A recipe for change: Rowville Community Kitchen

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Christine Smith, founder of Recipe4Change and the Rowville Community Kitchen has always had a shared passion for people and food.

Growing up in the UK in an era when “if you didn’t know how to cook, you didn’t eat good food” Smith said she was inspired to create the Rowville Community Kitchen to connect her two passions and assist the growing number of Australians impacted by food poverty.

Working in the job service sector, Smith said she was frustrated with the way job seekers were not really being assisted by service providers. She told Kochie’s Business Builders (KBB) rather than sit on the sidelines she decided to offer a solution. In 2011, she approached one of her previous employers and offered to run a work experience program that was centred on healthy food options.

“My idea was to use my extensive cooking skills (I started cooking when I was nine) and my understanding of job seekers feeling that the system had let them down, to set up in a kitchen and start a small veggie patch,” she explained.

“I soon employed a like-minded chef, enlisted the assistance of Bunnings Scoresby and partnered with SecondBite and from there, our services grew to include fresh food parcels and cooked meals for the community in addition to feeding the job seekers some wholesome food – no packets or processed food, here!” she exclaimed.

[image] Rowville Community Kitchen chefs.

Smith told KBB she believes people need help and support in a crisis, not handouts.

“They need the support to take back control of their lives so they regain dignity and self-worth. Teaching people to cook does exactly this. By showing people how to plan and prepare wholesome food they not only eat better and feel better, they save a lot of money.”

Since starting Rowville Community Kitchen, Smith has served over 10,000 clients, cooked some 23,000 meals, taught over 400 people and saved 85,000kgs of fresh produce from being scrapped as food waste.

“We have a community lunch every Thursday for anyone who wants to share a table and meet new people. We accept donations if they can afford it but we don’t monitor who contributes and who doesn’t (though from the conversations I have, I know who relies on our weekly meal),” she said.

The kitchen also offers sandwiches and fresh fruit to seven local primary schools and frozen meals for student families that are doing it tough. Asked the impact Rowville is having on the surrounding community, Smith cites an example: “In one class of 23 students, seven were living with their families in motel accommodation with only a microwave to cook.” Rowville’s kitchen may provide the only fresh food meal these families eat all week.

[image] Scoresby primary school kids attend a cooking class.

Smith told KBB any excess produce from the kitchen is put on a marketplace table for locals to swap with their excess garden produce or is available to buy via a small donation.

“No one is turned away…”

Smith said Rowville aims to provide an inclusive safe environment for people of all abilities to learn and grow to be the best they can.

“We also believe everyone should have access to fresh wholesome food of choice. Poor people do not deserve poor food,” Smith affirmed. She suggested most hampers provided by welfare organisations are often full of sugar and salt-laden processed foods and told KBB that Rowville’s daily operations are aligned to the UN’s Sustainability Goals Fund, ensuring they promote good health and well-being and encourage responsible consumption and production.

After six years in operation, Roweville is continuing to be noticed. The organization is one of six finalists in the Ethical Business Awards by Moral Fairground with the winner to be decided in October. While Smith said the community organisation can’t compete on impact against the bigger businesses, she told KBB she is very proud of Rowville’s achievements to date.

[image] Community members enjoy a lunch.

Since appearing in an Ask Kochie segment on KBB twelve months ago, Smith said Rowville has had varied success. Whilst they were able to get Coles on board as a sponsor she hopes to attract further donors to help scale the business.

“LeandotMelbourne came on board and worked with us to streamline those operations we could and after a corporate presentation in the city we were promised the refrigeration and internal lining for a food van so we could do deliveries and pick up from local producers,”

Whilst all this is great, Roweville still needs further donations in order to raise money for the purchase of a van.

“Some local traders have given us some donations but I haven’t been able to secure the funds needed to expand so far.”

Currently, Smith is on the hunt for a corporate sponsor to ensure Rowville keeps up with its demands.

“I would love for a corporate to jump on board to support the organisation and say ‘we are interested’ and to work with me to bring to fruition the kids cooking program and competition and a fee-paying meals program. Having a company with big business knowledge and resources would be invaluable and would guarantee growth and sustainability.

[image] Students cook up healthy meals to take away.

“Secondly funding would be great so we can expand from three days to four or five.”

Currently, Rowville leases space in council premises. Whilst cost-effective, Smith says it’s not ideal, as storage space and service is limited due to other people’s access to the building.

“Our stores are spread across two buildings plus I have one room at home as a pantry/store area of items we don’t use daily. We also waste a lot of time and energy packing up and locking away all our equipment every day and the reverse in the mornings.”

A search for alternative premises has failed to bear fruit.

“We have attempted to bring together local welfare organisations to share resources but met with resistance as they want to keep doing what they have always done. The other main challenge is that people don’t want to pay for our services. For instance, many schools have expressed an interest in cooking classes but they don’t have the funds to take us on and without funds, I cannot commence classes as I need to buy utensils and need an appropriate person to run the classes.”

[image] Cooking up a feast in the Rowville Community Kitchen

In the future Smith hopes that Rowville will be able to provide a service similar to Meals on Wheels.

“Research conducted for us by Monash University shows a need for home-delivered meals  [But] We cannot provide this service from current premises. With a van and part-time driver, the aim is to deliver fresh produce to people who are homebound.

Currently, Rowville is the first line of defence for many families struggling to eke out a living below the poverty line.

“We are the go-to people when families are in dire straits. We have a no question – no judgement policy, unlike some welfare organisations who make the experience of asking for assistance really demeaning,” Smith says.

In turn, Smith continues to ask for support for her organization whenever she can.

“Our local men’s shed are enthusiastic advocates not only because we feed them awesome food but they help with appliance repairs or anything I need assistance with. I continue to talk with anyone that I believe could support what we do.  Sometimes growth seems a distant dream.

“Always one to look for alternatives I am currently working on a mentoring program for women to find a way to make a difference in the world by channelling their passions into their own business… We hosted a business from Queensland who wanted to know how to replicate some of our services as a result of Kochie answering my question and our social media presence.”

Find out more about Rowville www.rowvillecommunitykitchen.com.au

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Cec is a media professional with over fifteen years experience as an editor on titles as diverse as SX, Better Pictures, Total Rock, fasterlouder, mynikonlife and Fantastic Living. She has spent the past four years working as a news journalist covering all the issues that matter in the political, health and LGBTIQ arena. She is the Senior Writer at Pinstripe Media and a recent convert to the world of small business.

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