Community Kitchen volunteers Denise Young, left, Penny Watts, Serena Lynch, and Cindy Veitch. PHOTOS/HAYLEY GASTMEIER

Wairarapa Midweek has partnered with Planalytics to launch this campaign, shedding light on food poverty in our region and highlighting the efforts of those who are working to address the need.

Hayley Gastmeier

Community spirit is driving an initiative responsible for feeding people in Wairarapa facing hardship.

About 70 volunteers have prepared more than 5000 ready-to-heat meals since the Community Kitchen launched in July 2018.

Based at the Wairarapa Community Centre on Perry St in Masterton, the service provides frozen meals free of charge to people in emergency situations, including victims of domestic violence and people living on the streets.

The initiative, which was launched with support from Masterton District Council, also addresses the food waste issue.

Volunteers cook the meals with food that is donated, or rescued from going to the landfill even though it is good enough to eat.

The day I visit the Community Kitchen, the team are prepping chicken, vegetables, and rice for a casserole dish.

“We’ve got pumpkin in the oven to go in it and we’ve chopped up all the veggies,” one of the four volunteers explains to me.

They are working with 10kg of chicken pieces, 4kg of onions, courgettes bigger than your arm, and other fresh produce and spices.

“We’re pulling the chicken off the bone so it’s easier to eat and package, and we’re softening the onion.

“We take into account older people, people with dental issues, and children, and, because all the meals are frozen, smaller pieces makes it easier to reheat.”

Wairarapa Community volunteers on a roster that covers every week of the year.

“Most of this food today has been donated by the community or Waiwaste – we base the recipe around what has been donated at the time.”

Groups made up of four volunteers will spend about four hours in the community centre kitchen cooking anywhere from 70 to 150 meals, packaging them up and popping them in the freezer ready
for collection.

“Normally one group cooks a week for 52 weeks,” Bev said.

“But because of our demand, we’ve had to increase the number of cooking sessions per week to two.”

Bev opens the deep freeze and containers stacked thigh-high are filled with curried sausages and mash potatoes, salmon quiche, pasta dishes, and pies with cooked veggies still bright in colour.

Demand getting worse

Bev Jack in the Community Kitchen pantry.

Bev said winter months when families faced high power bills was when demand for the Community Kitchen services peaked.

“Normally it decreases but this year winter has rolled into Christmas and into summer and there’s been no decrease.”

Bev attributes this to Wairarapa’s “housing crisis and rental shortage”.

“A lot of it is to do with our housing situation … we are constantly seeing rent prices increasing.

“People in the working class are being affected in this economic situation – people are financially struggling”.

According to Bev’s figures, to date more than 2000 referrals have been due to financial hardship, more than 1000 due to medical, and almost 500 meals have gone to the homeless.

Other referral reasons include domestic violence, elderly, and mental health.

As we chat in Bev’s office at the community centre, an email comes in.

“Oh, here’s a Community Kitchen referral for a family of four – mum, dad, and two teenagers.”

Bev and her volunteers will never know any more than the number of people they are cooking for, their dietary requirements, and which agency has sent the referral.

Community Kitchen doesn’t supply meals directly to people in need.

Instead, meals are accessed via referral from an agency.

Community Kitchen has forged relationships with 40 Wairarapa social service agencies, including police, Women’s Refuge, and Plunket.

The meals also feed the homeless, with Bev noting she had witnessed an increase in people living on the streets over the past few years.

Where it all began

The Community Kitchen initiative was born in 2018, when funding for the community centre’s soup kitchen ran out.

Through close dealings with social services and community representatives, Bev recognised a need in the community that needed addressing.

“Community members were coming in and we were hearing from our agencies throughout our building here about the financial burden families and individuals were facing – we were just seeing it was tough for many people out there.”

So, in 2017, she launched the soup kitchen, a three-month initiative intended as a “quick fix solution” to the problem.

“When we stopped the programme [due to funding] the agencies came back to us saying you can’t stop this, we need this service in our community.

“We researched and spoke to many agencies through many community forums and found that something long-term and sustainable was needed.”

The Community Kitchen was the answer.

“But this wouldn’t be successful if we didn’t have the support of the community,” Bev said.

“It has to be community owned, and that always has been the focus.”

Giving back and gaining

Volunteer cook Cindy Veitch said she gets back as much as she gives when it comes to her involvement with Community Kitchen.

“I volunteer because when my daughter died, I was at a loss as what to do.”

In search of a venture that would help take her mind off things, she joined Wairarapa SuperGrans.

The group merged with Connecting Communities Wairarapa, which commissioned Planalytics’ Waste Not, Want Not: Food Insecurity in Wairarapa report.

This report is the basis for Midweek’s Hand to Mouth series, raising awareness about food poverty in Wairarapa.

SuperGrans/Connecting Communities is based at the Wairarapa Community Centre, where Cindy met Bev and started volunteering as a cook.

Previously head of food technology at Wairarapa College, Cindy brings a wealth of expertise to the Community Kitchen team.

“I can share my skills and it does me as much good as it helps other people – it makes me feel useful.”

For cooking volunteer Denise Young, she saw her contribution to the initiative as a way of “paying it forward”.

“If you can make someone smile and fill them up, then it’s worth it.”

Bev said cooking for the Community Kitchen had proved to be a successful teambuilding exercise for many businesses and community groups.

“We want to bring our community together through food, as has happened for many generations.”

Empowering through education in the kitchen

Community Kitchen, run by the Connecting Communities Wairarapa Trust, also delivers education initiatives aimed at improving people’s cooking and food budgeting skills.

It runs cooking classes, free of charge, to teach people how to create nutritious dishes from everyday ingredients.

Bev said the aim was to show people how they could feed their families tasty meals on a budget by making them from scratch.

“We want to empower people to cook for themselves.”

There are 12 students per course intake. Courses run during the school term with four four-hour sessions over four weeks.

Each session begins with making a staple recipe, and from that the group creates four dishes.

For example, from savoury mince the class might make meatballs, burritos, spaghetti bolognaise, and shepherd’s pie. Bev said the mentors were men and women of various ages and cultures, from the Community Kitchen volunteer database.

“One of the things I really enjoy is seeing the relationships being formed. It’s connecting new residents to their community, and lonely people are making friends.

“So, it’s meeting more needs than just sharing of skills.”

Working together

Community Kitchen works closely with Waiwaste Food Rescue, and Wairarapa food banks.

“We wanted to make sure there was no duplication of services, and that we supported each other,” Bev said.

The three organisations work under a memorandum of understanding where each has a specific role.

Waiwaste collects surplus food from around 20 suppliers including all major supermarkets in the region, cafes, bakeries, growers/primary producers, and wholesalers.

Waiwaste redistributes the food to community organisations, including the Community Kitchen and the food banks.

People can contact the Community Kitchen about being a volunteer or signing up to a cooking class on (06) 377 1022.

Planalytics is a Greytown-based consultancy providing research, analysis, facilitation and monitoring services to inform decision-making in the urban and community development sectors. Waste Not, Want Not was commissioned by Connecting Communities Wairarapa and funded by Department for Internal Affairs and the Lottery Grants Board Te Puna Tahua. You can access the full report from the Planalytics website, www.planalytics.co.nz