Councils’ kitchen sold for $1?

Celebrity chef Gabriel Gate and Victoria University students at the opening of Community Chef. Photo: Victorian Government

By Cam Lucadou-Wells and Goya Dmytryshchak

The State Opposition has called for a Parliamentary inquiry into the Government’s purported buy-out of a financially-stricken catering kitchen part-owned by Greater Dandenong Council for as little as $1.

Opposition health spokesperson Georgie Crozier says the inquiry is needed to “get to the bottom” of the proposed sell-off of Community Chef – which is said to be on the brink of receivership.

“The Andrews Government has many questions to answer including plans to buy Community Chef for the reported peppercorn amount of just $1.”

Community Chef is a joint enterprise owned by 16 local councils which provides more than 1.2 million meals a year for Meals on Wheels, aged care homes and hospitals.

After opening in 2010, it has been propped up by a $2.9 million “recallable grant” from the Department of Health and Human Services.

It also reportedly owes $7 million to banks.

Greater Dandenong councillor Peter Brown said the council, with about 10 per cent shareholding, would be exposed to about $700,000 of the bank debt.

As a shareholder, the council may also be exposed to “unknown” other liabilities, Cr Brown said.

He said the enterprise was close to trading insolvent but for an emergency bailout by its stakeholders in 2019.

“It’s been trading at a loss for quite some time.

“We’re mad if we don’t sell it.”

The take-over would be a “great public benefit” by continuing the supply of “critical” hospital meals and Meals on Wheels food to vulnerable clients, he said.

Cr Tim Dark said Greater Dandenong was “behind by several hundred thousand dollars” since the kitchen opened in 2010.

It was preferable to sell Community Chef to the State Government for $1, rather than put it into receivership and jeopardise the supply of meals, Cr Dark said.

“Thousands of meals have been provided for people in the community, so arguably we’ve done well out of it.”

Greater Dandenong Council declined to comment on Community Chef, referring Star Journal to the DHHS.

A Victorian Government spokesperson said the DHHS was examining ways to “boost capacity in our hospitals – including ensuring appropriate meal services are available”.

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos told a press conference on 16 April that the Government would “consider what’s the best value for taxpayers”. She added she wouldn’t discuss the “commercial in confidence” matter.

Community Chef chief executive Joe Ciccarone declined to comment on the proposed sale.

Meanwhile, Ms Crozier has called for the inquiry to include the controversial shutdown of Dandenong South commercial caterer I Cook Foods by health authorities and Greater Dandenong Council in 2019.

I Cook Foods is regarded as a chief rival of Community Chef.

Ms Crozier says she’s still awaiting “answers” from her FOI request for emails between Health Minister Jenny Mikakos, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and the DHHS departmental secretary relating to I Cook Foods.

“You have an organisation that’s running up millions of dollars of liabilities that the Government is willing to write it off – while a legitimate business has gone down in the process.

“The Victorian public deserve to know what’s going on.”

On 14 April, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos was quizzed about calls for a police investigation into claims that Greater Dandenong food inspectors planted a slug in the I Cook Foods factory prior to its shutdown.

Ms Mikakos said the matter had been “concluded” by anti-corruption body IBAC.

She said it had also been investigated by Victoria Police – though I Cook Foods says the investigation is still afoot.

“If some individual has new evidence, that’s up to them to refer to Victoria Police,” Ms Mikakos said.

“There’s litigation pending with the Department (of Health and Human Services) so I’ll limit my comments to what I can say.”

Greater Dandenong Council has fended off allegations of a conflict of interest in closing down I Cook Foods.

It self-referred the allegations to IBAC, which passed on the claims to the State Ombudsman.

The State Ombudsman found no further investigation was warranted, the council has stated.

The council later dropped all 96 food-safety charges levelled at I Cook Foods after alleged links to a listeria-related death of an elderly hospital patient.