A Recipe for Change
24 February 2016 at 11:25 am
Community and food go hand-in-hand, and a passion for both led Christine Smith to start an organisation that helps vulnerable people create a fresh start, writes Ellie Cooper in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Five years ago Christine Smith set up social enterprise Rowville Community Kitchen, in Victoria, to provide retail and hospitality skills to unemployed people.
As part of a Work for the Dole program, job seekers not only gain experience in the kitchen and front of house, they provide a lunch for neighbours, local community groups and aged care facilities.
“We change the job seekers lives by giving them skills, building their self-confidence and self-esteem,” Smith said.
“On top of that we connect the socially isolated… we open our doors on a Thursday and run a community lunch, and anyone can come.
“We deliver a freshly cooked two-course meal, [people] come in and enjoy some company, a few laughs, maybe make some friends and have a nutritious meal.”
The kitchen, provided by the local council, is also open for training from Tuesday to Thursday, and Smith works with the long-term unemployed, young adults with intellectual disabilities and disengaged youth.
“We give them life skills and employability skills to get them back into the workforce or working towards a career if they haven’t already got one,” she said.
“To date we’ve helped just under 110 into work, bearing in mind that I work with the really long-term unemployed.
“So far it’s been quite amazing. I would really love the opportunity to do an impact study, but with the starting price at $10,000 to $12,000 it’s not something we’re in a position to do.”
Smith comes from a job services background and said she was frustrated with how the system operates.
“I was well-aware of the needs of job seekers to get back into work. I didn’t believe the system as it was back then, and I’m going back a few years, was actually adequately assisting them,” she said.
“A lot of people were actually falling through the cracks because they had many barriers to work, it’s not just one.
“If they’ve been out of work for a long time, mental health is a major issue even if it’s not diagnosed, so as well as skills it’s also the socialisation that gets people back into work.”
She also said that the way the system treats the unemployed is a barrier to people gaining work. One of the challenges in running her program is gaining the trust of job seekers and
getting them to attend regularly.
“The system unfortunately is a bit punitive and we prefer to nurture and encourage, so it takes a little while for us to gain their respect and their understanding that we’re actually there to assist them,” she said.
“Most will then attend on a regular basis and do whatever hours they’re supposed to. But we get that element that don’t attend.”
The kitchen relies on a partnership with food rescue social enterprise Second Bite, as well as donations from two local bakeries and a supermarket.
“Our partnership with Second Bite is really central to a lot of what we do, first of all I believe in not wasting food, and a lot of us actually waste an awful lot of food,” Smith said.
“They’re really crucial to us being able to provide low-cost or no-cost meals to the local community.”
The community lunch works on a “pay what you can afford basis”, and also offers a market table of fresh fruit and vegetables, pantry items and take-home meals.
“People can pay what they feel or what they can afford, so it maintains the dignity of those that can afford next to nothing or nothing at all, because nobody knows. We just have a donation bucket, it’s not monitored, nobody watches it,” Smith said.
She said that through partnerships, donations and Work for the Dole funding the social enterprise is financially sustainable.
“The money that we get from the donations goes straight back into the kitchen because we get fresh fruit and veg and some protein through Second Bite, but everything else we have to pay for, so gloves, cleaning, laundry, all our pantry items, we still have to buy all of those,” she said.
“I manage the budget a bit like I do at home, If you have a dollar you can only spend a dollar. The chef that I have is excellent, and so we plan our meals a week in advance. We’re very flexible in the structure of our meals.”
Smith said that her business model was “simple” but scalable, and looked at options to expand and create greater impact.
“I knew that the base-model I worked with was replicable and scaleable but I didn’t know how to do that, I don’t have that business acumen to take that next step,” she said.
“[I] came across YGAP who said ‘what you do is scaleable and replicable, and we’ll help you do that by getting you to think bigger’.”
She made the decision 18 months ago to change from a proprietary limited to a Not for Profit under the name Recipe4Change.
“It was something more generic and also it means something more than just cooking, it’s about changing people’s lives,” she said.
“We can replicate what we do currently anywhere under that name, but also it can morph into something else, it doesn’t have to be food related.
“It’s a good play on words, but… it’s about change, it’s about changing people’s lives, changing the behaviours so that they can actually then change their lives themselves.”
Smith said that she found there were more advantages of operating as a Not for Profit, including access to grants and government support.
“The only way I could have, to be honest, any council support was if it was a Not for Profit or a charity, I wasn’t prepared to go down the path of becoming a charity, that was, I believe, too complicated for the type of business that I run,” she said.
“So it was about accessing council property, because they can’t give you a preferential deal if you’re a for-profit company.
She was also surprised by the fact that the community saw her in a different light.
“They saw that I was there for the community as opposed to for myself, which is interesting because that’s why I set the social enterprise up,” she said.
“In simple terms social enterprise is for the greater good, and I set up the business for the greater good. It wasn’t an ego trip or a financial thing for me.”
However, she said she still considers Recipe4Change to be a social enterprise, regardless of the business model.
“The way I operate didn’t change, the same business model is in place,” she said.
“Some people try and make social enterprise really complicated, you could have a one-page definition, you could have a five-page definition, or you could have a few words like I have which is ‘for the greater good’.”
This year, Smith has created targets for her organisation, and her goal is now to work with young job seekers who face higher unemployment rates than the general population.
“I haven’t worked with a lot of young job seekers who are just out of school. So last year I set a goal for four years, which was to help 6,000 into work through different stakeholders,” she said.
“To get to a four year goal obviously you’ve got to have a one year goal… and decided 1,000 was a nice number to be aiming for.
“The food and retail industries don’t have enough trained staff, so even if people don’t want to work in food or retail, it’s a good kickstart, it’s a good place to get some money in their pocket and start to work out how they get to the kind of job that they want.”
To achieve her target, she currently looking to expand Recipe4Change into different council areas, but said finding the right premises is a major challenge.
“Because the business model is very simple, if I had the right people we could put them all around Melbourne,” she said.
“I’d just like to see us in different areas so we could impact more job seekers to get them into work, especially the young ones, because of the high unemployment rate in the young age bracket.
“People, especially young people need a nurturing environment, not somewhere where it’s three strikes and you’re out, or you’re looked at as if you’re a loser. They’re not, they just need an opportunity, and my business model gives them that.
“It’s finding the right stakeholders, not so much money although we need a little bit, and finding the right premises, and that’s been difficult.”