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Outside a CBD skyscraper, the queues are forming early. Money is tight and free food is a luxury worth waiting for.
In its first weeks, about 2000 students have lined up weekly to use a new service run by Foodbank.
Students Arum Kumar, Akar Gupta, Nitin Kumar and Shravan Kumar at the Aurora Melbourne Central Foodbank International Student Pop-Up Store. Credit:Foodbank Victoria
It's a free supermarket for international students only, and demand is strong.
More than 100,000 international students left behind in Melbourne after borders were shut have been hit hard by the pandemic. With casual work drying up and no federal government support, many are struggling to put food on the table.
Final-year master's student Aatree Goswami says it has been a difficult year.
As the number of coronavirus cases rose, her hospitality and office cleaning shifts disappeared one by one. She worries about her family at home in India, where more than 8.5 million cases have been recorded.
Ms Goswami has been getting by on income from her few shifts, a university grant, and stretching out her savings. Discovering the Foodbank pop-up has been a game-changer.
"Like everyone, I guess, the pandemic has definitely taken a toll," Ms Goswami said.
It's a situation mirrored across Melbourne.
Fiona Henderson, Melbourne campus manager of Kaplan Business School, said international students were under great pressure after months without work or government support.
"Many students arrived in Australia just before the pandemic hit, making it near impossible to secure work," she said.
"Our students are most appreciative of the work Foodbank are doing, and have found this initiative to be invaluable in helping them stay on their feet during COVID-19."
International students brought more than $32 billion to the Australian economy in 2017-18.
But, says University of Melbourne student union president Hannah Buchan, they have not received adequate support in return.
"The university sector especially relies on the money that international students bring into the sector, so it's really unfair they're being treated like that," she said.
"Students don't feel they've got a very good quality of education this year, for the money they've had to pay upfront."
The pop-up shop is run by Foodbank Victoria in retail space donated by property developer UEM Sunrise, and will be open until the end of December. It has been supported by a range of businesses and the City of Melbourne.
"We’re very excited to provide a new concept in food relief – where dignity and choice play a powerful role in helping international students who have been the forgotten victims of this crisis," Foodbank chief executive Dave McNamara said.
UEM Sunrise Australian director Ong Chee Wei said the property industry had "immense resources at its disposal" and could support communities during challenging times.
The pop-up store is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10am to 2pm. For more information, visit foodbank.org.au/students/
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