The Free Store – Solving Challenges in Tandem

The Free Store is somewhat unique in its approach to supporting its community, but it has a commonly-held purpose: helping those in need in the most respectful way possible.

The concept evolved from an installation by artist Kim Paton, which was part of the Letting Spaces series. A small retail space was stocked with food which could then be taken by anyone, free of charge. The art project came and went but one of founders of The Free Store, Benjamin Johnson, was deeply impacted by the peculiar approach to regular retail.

The Free Store provides an inclusive community to belong to. We welcome people as they are, but we also provide rich and meaningful opportunities for participation. We don't consider ourselves just a charity, but rather a whānau to belong to.
Benjamin Johnson, Founder – The Free Store

“I heard from a friend that some of the food was supplied by local cafes that had a surplus and that’s when a few friends decided to expand the concept into a long-term, sustainable, grassroots initiative,” he says.

Recognising that the problem of commercial food waste could help people facing food security challenges, this group of Wellingtonians decided that they wanted to offer something dramatically different to their community.

“This wasn’t just another food bank looking to compete with existing organisations. We wanted to provide an accessible food source where absolutely no conditions were placed on who could partake. In conversations with people on the margins of our community, we recognised that many people were in profound need, but didn’t quite fit the criteria of many other services. All the food we provide would literally be wasted, so why wouldn’t we make it available to anyone?”

The Free Store was born.

One of the first challenges faced by the initiative was finding some suitable inner-city premises. Using their creativity and ingenuity, the team was able to covert a shipping container into a flourishing base located at St Peters on Willis Street which operates five days per week. Through the generous contributions of countless people and businesses, what should have been a $65k project, cost exactly zero. The ethos of ‘giving for good’ can be found in every aspect of The Free Store and sustainable action runs deep.

The programme has gone from strength to strength since its inception. Every year, $1.5m in food is redistributed, equating to 220,000 items which feed up to 120 people each night. Just imagining all that food otherwise going to waste is simply flabbergasting. And the movement is growing in Wellington and beyond. Together with the ‘Just Zilch’ community in Palmerston North, The Free Store team has formalised the Aotearoa Free Store Movement to actively spread their kaupapa throughout the country.

“It has been an honour to be able to connect, resource, support and grow an interconnected movement of Free Store communities throughout Aotearoa. If a neighbourhood is interested in starting a Free Store, we provide them with all the resources, knowledge and hands-on experience necessary for them to launch,” says Benjamin.

Numerous communities have been supported so far including ones in Hawke’s Bay, Auckland and New Plymouth, with West Auckland, Christchurch and Sydney in the planning phase.

As the businesses donating food continue to grow in number, The Food Store has looked at other ways in which it can support its community. It has developed a partnership with Housing New Zealand whereby the team delivers food parcels three days per week to 16 households in the nearby Dixon Street flats. Actively listening to the people they aim to serve is a very high priority.

“Earlier this year we piloted the programme over the course of a month, delivering hampers into every single household. Feedback was sought from the tenants and we developed a shortlist of ongoing recipients who were high needs and were unable to physically come to The Free Store. We deliver food to the elderly, immigrants and those with disabilities.”

From the outset, the founders wanted to establish something different. They wanted to create an inclusive community that encouraged their customers to become contributors. On this count, as on so many others, they have succeeded.

“Currently, 75% of our volunteers on any given day would be people that first came to the store in need. We have volunteers that are living on the streets, from low-income housing nearby, unemployed, long-term sickness beneficiaries, and the elderly. It is amazing to see so many people who benefit from our work become our most dedicated, hard-working volunteers. Some of our customer-volunteers are now also on our volunteer leadership team where they are being actively upskilled and developed as leaders in their community,” says Benjamin.

One of their proudest moments was when a regular customer-volunteer, Trevor, was employed by a contributing bakery as a delivery driver on the back of an endorsement by The Free Store. Through his hard work and determination, this relentlessly positive man is now in full-time employment and housing.

You’d be forgiven if you thought that these achievements would give The Free Store permission to rest on its laurels. Well, you’d be wrong; there are big plans afoot. The supply base further and to extend its reach through new partnerships like the one with Housing New Zealand. There are also dreams of bigger and better facilities which incorporate a commercial kitchen and a seating area – work is underway to make this a reality.

In 2018, every member of the leadership team will be living in the vicinity of The Free Store, an intentional move on everyone’s behalf. Here’s why:

“We have made it a priority to all live within a few blocks of our friends that access and contribute to our Free Store community. Our homes will be safe and welcoming spaces of hospitality that extend beyond the physical location of The Free Store. We will host dinners, birthday parties and have open doors for people to visit for cups of tea. We want our lives to overlap more with our Free Store community – they are not problems to solve, but friends to know.”

It’s very clear just how much this initiative has served to enrich the lives of each and every person involved, on both sides of the shop floor. Humanity at its finest.

Photo Credit for all photos: The Free Store