Covid-19 lockdown have hit migrant workers hard.

Many were tied up in industries unable to operate during lockdown. Others were the first to be fired at firms that had to downsize.

Food parcel operations like one being run out of the Spark Arena are being used to cart supplies out to migrant families in need.

It's not the kind of support that people like chef Paras Gupta are looking for, because people like him are trying to avoid a fate worse than hunger.

He spent the first week of Level 4 lockdown sleeping on the street outside a backpackers hostel in central Auckland and doesn't want to repeat the experience. 

Gupta moved to Auckland from Wellington to take up a new job shortly before lockdown started.

Level 4 restrictions were slapped into place before he could start work. His new employer couldn't apply for a wage subsidy to support him. 

At the same time, he had to leave the Auckland backpackers hostel he was staying at due to Covid-19 restrictions.

After a few nights on the street, and days wandering nearby green spaces like Victoria Park, he managed to get accommodation through his consulate.

His new place doesn't come free. Paras has been told he will have to move out of his accommodation if he doesn't come up with $350 in rent next week.

'It's not a benefit'

Union Network of Migrants spokesman Mandeep Bela said the Prime Minister's portrayal of CDEM as a replacement for social security benefits was "not true" and at odds with what the scheme was designed to do. 

"CDEM support is appreciated - much, much appreciated - but it needs to act as a complement to Social Security Act benefits."

Auckland's branch of CDEM has backed him up.

The service has received 32,000 phone calls, with 26,000 parcels of essential household goods and food parcels dispatched to nearly 16,000 households.

Within the first few weeks of lockdown Auckland Emergency Management had to source 120 tonnes of food from the same supply chains under-pressure supermarkets were also trying to draw on. 

Deputy group controller Mace Ward said food parcels were designed to complement Ministry of Social Development support, not replace it.

"We can't give any welfare payments or cash grants. It is essential supplies and urgent accommodation which would be short-term, and then picked up by MSD."

A spokeswoman for Auckland Council said CDEM was a "stepping stone" before emergency financial assistance came in.

The Government has been invoiced $4.5m for Auckland's scheme so far. Photo: Auckland Council

"What is important is that there is a clear understanding between what this welfare service provides and the fact that it is complementary to the emergency financial assistance that MSD is providing.

"It wasn't setup to be one or the other."

Food parcels consist of essential goods. While they should feed a family for a week, they weren't intended as a long-term fix. If families required ongoing food parcels or income support they were referred to agencies like the MSD.

Some very short-term temporary motel and hotel accommodation measures were possible through CDEM, but only for less than a week. 

Delivery of parcels took between five and seven days. Same day delivery was possible if people in urgent need, like Udari, made that known.

So far Auckland Council has billed the Government $4.5m for its delivery of the scheme since lockdown. That amount included setting up the Spark Arena, sourcing goods and couriering them.

Many non-migrants who received food parcels would likely get some other form of benefit or wraparound social services support alongside it. But temporary migrants aren't eligible for MSD help.

Ward said the family of seven mentioned earlier had complex needs that couldn't be solved by CDEM alone.

Bela said by its very nature a food parcel service would take time to reach a struggling household.

However, cash could be transferred at a low cost and much more quickly. Migrants could take pressure off the food parcel supply chain if they were given enough money to buy the food themselves.

Despite Auckland CDEM's insistence urgent delivery was possible, Udari said she didn't feel like she could ask for the food support promised to be delivered any faster.

"I cannot push someone because they're giving it for free and they're also having their hands tied."

"So many people are struggling."

*This migrant requested an alias be used.

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