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Career

Five Kiwi women running food businesses that make a difference

These women understand that sharing the love means sharing food (and employment opportunities).

By Sharon Stephenson
Eating is one of the most basic human experiences but food is more than just something to keep us alive. With food we make friends, woo lovers, build bridges, treat ourselves and celebrate or commiserate with our nearest and dearest. We break bread when we’re hungry, happy, bored or sad.
For some, food is their livelihood (growing it, making it or writing about it), while for others, food is less about profit and more a tool to help those in their communities who may be struggling.
NEXT sat down for a cuppa with five women who use food to make a difference to the lives of those less fortunate.

Rebecca Stewart and Ange Wither: Founders of Pomegranate Kitchen

To find Rebecca Stewart, you have to wade through sacks of potatoes and mountains of fat, purple eggplant at the back of an Ethiopian restaurant.
This is the HQ of Pomegranate Kitchen, the Wellington charity employing former refugees to prepare healthy, tasty meals for lunch deliveries and group catering.
The day I visit that includes Syrian spinach pie, fattoush salad and trays of baklava, fragrant with honey and walnuts. Rebecca, 32, started the charity in October 2016 with her stepmother Ange Wither after a stint with the NZ Red Cross.
“I was working with recently arrived refugees and noticed the lack of job opportunities for them,” she says. Although she’s “never been the sort to start my own business”, the eldest of four children has always worked for non profits.
International links
While chatting to Ange (who’s married to Rebecca’s mother Deborah), the pair wondered how they could make a difference to new New Zealanders.
“The world is seeing more refugees than ever before fleeing their home countries. Here in New Zealand, we have the resources and the privilege to be able to help them, so we felt that we should.”
By chance, Ange, who owns her own learning and development consultancy, had stumbled across a company in New York which delivers food cooked by refugees.
“I thought the concept could definitely work here,” says Ange.
“Kiwis like discovering new cuisines and broadening their taste-buds with delicious food. At the same time, they would be helping to improve the social and financial outcomes for former refugees, so it seemed like a win-win for everyone.”The pair put their heads together and came up with Pomegranate Kitchen, named after the fruit with the same Middle Eastern origin as most of their food.
Rebecca, left, and Ange. The pair started Pomegranate Kkitchen to help empower refugees.
The cooks currently whip up a taste of home for hungry Wellingtonians every Wednesday and Friday, as well as several catering jobs each week.
While some recipes have been slightly modified for the Kiwi palate, the women are proud that New Zealanders are developing a taste for their food, says Ange. It also cuts both ways, with the former refugees wanting to try sausage rolls and learn how to ice cakes.
For Rebecca, Pomegranate Kitchen might never have happened had she not been diagnosed with breast cancer while working in the sexual health sector in Fiji.
She returned home to a couple of surgeries and months of radiation and chemotherapy treatment.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but when you’re faced with death you really understand what’s important.”
Future plans include finding a bigger kitchen, introducing a line of pickles and spice blends and possibly even opening their own restaurant.
“With everything going on in our world right now, people want to connect with each other and help where they can. Buying your lunch from an organisation such as ours is an easy way to make a difference to so many people’s lives,” says Ange.
Marie, left, and Nic founded Good Bitches Baking and want to “try to save the world one cake at a time”.

