Elmer Peiffer closes Whakaora’s food service. Photo/Andrew Warner
Hundreds of people who use a free food service each week will now have to go elsewhere after long-established food distributors Rotorua Whakaora were forced to stop handing out food parcels.
Elmer Peiffer, who
runs the service with his wife Gina, said they had to make the “heartbreaking” decision to close the free Depot St store while they worked on a better structure.
He said they were exhausted, strapped for money and needed to be more efficient or else they risked sinking “into the grave”.
He promised that after a while they would come back bigger and better.
The closure only affects the free store service which was open on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday for three hours a day.
On those days, people would come to the store and pick up a food parcel – containing items such as cereals, sauces, canned goods and other non-perishables as well as fresh fruits and vegetables and baked goods.
Peiffer estimated that each week their service fed hundreds, if not thousands, with their last day of operation on Saturday alone attracting 183 people representing members of large families.
Rotorua Whakaora, formerly Love Soup, was established by the Peiffers in 2014. They initially fed the homeless with hot meals, but their focus changed in May 2020 as a result of Covid-19.
When many of the city’s homeless people were placed in motels during the first lockdown, Love Soup was no longer needed as many homeless people received food. Instead, their service changed course and they became collectors and distributors of food. The change resulted in the new name.
Peiffer collected food daily from Rotorua’s three Countdown stores and Pak’nSave, Starbucks, Patrick’s Boutique Bakery, Pantry d’Or Boutique Bakery, from an egg farm on Tauranga Direct Rd and once a week from the New Zealand Food Network. He also made regular trips to Nourished for Nil in Hastings and Just Zilch in Palmerston North.
Peiffer said he would continue to pick up each day locally and collect food for networks in outlying areas to pick up, such as in Maketū, Kaingaroa, Mangakino and Murupara.
They would also provide bags of food at their weekly pick-up point at the Linton Park Community Center on Sundays.
However, they no longer had the capacity to run the labor-intensive free store.
“We pride ourselves on being able to do much of the work with minimal funding. We all want the work done without looking for funding.”
However, realities had begun to bite. They needed concrete work on their driveway at their Depot St store, a forklift, and money for vehicle operation and maintenance costs.
“We need to free up time to chase money to keep this operation going.”
He said they had fantastic support and donations from community members who helped fill in the gaps, but they needed more to work more effectively.
They were also understaffed and it was a big ask to find volunteers to keep the place running.
The Peiffers benefit because it allowed them to run Rotorua Whakaora, but they often worked seven days a week and up to 14-16 hours a day.
They’ve only had two days off over Christmas for the past few months and it was starting to take its toll.
“People have no idea how much work goes on behind the scenes. They think the food parcels magically appear, but it’s hours and hours of travel and manual labor to put them together. in bags.”
He said the pressure had mounted during high-risk Covid-19 times as everything needed to be contactless and proper protocols needed to be in place.
“It’s heartbreaking… It broke our hearts, but if we continued, we wouldn’t last. To continue, we have to ask for money.”
Peiffer said the hardest part was knowing their service was needed. He urged those in need of food to use all other services offered and not be afraid to ask for help.
Rotorua Salvation Army Corps Officer and Community Ministries Director Captain Hana Seddon said Rotorua Whakaora had been a constant support for all kinds of food for the community for a long time.
“We sincerely appreciate the mahi the Rotorua Whakaora team have made… Their efforts are certainly appreciated.”
She said the name Whakaora meant to bring life and that was what they had done to many people locally over the years.
“Now is the time for them to take some time off and get that energy back for themselves after all that hard work.”
She said the Salvation Army food bank was working and it was best to phone first to make an appointment or call if people couldn’t make a call. The food bank is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Percy Poharama, who with his wife Louisa provides meals to homeless people in Kuirau Park from Monday to Friday, said he was saddened to hear that Rotorua Whakaora would be closing its free shop.
“They were one of the best support groups for people here in Rotorua, hope they come back soon.”
Poharama said he and his wife haven’t been doing it as long as Elmer and Gina Peiffer, but he understood how the need in Rotorua was pushing the helpers to keep going. Poharama also had a day job and said it was not uncommon to work from 4 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. to get the job done.
“Elmer is a great guy, I have a lot of respect for him. I see him working hard every day and finding food all the time is really hard.”
Community and Voluntary Sector Minister Priyanca Radhakrishnan said she knew things had been difficult during the Covid-19 period, including for the community and voluntary sector.
“Many have gone out of their way to ensure that people who needed a little extra support and volunteering are essential to New Zealand’s social and economic recovery. As government, we have supported our food banks and our social agencies with funding through the Covid Response and Recovery Fund but we know we can always do more which is why I am looking at what more can be done to support volunteers and volunteering.