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Spend 10 minutes with Rosa Del Ponte of Katoomba’s Earth Recovery, Food Rescue and Mountains Soul Kitchen.

It’s mid-morning at Earth Recovery in Katoomba and Rosa Del Ponte is doing the rounds of the supermarkets rescuing food bound for landfill. It’s a challenging job feeding the poverty stricken and homeless but Rosa can’t let it get her down, there are too many people counting on her to keep on keeping on.

Q: How long have you been involved with Earth Recovery, Food Rescue and Mountains Soul Kitchen?

Rosa: I started the organisation with five friends in 2012 and Christmas of that year we launched Mountains Soul Kitchen.

Q: What prompted you to start the organisation?

Rosa: My friend Sarah and I started Soul Kitchen as a result of our final project for a TAFE course. As part of an emergency relief study we went to 27 agencies from Lithgow to Penrith to speak to them about what services they offered. We were looking for a gap to fill and found it in the Soul Kitchen. Christmas and weekends were identified as times when services were lacking so it seemed to make sense to start with a trial then.

We worked under the auspices of Blue Mountains Family Support for the first few months and then we kicked off and were able to cover our own insurance and administration. We were originally based in the Civic Centre but rent became an issue because we were only running on donations, so we did a deal with the Uniting Church and moved to Junction 142.

Q: What is your background?

Rosa: My background is in film and TV production and PR. When I moved to the mountains I got a job at Planet Ark working on the National Tree Day campaign and discovered that I really liked the not-for-profit business model. It gave me an impetus for work in community services so I did a bit of volunteering and then took up a position at Muru Mittigar [Aboriginal Cultural and Education Centre] as a business development manager. After that contract ended, I volunteered in neighbourhood centres. Providing free food for those in need was a big passion of mine and a niche that needed filling in the mountains but I couldn’t get traction anywhere, so we decided to start our own service.

Q: Where do you get food for Soul Kitchen and is it enough?

Rosa: Over the years, I’ve built face-to-face relationships with managers at local supermarkets to secure donations to Blue Mountains Food Rescue. And now that we are known in the community we get calls from other businesses also to come and collect food. We pretty well run out of food on a daily basis but we’re collecting daily and also get supplemented by Second Bite who deliver up to 1000 kilos of food every week from the Coles distribution centre in western Sydney. This lasts us a few days and is topped up by what we collect from Woolies, Coles, Aldi, the Co-op and local businesses.

Q: It sounds like a lot of food – is the need really that great?

Rosa: Yes. Absolutely. We distribute over 2000 kilos of food every week and there is very little waste. We have to sort through it and there’s the odd thing we can’t use but the vast majority of food collected is used. And if there is any waste it goes to the Community Gardens to be composted.

Q: How is the food distributed?

Rosa: Volunteers sort and pack boxes ready to be collected for distribution points and we also encourage individuals to come and pick what they need. We try not to be too officious and to give people a little bit of choice. It’s really important for people to know that it’s open, and it’s free. All we need is a first name and how many people you’re collecting for just so we can keep records of how much food we are distributing. For example, on any given day we know that if we’ve had 70 individuals visit, picking up for a mixture of families, couples and single households, we can add up how many people are being fed.

Distribution points are growing too. Community groups like the Anglicare Op-shop in Wentworth Falls and North Katoomba Community Hub collect food to distribute, and that means we can operate up and down the mountain – from Catholic Care Springwood up to Blackheath. We’ve recently heard that Mount Victoria school could do with some help so it’s just a matter of finding a volunteer who is willing to take that task on.

Q: How bad is homelessness in the mountains?

Rosa: Homelessness is more of a problem in spring and summer because it’s only the really tough who survive sleeping rough up here in the colder months. The lack of affordable single persons’ accommodation will be the next hit that we see in the mountains because the rental market is already pretty unaffordable if you’re on Centrelink benefits. I’m already seeing people not being able to get into housing – they can’t get rent assistance because Centrelink say they can’t afford the rent but what do they do – stay homeless? It’s a vicious cycle that nobody seems to think about.

Q: How can the community help?

Rosa: We want to spread the word about Soul Kitchen and Earth Recovery because I’m sure there are still people out there struggling who don’t know what we do. Almost daily, we get people saying “I didn’t know this place was here” and at least once a week somebody bursts into tears because they are overwhelmed with gratitude. And we always welcome volunteers.

Q: How can local businesses help?

Rosa: Any businesses that want to be involved can freeze meals at the end of the day and we can do a weekly collection. Then the food can be given as a meal to someone who is homeless or in temporary accommodation.

Q: When does Soul Kitchen operate?

Rosa: Soul Kitchen cooks lunch every Sunday and once a week we prepare meals that are frozen so people can take them home or heat them up here. It means people are getting a nutritious home-cooked meal and not something that’s been manufactured. I think that’s really important, especially when people are coping with financial stress, are homeless, or are living in temporary accommodation.

Q: How do you raise funds for Earth Recovery and Soul Kitchen?

Rosa: We’ve received a few grants over the years and a lot of community support. All the facilities are undergoing renovation and Rotary have been amazing. We have fundraising gigs at Junction 142 and we’re hoping to raise enough money to finish the upgrade of the Food Rescue Kitchen and complete work on the homeless facility at the rear of Junction 142.

For more information or to get involved go to earthrecovery.org.au

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