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Thousands of international students in Melbourne are turning to food banks to access emergency food and stave off hunger, after Australia’s second-largest city enforced a second, six-week lockdown.

The lockdown, spurred by rising COVID-19 coronavirus cases, has once again forced countless employers within the retail and hospitality industry to lay off part-time and casual employees — a significant portion of which is made up of international students. With international students ineligible for federal government income assistance, many report trouble accessing the most basic of human needs. 

Orlando Berne, a volunteer at the food distribution centre Kindness Community Group, said his group joined four other centres to provide 20,000 kilograms of food over 15 weeks to international students in need. Berne explained the number of people requiring food assistance spiked again after a period of decline when Victoria’s restrictions eased in June. 

"We were seeing a decline in the numbers,” Berne told the Guardian. “Some people that we hadn’t seen in three or four weeks, they called and they said, ‘I lost my job because the restaurant has closed again. I need to get your food basket again.’ It was really, really, disappointing. Not just for the students, but all of us.”

Community food groups are relieving some of the pressure from Foodbank, Australia’s largest food relief organisation.

CEO of Foodbank Australia, Brianna Casey, said the organisation is assisting an “unprecedented and confronting” 1.4 million Australians. Individuals in need of food assistance for the first time, including international students, should not be embarrassed to reach out, Casey said.

"One of the most important pieces of information I can give to people is: Don't be embarrassed, don't feel a stigma attached to asking for food relief,” she told the Australia Broadcasting Corporation. "No one could have anticipated a pandemic of this nature hitting Australia in the way that it did."

The number of Australians in need of emergency food has spiked by 78% since the virus first took hold in late January. 

Around 150,000 international students are currently studying in Victoria — the majority in metropolitan Melbourne.

In April, the state government announced a one-off relief payment of up to $1,100 to support the state’s international students as part of a $45 million International Student Emergency Relief Fund.

“International students give so much to Victoria — it’s only fair we support them in their hour of need,” Victoria’s Minister for Jobs, Innovation and Trade Martin Pakula said in a media release. “This virus doesn’t discriminate, and neither do we — we are in this together, and we will get through it together.” 

The six-week lockdown is expected to cease on August 19.

On Sunday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews made masks mandatory for all residents in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire. Those found flouting the new restrictions will be slapped with a $200 fine. 


Defeat Poverty

International Students in Melbourne Forced to Turn to Food Banks Amid COVID-19 Lockdown

By Madeleine Keck