For 22-year-old June*, being a part of Uniting Ballarat's Meals For Change program has meant more than access to affordable meals.
Being given the chance to eating out in cafes like any other 22-year-old has boosted her confidence and self-esteem and helped her manage anxiety and depression.
Finishing school before Year 9 and moving out of home at 19, June struggled financially and often relied on baked beans or instant noodles for meals.
Now after joining Meals For Change, she has secured work in hospitality and retail and has used her meal card to thank friends who have helped her, while enjoying time in cafes building relationships in an environment with friendly and respectful staff.
"I love for the first time in my life, someone knows my regular coffee," she said.
June is one of 90 active members of Meals For Change in Ballarat.
The program provides opportunities for young people aged 15 to 25 who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, experiencing poor access to food and housing, social isolation, anxiety or financial stress to enjoy subsidised meals at eight cafes throughout Ballarat.
These young people are really worth it. This is where our investment has got to be.Jen Pollard, Meals For Change
A Meals For Change membership card looks like a regular coffee loyalty card and allows members to purchase twelve meals up to the value of $15 for only $3 out of their own pocket each time, with the remaining cost covered by Uniting.
Ballarista, Beechworth Bakery, Burger Brothers, Curry Star, Howitt Street Bakehouse, Saigon Vietnam Noodle House, Savoy Coffee Lounge and Schnitz are partner cafes.
Meals For Change coordinator Jen Pollard said the cafes were chosen based on the price point of meals and an inclusive culture.
"I never realised how significant it is to sit in a cafe and have a meal, have a chat and just be and feel safe and at ease with the world. That is what I hear time and time again," she said.
"I have heard someone say they can be having a really bad day, feeling really down on the world, but when they walk in the door of the cafe, they lift their shoulders up and feel better."
Ms Pollard said the program was about 'feeding the soul as well as the belly'.
"The program definitely improves meal frequency and nutrition and for me that is the hook. But I hear from members it makes them feel better," she said.
"If I have got food in my belly and I am treated respectfully I am going to feel better about the world."
Survey results show members feel better about themselves, feel better about the community in which they live, are eating more regularly and trying different foods, are not as stressed abut money because they know they can get a cheap nutritious meal, and they show an increase in the number of people they trust and the number of people that trust them after being a part of the program.
"There are people who care," one young man told Ms Pollard when reflecting on the program last month.
"If anything, it gives us hope that the community does care about us. The media can often add to negative feelings about ourselves, young people unemployment or homeless. But Meals For Change lets us know the community does care about us. It is a step up and is based in kindness."
If anything, it gives us hope that the community does care about us.Meals For Change member
Meals For Change has expanded to allow members to take a friend or family member to a participating cafe with their program card and also receive the same discounted meal price.
Ms Pollard said it provided opportunities for members to re-engage with families members and friends.
"One young girl once said every time she went home and tried to sort out her relationship with mum they would pick up the argument where they left off," she said.
"She took mum out to a cafe and they had the best conversation they had had, probably because of the behaviours and expectations of being in a cafe, but also sharing a table and some food and a cuppa.
"It is also for young people who have been knocking back friends to go out, that link back into a social group is really powerful... That is a really good investment on a community's part."
In 2018 members made more than 1600 cafe visits.
More than 240 young people have been referred to the program since its beginning four years ago by support workers, youth mental health services, homelessness services, youth justice and disability providers - or through self-referral.
For those joining Meals For Change through a self-referral, Ms Pollard said the program provided a soft entry point to services for those who may otherwise go without support.
"Once they walk into Uniting in Ballarat and ask to talk about a Meals For Change membership we have got a relationship with them," she said.
"Then we can work with then on how else we can help them, that might be seeing an alcohol or drug counsellor, a mental health practioner, putting them on a youth housing list, introducing them to Reconnect at Fed Uni, or being in court with them.
"We're catching the people in the community know one really knows about. Once we know them, we as a community have a responsibility to care."
Currently, eight of the program members have secured work, including a young women who is working at one of the participating cafes, and seven members have returned to study.
The Meals For Change program is funded by Uniting, donations to Meals For Change tins at cafes and community grants.
It is currently expanding to include monthly meet ups with a group of members to introduce them to spaces in the community they can access, like the Art Gallery of Ballarat and the library.
"I am wanting to push the boundaries about what a small discreet program can do one meal at a time," Ms Pollard said.
"These young people are really worth it. This is where our investment has got to be."
Contact Uniting Ballarat on 5332 1286 or visit the office at 105 Dana Street Ballarat Central.
*not her real name