What began as a labour of love for Eumundi mum of three Birgit Sowden 12 years ago has evolved into a dream role at the helm of a Sunshine Coast charity kitchen, a not-for-profit organisation designed to connect the community by providing nutritious frozen meals to those who need it most.
Operated under IFYS, a charitable organisation providing a range of specialist support and intervention programs for children, young people and families, Urban Angels has been dishing up an unbelievable 10,0000 meals each month to vulnerable families and individuals on the Coast for the past six years. But Ms Sowden has been preparing meals made with love for those in need long before that.
“It’s what I am, it’s what I do,” she says. “There is always someone doing it tough who will benefit greatly from a pre-cooked meal, whether they are ill or elderly or just fallen on hard times.
“I have always loved cooking, and I’ve always had a lot of drive, so as a stay-at-home mum, when my three boys were at school, I approached the school and asked if I could use the home economic rooms to cook in bulk for families who may need some support. I had outgrown our kitchen at home.
“I had a few mums help me set up a community kitchen and it just went nuts. We had endless support and donations from the school community and ended up cooking around 500 meals per month, which I never expected to be able to do.”
It wasn’t long before other schools caught wind of the successful program.
“I met with them and gave them all my recipes, plus instructions on how to source ingredients, how to raise funds, everything they needed to get started,” she says.
As fate would have it, some of the meals found their way to someone at IFYS and a seed was planted to develop a similar program for the charity down the track.
“IFYS asked me to come join them and set up a community kitchen and that was how it all began to really develop.”
Describing her role as more of a calling than a job, Ms Sowden says although she didn’t realise it at the time, it’s something she has been preparing for her whole life.
“Everyone has a journey. It took me a long time to work out what I wanted to do, but I realised, in hindsight, I had been doing it all along. I just wasn’t doing it as a formal vocation.”
But it’s the army of volunteers who donate their time in the kitchen or driving the delivery vans, who Ms Sowden credits as the most important ingredient in this recipe for success.
“We have four chefs and more than 70 amazing volunteers, who we are so very grateful for and always make sure they are happy, because without them none of this would be possible,” she says.
“Some people are happy to do the chopping and washing up and there are others who do the deliveries. Not everyone can do the delivery work as it can be quite confronting, you see a lot and you have to be resilient. People tell you their stories, so a big part of what we do is just sit and listen.”
Ms Sowden says the gift of a meal helps those who are vulnerable feel supported and less alone.
“I know from experience food is a great connector and feedback has shown that this small gesture of providing a meal has helped even those in deepest distress to move closer to inner healing.”
Delivering regularly to schools, migrant students and families, individuals being supported by community agencies, young mums at the STEMM program, as well as elderly people, families affected by illness or financial difficulties, the homeless community any many others, Ms Sowden says there is a huge demand and more help is urgently needed.
Fully funded by IFYS, Urban Angels is supported by organisations such as OzHarvest, which donates 400 kilos of produce per week and SecondBite, a national charity rescuing food that would otherwise be destroyed.
However, Ms Sowden says donations are becoming increasingly difficult to secure and a revenue stream is required.
“I’m a social enterprise nutter, it’s such a good way for the world to work,” she says. “When we have revenue coming in and all of that goes back into what we do for the community, that is the perfect model in my mind.”
Having recently been gifted a fully fitted, state-of-the-art kitchen in Maroochydore by a generous benefactor, Ms Sowden says she can now concentrate on recruiting more delivery volunteers and fine tuning their distribution to ensure the help goes to those who need it most.
And of course, donations of time, money and produce are always welcome.
“Those things are invaluable,” says Ms Sowden. “All the pennies add up and every little bit helps.”
By the numbers
What it takes to prepare 10,000 pre-made meals each month
- Over 700kg of meat/chicken/plant-based protein
- Over 150kg cheese
- Over 2500kg of vegetables – some bought, some rescued and/or donated by OzHarvest, SecondBite, Farmers First and backyard growers
- Many 100s of kilos of rice, pasta and other pantry items
- Over 1500 volunteer hours a month chopping, cleaning, packaging and delivering meals door to door.
For more information on how you can become a volunteer or to donate to Urban Angels, contact Birgit Sowden on 5452 7774/0418 783 928 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.