Fair Food's Chief Cheerleader

September 15, 2021

Image of Veronica Shale

Imagine 143 tonnes of perfectly good food going to landfill instead of into the bellies of people who need it – every month! During Auckland's lockdowns, our partner charity, Fair Food, stopped that from happening and earned themselves the New Zealand Food Awards Supreme Award.

We had a chat with Fair Food's Executive Director and Chief Cheerleader, Veronica Shale, to learn where her drive and passion for the cause comes from, and what led her to Fair Food. Here’s her story in her words.

In Yugoslavia during World War II, my grandfather was taken away one night, and never seen again. My grandmother, Baba Mila, came to New Zealand in 1956 with 3 children. One of them was my mother. These new immigrants settled in Oratia, West Auckland – coincidently where Fair Food was founded several decades later.

Baba Mila was strong, steadfast, solid, and knew her own mind. She grew all her vegetables, made wine, and made espresso coffee for us kids when there was no such thing in NZ. In her later years, she lived with us. Her acceptance and grace as she aged, and then became more reliant on us, always inspired me. When it was my turn to look after her, I loved every moment of it. I wouldn’t be here without her.

I was born in Onehunga and grew up in Epsom. As one of four girls, life was loud, loving, and generous. Family, friends and food were always around. Yugoslavs are masters of eating and we share similar food attitudes with Māori culture. The nose to tail ethos is common among foodies now but it was just typical for us. Sustainability was typical for us too – growing our food, eating seasonally, preserving, no waste, and so on. We always overcooked just in case someone wandered through the door.

My father was a local volunteer fireman for over 25 years. My mother was involved with organisations like Birthright and Plunket. Her Christmas Day open home policy was legendary! At one point there were about 60 of us – family, friends, waifs, strays, and orphans. It’s magic what can happen when food is shared. I still enjoy all-day foraging and food prep at the beach followed by a long lazy lunch.

When my sisters and I were teenagers, mum was a sole parent. Somehow she kept food on the table. Her generosity gene is alive and well. I know firsthand how unexpected and easy it is to be put in a vulnerable position, and how vital it is for those that have more than they need, to rally around with whatever they have, and to give with no judgment – be it food, love, a kind word and a safe space.

Being a first-generation New Zealander from an immigrant family instilled me with a sense of hard work and making ends meet. It was coupled with generosity, everyone being welcome, and sharing what you have with those that have too little.

My first passion was ballet. I loved getting lost in the music – in a character, I guess. I also enjoyed the structure, discipline, and athleticism coupled with creativity. It also meant I could eat four pieces of Vogels and near a block of tasty cheese every day after rehearsal, no worries!

After high school, I started studying accounting and law. I was doing what I thought I ought to do and I barely passed my first year. I didn’t really try. I was having too much of a good time at Otago University.

In second year, I straightened up, as you do. I did two degrees and a masters. My economics degree included environmental, comparative, and innovative economics. My marketing degree included food marketing, and my marketing masters focused on consumer behaviour. Eventually, I entered the advertising industry. I loved the opportunity to use creativity to solve problems and make change. I also had a mammoth student debt to pay!

While working in advertising I learned how to bring a heap of different people together, tell a persuasive story, manage teams and projects, stretch a budget, and work long hours to tight deadlines. But after 20-plus years in advertising, I’d burnt out and crashed out of the corporate world.

I took a year off and followed my childhood passion by doing contemporary dance and musical theatre. Walking into classes for the first time was the most petrifying, yet proudest moment. I’m no superstar slick mover or singer, but jeez, it was good getting out of my comfort zone and having an outlet. As you get older, you give less fucks about what others think.

In 2015 I saw a Fair Food ad on Seek calling for volunteer board members, so I applied. After 4 years on the board, I’m now employed as Executive Director. The knowledge and skillsets I gained from my education and my time in the advertising industry now drives Fair Food forward. It helps bring people together, spreads the word, and tackles hunger and waste.

Veronica and some of the Fair Food team

Fair Food helps feed families with the extra good food you don’t need. That means those families won’t be hungry which means they can feel better, learn better, play better, and grow better. Giving our extra food to people that are hungry today also means we don’t throw it away in the rubbish bin. Throwing food in the bin sends it to landfill where it turns into gas which heats up the air and the sea which is bad for all of us.

It's moving work. I weep weekly, easily – touched by the kindness, the need, the coming together, and the impact we collectively have. The vulnerable must be looked after. Food is such a unifying, universally understood conduit and community builder. The fact we also tackle environmental issues is epic in my mind.

The biggest challenge faced by Fair Food is funding. Really, we’re the equivalent of a startup facing exponential growth in a Covid-19 world. It’s tough but it’s darn rewarding when we pull together, do some good together, and try to have some fun along the way.

Thank you to all One Percent Collective donors who support Fair Food with their regular giving. You help us get 5 meals out for every dollar donated! We simply couldn't do it without this kind of support.

As told to Ben Woodward. Photography by Alex Wallace and Ann Orman.

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