The long shadow of COVID-19 has seen hunger and growing desperation sweep the community, claiming demographics previously untouched by food insecurity.
Jen Wright, program coordinator of Uniting Ballarat's BreezeWay meals service, said the level of demand for front-line services in the region had almost doubled in the past year.
"In the last four months we've provided around 21,500 meals to the community," Ms Wright said. "This time last year it was 11,000."
"We're seeing new faces almost daily, as well as more families - particularly single parent families - at a much, much higher rate than we had previously."
The tragic reality of the situation has also hit Uniting's emergency relief program, which has likewise experienced a twofold increase in the level of demand.
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Uniting Ballarat welfare worker Tania Jennings said it was difficult to exaggerate the ongoing impact of the pandemic, which she said had thrown hundreds of families into crisis.
"This time last year we had 500 people on our books," Ms Jennings said. "Now, we're well over 1000."
Ms Jennings said the general optimism that accompanied the winding back of restrictions had concealed the scale and complexity of the problem from the general community.
"Everyone seems to automatically think, 'oh, we're all back to normal', and they don't realise how the pandemic has changed the lives of so many people for the foreseeable future."
In a mark of how profound the level of need is within the community, Ms Jennings said Uniting Ballarat had already exhausted its funding limits for its Christmas emergency relief program, which is set to support over 500 families this year.
"Because we've reached our funding limits, we've had to encourage others in need to go over to Anglicare or the Salvos for assistance," she said.
The scale of the problem manifesting in Ballarat is consistent with Foodbank's October hunger report, which found one in six Australian adults and a further 1.2 million children were currently experiencing severe food insecurity, with many foregoing food for entire days at a time.
Nearly 40 per cent of those people had never experienced food insecurity before this year.
Naomi Stephenson, an emergency relief support worker with Anglicare Ballarat, said the level of ongoing need within the community was so acute the organisation had been forced to remove its cap of six to ten visits per year.
"We've just had to put that whole system aside because people literally don't have enough money to make everything work, to make ends meet," she said. "At least 80 families have accessed our services every month this year while more than 400 have done their six visits this year, which is crazy."
Like Uniting, Anglicare has also observed a changed demographic in the people seeking assistance.
"We've seen an entirely different cohort of people come through," Ms Stephenson said. "It's people we didn't see pre-pandemic, like working families who need help because one parent hasn't been able to get their job back yet."
Ms Stephenson said she'd also seen a rise in the number of single mothers requiring assistance, citing domestic violence, family breakdown and job or housing insecurity as possible immediate causes.
She said the federal government's winding back of JobSeeker and scrapping of JobKeeper payments had, for many households, laid bare the full financial implications of the pandemic.
"Before those payments were cut, people were able to make ends meet and pay their bills, but the withdrawal of government support has put a terrible strain on their resources."
It's a perception backed by the Foodbank report, which found nearly half the people that had accessed those payments in the year to March 2021 were experiencing financial hardship as a result.
Salvation Army Ballarat team leader John Clonan said the withdrawal of government assistance for people was the overriding reason front-line agencies were feeling the impact of the pandemic more than last year.
"We've certainly experienced a higher demand from people since JobKeeper finished and JobSeeker was reduced," Mr Clonan said. "Well over 55 per cent of people are presenting due to issues around finance and many are first-time users of our services."
But Mr Clonan said it would be a mistake to assume every person experiencing food insecurity had sought food relief from front-line agencies.
"There's a significant group of people out there who would find it difficult to bring themselves to ask for help," he said.
According to the Foodbank report, around one third of people experiencing food insecurity refrained from seeking help due to overwhelming feelings of shame and embarrassment.
Readers can support people experiencing hardship in Ballarat by donating to the 3BA Christmas Appeal and/or the Reverse Advent Calendar initiative. Uniting Ballarat is also seeking new volunteers in the New Year.
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