Jen Tucker (R) chats to Robyn Delbridge, Swinburne dietitian, about what gets her going.

Sitting in her Kilmore home, Jen looks across at the film crew who have followed her out to rural Victoria, on a mission to discover how she tackles life, study, and eating nutritiously on a budget. All the while earning herself High Distinctions, and acting as a role model for her fellow classmates.

“I’m just Jen.” she assures the team. But from the spark in her eye and the fire in her belly, it’s clear that this woman is so much more.

You may have passed Jen in the library, on Wakefield Street, or at Glenferrie Station – an arm full of books and a look of sheer determination on her face.

While the students that surround her are likely to have pulled themselves out of their res apartments only minutes before class, making the 200 metre trek to campus, Jen has been awake since the crack of dawn – taking a two hour journey from Kilmore in Melbourne’s rural north to the Swinburne campus in Hawthorn to make it to her Justice classes on time.

“My retraining in Justice means I should be able to help other people who are struggling.” Jen says.

It’s not only the daily commute that Jen tackles on a daily basis. Jen is just one of a growing number of students living on a shoestring budget – feeding their bodies and their brains for less than a few dollars a day.

It doesn’t stop Jen from cooking both delicious, and nutritious meals though. Food that fuels her mind, and her body, to stay strong in the toughest times. Good nutrition has always been important to Jen, no matter her financial situation.

“Diet is everything…” Jen explains. “It makes somebody whole.”

Unlike some students who feel their stomachs grumble before making a quick dash to nearby fast food options, Jen makes a point of packing her own meals – sourced from food banks – and taking them to campus in order to make ends meet.

“Pack your own food!” Jen beams, offering her hacks to others. “Coffee costs an absolute fortune. Take your packets of coffee, sachets... your own sugar, your own long life milk. It certainly relieves the way of uni life.”

For those of us who feel our mid-morning coffee order is nothing short of a religion, it’s a hard habit to break. But Jen is someone who isn’t afraid to do things a little differently, for a lot of gain.

Catching curveballs

In fact, taking the path less-travelled when it comes to eating a balanced diet on a budget is something Jen has had to become comfortable doing early on in life – as life threw her a number of hurdles from a very young age.

“I was the kid who was dressed in op shop. I didn’t have Billabong or Quicksilver….” she says, humbly.

It’s these hardships that have lead Jen to understand the value of good food, the impact it has on one’s health (and how to source it when you have next to nothing left in your bank account).

Growing up in the country, Jen recalls being the only one on the school bus to know the difference between varieties of pear.

“My mum and my dad were quite big on food, especially organic food.”

It’s this knowledge that Jen has used to lead herself to make such wise decisions. Decisions that have allowed her to get through the toughest of challenges. Challenges which hit her early on in life – the first, being pregnant at 15, and having her second child at 19.

A study in resilience

At this point in her life, every cent of Jen’s income went on accommodation. She had to cart her possessions from location to location, moving across the Australian countryside to find safe spaces where she could provide for her young family. In each location, she used her resourcefulness to find local organisations that could support her by providing food – even if she couldn’t pick and choose the ingredients given.

 “A lot of it is like a Master Chef mystery box,” Jen jokes. “It’s about being able to create the best possible diet with what’s on offer from these charity agencies.”

Eventually, Jen studied to become a chef by day, while cooking meals sourced from charity organisations by night. The skills she learned in commercial kitchens, she took home – bulking out ingredients on hand, and adding flavour for her children.

Jen recalls one situation where she was staying in backpacker accommodation, and had to create a meal out of nothing but potatoes, onion and Moroccan sauce. After a few minutes in the kitchen, she had the backpackers staying a few doors down offering her money for the meal she was serving up.

It takes a strong person to ask for help

As a mature aged student who has returned to study, Jen has to use this same resourcefulness once again to make ends meet – and she encourages other students doing it tough to do the same. To this day, Jen sources her food from charity organisations due to a tight budget. But she’s not one to complain. In fact, she wants more students to follow her lead.

“I believe my classmates are very much on a similar level to me with my finances, managing money and managing food.”

Jen says her classmates shouldn’t be afraid to approach food banks to get the help they need. 

“There are so many low budget options,” she says, reassuringly. And when it comes to the safety of these organisations? There are many long-standing myths about food banks that can be forgotten.

“People are quite friendly and quite giving at the food banks… and the stigma has started to reduce.”

