Wairarapa Community Kitchen volunteers have mastered the art of scraping together whatever is left over in cupboards to make meals.
Community centre manager Beverley Jack said the kitchen was established six years ago when there was a need identified in the community.
“We saw an increased number of homeless people and agencies were informing us that the families they were supporting were suffering longer than previously, and a great idea was to establish a programme where we could support families with nutritional food,” Jack said.
“The focus was really around waste not, want not.”
The Community Kitchen caters to agency referrals from South Wairarapa through to the Tararua District.
Volunteer teams work on a roster basis, with over 100 people ready to help out twice a week.
Jack said the community kitchen works in collaboration with WaiWaste and Masterton Food Bank.
“We receive rescued food and donated food on a weekly basis … to cook nutritional food, to give back to our agencies, to freely give it to families that they’ve identified are in need.”
So far 48 agencies have made referrals through the Community Kitchen this year.
Rest home chef and kitchen team leader Lisha Wellington grew up feeding a large family on a small budget, and “hated” wasting food, she said.
Wellington has carried those skills – and that attitude – into volunteering in the community kitchen for the past five years.
“Whatever they have in the pantry, I will fill in the gaps and just make use of all the food that’s available,” Wellington said.
“I’ll put in whatever, and I’m sure it’ll be tasty for whoever.”
Last year the community kitchen fed 7600 people around the region, but each year the number of mouths to feed has increased.
Jack blamed the increasing cost of living.
“People have had to make more money, and financially they’ve had to spend more money over the Christmas period.
“February, children have gone off to school. And then there is the cost of school uniforms and stationery.
“By March, they have got overdue notices coming in, and the pressure has really hit the families and that’s when the agencies become involved and the food demand increases.”
Jack said the end of the household power subsidies led to tighter budgets and an increased need for food, especially in winter months.
“It clearly shows that through those winter months, the need to have that support from the government to have that power subsidy, and how families really struggle to adjust when that power subsidy has been cancelled or it’s finished because it only operates within three months period.”
Surprisingly, there was also a decreasing demand for meals during school holidays, when children weren’t receiving free meals at school.
“Our service is 100 per cent agency referrals,” Jack said.
“The reason for that is the agencies work with these families. We don’t need the families having to tell yet another agency the story of their lives to be able to access food.
“So we rely on the agencies to work with the families, identify the need, and they come to us to get their meals and take them back to the families.”
Jack said as agency staff across the region went on holidays with their own children, they were unavailable to take in referrals through school holidays.
“So we’ve made it clear with the agencies that we’ve seen demand decrease, and just to keep in mind for [agencies] that they are setting families up prior to the school holidays.
“And also sharing that knowledge with the staff and colleagues, so that when they’re off, there’s still somebody overseeing those families.”
The Community Centre also runs a community garden and cooking classes, bringing together locals from all walks of life.
Pakistani refugee Shabana Tahir has been volunteering at the community kitchen to make friends and improve her English-speaking skills.
Tahir came to Aotearoa with her husband and five-year-old son, she said her family had been welcomed with open arms by Masterton’s community.
“We came here to New Zealand nine months ago, and my mother language is Urdu,” Tahir said.
“The people are very good and very kind and they are very happily-faced and happy in conversation with me, and they understand me.”
“That’s why I’ve decided to write better English and to communicate with people, so I decided to work here as a volunteer.
Tahir said Jack was a kind and good lady.
“Every time I can’t speak very well in English, she understands me and she helps me very much.”
Tahir hopes to eventually open her own Pakistani restaurant in Masterton, a first for the region.
“I will make a lot of masalas and [spicy meals from] Pakistan, because my traditional food is very spicy with a very good taste.
Tahir said she could not yet decide, but would like to introduce traditional sweet and baked foods too, “that then New Zealand people can taste and enjoy very much.”
– Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.