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Retired ‘Mama Mary’ feeding hundreds of hungry people

Makhanda Food4Futures NPO founder started from her garage and now operates from donated space

Local Hero Mary Birt,72, helps provide food parcels and donations as part of her NPO Food4Futures in Makhanda.
Local Hero Mary Birt,72, helps provide food parcels and donations as part of her NPO Food4Futures in Makhanda.
Image: SUPPLIED

Local Hero nominee Mary Birt, 72, from Makhanda, is lovingly known as “Mama Mary” after starting the NPO Food4Futures, Ithemba Le Kamva to help feed the hungry in the city.

Birt said: “I’m retired, but this is a full-time job.

“I care passionately about feeding people, those who can’t get work or have nothing.

“I’ve seen someone pick up a piece of bread off the road, dust it off and eat it.

“It’s distressing.”

Food4Futures secretary Nobesuthu Felicia Nkatazo, 43, from Makhanda, said Birt had the “biggest heart”.

She’s always thinking about people more than herself. She is like the mother of Grahamstown

Nkatazo said: “They all call her Mama Mary, when she drives around town they recognise her car and wave or come up and say thank you for her help.

“She’s always thinking about people more than herself. She is like the mother of Grahamstown.” 

Birt started the NPO from her home in 2018, but the operation soon grew too big for her garage.

“It all started with one man knocking on my door looking for a job. I told him I can’t give you work but I can give you food.

“It grew to 35 people coming to my home. I was providing groceries with my own money.”

Birt said she had been donated space by the St John’s organisation to store supplies and repackage food parcels to a list of 50 people in 2019.

“God keeps me going. We’ve had times with little in the bank and a big grocery bill and we always get out of a pickle.

I love people. I have had the privilege of learning about their lives and journey

“I love people. I have had the privilege of learning about their lives and journey.”

Each food parcel is made of flour, tea, mielie meal, candles, baked beans, sugar, salt, soup powder, soap and rice.

“I was still using my own money, so I wrote to my friends and asked for them to pledge donations of a certain amount every month for one parcel a week.

“Some people did, some did not, but some gave more.

“During the pandemic in 2020, we went from 50 parcels to 550, it was huge.” 

Food4Futures worked with more than 60 volunteers for the eight months of hard lockdown in partnership with the cathedral of St Michael and St George, which provided the financial backing for the project, as well as receiving 200 food parcels from the Siya Kolisi Foundation. 

“Whole families would come and help us pack. We turned huge amounts, tonnes of food, into individual bags. 

“It felt like a tidal wave, food was coming in and out.

“After restrictions eased, people went back to work and the church said it's their funds had run out. People had restarted, but we knew people still needed help.”

The list moved to accommodate 120 people in 2021 and 2022 for weekly food parcels and has expanded the operation to new projects and adopted other organisations to provide for. 

“We’ve been slowly climbing again and adding more people. We recently raised funds with an auction, we offer ID support, and have a sandwich drive, and recently started Parking4Parcels.”

Food4Futures collects a monthly bulk supply parcel for a creche in Alicedale, the Home of Joy Children’s Home in Joza twice a month, and supplies for the African Connection Women’s Football Club and Mfuzo’s Boxing Camp. 

“We were approached by the two sports clubs. We collect feminine hygiene products and food for them.

“These clubs have been going for more than 20 years. A promising young boxer came to help us pack and we had lunch together.

“He told me they learn so much more than just sport. They learn about respect and anger management. They are like heroes in their own neighbourhood.”

We used to give people who collected parcels a peanut butter sandwich, and we kept getting people who were not on the list. We were getting so many hungry people

The Parking4Parcels initiative allows members of the public to purchase ticket books with various amounts from R5 to R20 which can be exchanged for supplies and meals. 

“We used to give people who collected parcels a peanut butter sandwich, and we kept getting people who were not on the list. We were getting so many hungry people.

“So now every Tuesday we have 100 loaves of bread and 11kg of peanut butter and give out sandwiches.”

Volunteer social media and marketing manager Monique Forsynth, 29, from Makhanda, said she had been introduced to the NPO in 2020 and “never looked back”.

Forsynth said: “In Grahamstown specifically, the number of people who can’t support themselves is growing all the time.

“Most people who come don’t have IDs or are too hungry to be able to put the effort into anything else but surviving.

“When we help them with their IDs or food, it’s a short-term solution but allows people to actually find work.

“We’ve had people come to thank us and say they’ve got their ID and got a job so can be removed from the list.”

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