As someone who has used food support to help her find her feet throughout life, Jen knows what’s available, and is determined to get the word out to her Swinburne classmates.‌

Speaking to the enamoured team of videographers in front of her, Jen explains how the majority of produce available at food banks are, in fact, supplied by supermarkets. The only difference being that they may have passed their ‘best before date’ (which is different than a ‘use by’ date, and means the food can still safely be eaten, and enjoyed). A ‘use by’ date, by contrast, is the date on which food perishes.

“You think, what are we going to do with these ingredients that we’ve sourced? There might be some bruises, they might be a little soft….” she says.

“But (you have to think), how can we best use these to have a whole diet?” she continues. ‌

Guided by a need to help others

Jen’s resourcefulness is one that shines like a ray of light into every aspect of her life. This is a woman who sourced a car for her family by collecting recyclable items in South Australia. In case you weren't aware, you can get 5 to 10 cents per tin or glass bottle you return.

And when the car needed an upgrade? She went scouting for more, so that she could purchase a newer vehicle that was safe enough for her young family.

While Jen enjoyed her life as a chef early on in life, she was left no other option but to find a new career after a severe motorcycle accident saw her unable to work on her feet.

While others would have cursed the skies for yet another hardship, Jen looked to her passion for helping others when deciding what to do next with her career.

“My retraining in Justice means I should be able to help other people who are struggling.” she says. “In another way, I can help other people, other than feeding them…” Jen beams.

Daily routines that work

Boarding a V-line train into university, Jen joins the likes of rattling freight trains in the morning dawn, making her way into class each day. For her to make this long commute feasible, organisation is key. With her, she brings a variety of snacks – yogurt, crackers and dips – all sourced from organisations such as FreedomCare, her local food bank. These items ensure she doesn’t have to spend her weekly budget on campus food.

For lunch, Jen brings in a tub of frozen food – which she has often cooked in bulk to make dates nearing their expiry date last for longer. She then uses the university microwaves to heat up her meals before class (and constantly finds the smells of her meals bring on chirpy compliments from classmates).

“This is from the food bank, mate!” she laughs, recalling the last time a teacher complimented the smell coming from her tupperware container.

“Certain teachers have asked me “Where did you buy that? Where did you source that?” she adds, proudly.

Jen and her daughter picking out produce for the week at FreedomCare.

All help, zero judgment

Pastor Frantz Heinzelmann, Jen’s contact at FreedomCare, opens his arms to people in need each and every week. By conducting interviews with food bank patrons, he learns their personal stories, and ensures he can best help them in their time of need.

“They come in and sit down… and we ask things like how many (people are) in their home, what benefits they get – if they do get any.” Pastor Frantz says.

“We start off with giving them a voucher to help them get back on their feet.” he continues.  “There are no strings attached, we just want to help.”

While FreedomCare is based in Kilmore, there are many other options available to students – no matter whether you live close to campus, or are located rurally.

Beth Graham from the Housing & Financial Advice Service at Swinburne University, says there are plenty of options for students who may be finding it hard to make ends meet.

“A Financial Adviser is available on each campus.” Beth says. “(They) can assist with Centrelink issues, budgeting advice, some loans and grants and a food bank for those times that a student is caught short.”

For the full details of what’s on offer at Swinburne, see the base of this article.

While making the first step to reach out, and see what’s available, might seem like a mountain to overcome, Jen encourages all Swinburne students to take up the help available to them. 

“Where there is a will there's a way.” Jen says.

“Look. Research. Do whatever you can to get through, because you are a valuable person, and you can succeed… and I’m evidence of that. That no matter what, you can succeed.”

“I’ve now almost completed my course, with Distinctions, and High Distinctions. I never expected to be sitting here.” she adds.

Today, you might find Jen warming up one of her food parcel wonders in the kitchen – making an entire room envious of the meal she’s prepared. As for tomorrow? Jen’s got big plans.

Taking her determination, craftiness, and passion for helping others into the courtroom, Jen is going to take her Diploma of Justice into the world – helping others who are facing hardships.

If that isn’t making lemonade with lemons, we don’t know what is.

Your support network at Swinburne

  • There’s a food bank on every campus.
  • Loans up to $1500 are available.
  • Grants for petrol, food, books and emergencies are available too.
  • Apply for an Access Scholarship to help with study costs.
  • Talk to a financial adviser to find out more. 

Further support

Have you been inspired by Jen’s story?

Let us know at healthpromotion@swinburne.edu.au.  We’d love to hear from you.

Did you know?

Swinburne offers on-site health services and fully confidential counselling to students at all campuses. To book a session with our Hawthorn on-campus dietitian, simply call +61 3 9214 8483 or register and make an appointment

View our health services