In Focus

Our partnership with The Big Umbrella

Teleisha Thomas

Teleisha Thomas

October 2022
Big Umbrella

In 2010, Justin Dickinson found himself in Kathmandu, Nepal, working on micro-documentaries with street children in the area. After witnessing the devastating effects of child trafficking, Justin was inspired to create change. The following year, he opened The Big Umbrella (TBU) House Nepal, a highly regarded rehabilitation centre for street children which still operates to this day.

Upon returning home to Melbourne, Justin knew he wanted to do something for his local community after realising that there was a huge problem with food waste in our city, coupled with the fact he was seeing people waiting for hours for a meal at various soup kitchens in and around Melbourne’s CBD.

From here, The Big Umbrella was founded, a not-for-profit group dedicated to feeding Melbourne’s homeless with dignity and compassion. On two nights each week, TBU and its volunteers create and share a meal with more than 600 people. The Jellis Craig Foundation are delighted to have supported TBU over the last 18 months and we are proud to be continuing this relationship through a long-term partnership that will support their future growth.

What was the catalyst for you starting TBU?

I saw a logical solution to two very real problems – food wastage and food insecurity. It was as simple as putting two-and-two together and coming up with a solution.

What have been some of the more rewarding moments since you founded TBU?

Seeing what other people get out of our organisation is by far the most rewarding element of what we do. Whether that is our volunteers dedicating their time or our friends on the street eating a nutritious meal with good company.

Before we moved to our current warehouse facility, we were working out of a commercial kitchen half the size of where we are now which was challenging for several reasons. To have our own dedicated space has given TBU a whole new life and opportunity for growth and expansion to be able to help more people.

Rescuing surplus food is a significant part of the reason TBU was founded. We get 90 per cent of our food, which would otherwise go to waste, from the large chain supermarkets.

Tell us about how the pandemic affected TBU?

Nothing has come close to how the pandemic impacted us. Trying to operate with a serious shortage of food – in part due to the panic buying during the height of the pandemic, particularly during that first lockdown in 2020 when everyone was genuinely afraid of the virus – was a huge task.

In saying that, the generosity of trades and suppliers during this time, which happened to coincide with the build of our new warehouse and industrial kitchen facility, was overwhelming and humbling. Their support meant we were able to continue to do what we love and provide to those in need.

We’re so proud that, despite the difficulties, we were able to deliver 47,000 meals during the first 111-day lockdown period in 2020. In 2021 we offered home delivered food boxes to residents in our local council areas of Moreland and Darebin on top of continuous service at Federation Square, which reverted to a prepacked COVID-safe meal offering.

The bushfires and floods sparked another opportunity to support people in crisis situations. Tell us about this time.

We’re quickly realising that disaster management is where we need to focus a lot of our efforts. We’ve done four disasters in three years back-to-back – the 2019/2020 bushfires, the 2021 storms in the Dandenong’s, the pandemic and the 2022 floods in Queensland and New South Wales. The level of need in a disaster area is probably the greatest priority we face as humans. As we’re not a government organisation and we have our own vehicles and volunteer teams, we’re able to act quickly, and this means at TBU we respond to disasters really well. Wherever the need is, we will be there.

In your mind, what are the main differences between TBU and other organisations offering meals to those suffering food insecurity?

Through a lack of funding, and no fault of their own, a lot of existing charities that work to feed Melburnians in need are run off their feet and only have access to fast, ready-made options that aren’t always nutritious.

Each day, our chef reviews the rescued seasonal fruits and vegetables and protein to curate a huge variety of healthy and delicious meals, including vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options. The variety on offer means that our friends on the street are given the dignity of choice when it comes to their evening meal.

Another aspect we feel passionate about is the community building nature of TBU. We are the only food relief organisation that works on the street that provides chairs and tables. We create an area for people to come and sit and share a meal, giving people a chance to connect and socialise. When you break bread with somebody over a table it brings a level of connection.

Outside of what you provide to people in need, you have cultivated a very impressive organisation culturally. How have you achieved this?

We are a 100% volunteer organisation, myself included, and I try to lead by example. I have found that the team behind The Big Umbrella respond best to equality. Even though I may technically be the “CEO” of The Big Umbrella, we really are all on the same level. That mentality extends beyond the kitchen and to our friends on the street as well.

For me, the most important part of my volunteer work is talking to and engaging with people that are ignored by general society.

What is next for TBU?

The pandemic and the food shortages after the floods gave us the realisation that we needed to be self-sufficient. Building our own garden to create a sustainable produce farm means we can be. We are about to start construction on our new garden. Once complete, this will give us the confidence that if a similar situation occurred again, we wouldn’t need to be reliant on organisations like OzHarvest Australia or the major supermarket chains.

We want to make TBU the most sustainable commercial kitchen in Australia by repurposing the sun, the water and our kitchen waste to then grow food – making the TBU premises a full circle closed system.

To do this, we will be installing an irrigation system that will catch water from the roof and channel it into tanks for use on our new garden. We’re also excited to be embarking on our solar panel project, whereby solar panels with Tesla batteries will be installed on our roof to take our warehouse and kitchen 60% off-grid.

How has the long-term partnership with Jellis Craig helped to support some of TBUs recent projects?

The Jellis Craig Foundation have been a huge supporter of our new kitchen facility since day one.

Without the support of the Jellis Craig Foundation over the last two years, I don’t know where we would be. It was the midst of the 2021 extended lockdown, we had concerns with food supply and a serious shortage of volunteers, and suddenly Jellis Craig got in touch and gave us the strength to continue.

Apart from the peoplepower, the Jellis Craig Foundation’s support will mean that all our major long-term projects – the garden, the irrigation, the solar panels – will be completed. It’s so exciting and rewarding watching this dream come to fruition.

Learn more about The Big Umbrella

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