Nic Murray and Marie Fitzpatrick: Founders of Good Bitches Baking

It’s probably no surprise Nic Murray and Marie Fitzpatrick arrive at the interview with slices of ginger crunch and raspberry friands, still warm from the oven.
The two Wellington friends are, after all, the founders of Good Bitches Baking (GBB), a network of volunteers around New Zealand who create sweet treats for those in need, from Women’s Refuge shelters and hospital wards to soup kitchens and boarding houses.
“It’s about giving someone a moment of sweetness on a shitty day,” says Nic, 44.
“Because knowing someone cared enough to bake for you can have amazing benefits,” chimes in Marie, 40, traces of the decade she spent in Australia still evident in her accent.
Like so many of the best ideas, the concept for GBB was dreamed up over a wine or two when the long-time friends were commiserating about the state of the world.
“We were talking about homelessness and the refugee situation and basically how the world was going to hell in a handcart,” says Marie, the mother of Tom, 13, and Stella, eight.
Both had experienced kindness in a baked form when they were having a rough time: Marie years earlier with a premature baby and Nic when her nephew was in Starship Hospital with leukaemia.
“One day at work I went into the loo to have a cry and when I got back, someone had left a cheese scone on my desk,” recalls Nic. “It was such a simple but sweet gesture, a tiny reminder that everything wasn’t totally terrible.”
Their “oven bulb” moment came when these enthusiastic home bakers realised they could “try to save the world one cake at a time”.
In September 2014 they created a Facebook page asking if anyone would be keen to make a batch of biscuits or a cake to be distributed to the local Women’s Refuge shelter, Neonatal Trust and Ronald McDonald House, organisations they had personal connections to.
“We thought we’d get a handful of mates putting their hands up,” says Marie.
Instead, within two days they had around 30 volunteers, many strangers from all over New Zealand.
“It blew us away because we had no real plan about how to run this,” laughs Nic. She gave up a holiday to draft an operations manual that set out the criteria for recipient organisations, as well as rosters for bakers and drivers.
What began as a good idea has since expanded into 15 chapters from Invercargill to Auckland, with another 10 waiting in the wings (and, sometimes, up to 200 wannabe bakers on the waiting list).
The pair, who juggle oversight of the registered charity with their marketing jobs, say they were unprepared for the number of people wanting to bring a bit of kindness into the world.
“We’ve been overwhelmed with the generosity of those willing to give up their time and ingredients and the drivers who deliver the baking to those in need.”To date, around 1000 bakers have served up more than 200,000 sweet treats. They range from students who can barely afford the ingredients to 70-year-olds who create elaborately iced cakes. Many are first time volunteers and around 80% of those who responded to the initial Facebook request are still baking
with GBB.
“It isn’t just about the caramel slice or chocolate chip cookies; it’s about the generosity of the bakers and the realisation that someone out there really cares,” says Marie.
For some recipients, it’s their first taste of home baking, such as the young boy who’d spent his whole life in Women’s Refuge shelters and was gifted a GBB cake for bringing home a good school report.
“He’d never been given a cake in his life and was beside himself that strangers cared how he was doing at school,” says Nic.
The registered charity recently produced a cookbook, Bloody Good Baking, which sold out of its first print-run. The proceeds from that mean the pair can employ a part-time administrator to help run the organisation.
“We don’t want to work full-time in GBB because our core skills are in marketing, not operating a charity,” says Marie. “Instead we’ll be happy to get it to a stage where it can basically run itself.”
And as for the slightly controversial name? “It’s what we call each other,” laughs Marie.
“A good bitch is someone who gets stuck in and gets things done, which is pretty high praise in our world. And even though we deliver to some religious organisations, no-one has really had a problem with it.”
Brigitte Mouat, founder of Arms of Angels.

Brigitte Mouat: Founder of Arms of Angels

Brigitte Mouat hasn’t eaten for three years. Instead, the Tauranga resident gets by on one cup of coffee or glass of coconut water a day. The rest of her nutrients and fluids are pumped into her intestines via a machine she’s hooked up to for nine hours a day.
Brigitte, 50, has a condition called gastroparesis, which prevents her stomach from emptying. She developed it after a botched hernia operation in 2007, which severed a nerve to her stomach.
“It took a long time to diagnose but surgeons eventually told me I’d never eat food again,” says Brigitte. Ironically, she loves cooking for her three adult children and grandson Laytin, eight, who she’s raised since he was a baby. So when she received the diagnosis it was, she admits, “like a death sentence”.
“I still wanted to eat because my brain told me I needed food to survive and because my stomach always felt empty. I would cry because I was so hungry.”
Unable to sleep lying down (Brigitte has a special bed which allows her to sleep upright), she was constantly tired and had to close the nail salon she’d owned for three years.
“My world was caving in, but I started cooking huge amounts of food because I needed to see, smell and touch food so I could feel normal again.”
It was too much food for family and friends so in mid-2015, Brigitte took the excess to her local Koha Centre (a not-for-profit where donated goods are available for a donation), thinking the families she’d seen visiting might like it.
It became a regular occurrence and a few months later a volunteer at the centre told Brigitte one of the young mothers had asked for her recipe for devilled sausages.
“I was so delighted she’d enjoyed it that I decided to go one better and give her the ingredients as well as the recipe. She told me no one had ever done anything like that for her before.”
Brigitte started doing the same for other families until it proved too much of a stretch on the disability benefit she’s been on since 2014. “I told friends about it and they offered to pay for ingredients.”
Within weeks, the number of people dipping into their wallets increased so much that Brigitte was unable to manage on her own. She approached the owners of her local New World supermarket, who offered to make up food packages for delivery.
“From there it all fell into place really quickly. My sister Maggie, who’s CEO of an advertising agency, jumped in to build the website and in December 2015, Arms of Angels was open for business!”
Sponsors go onto the website to nominate a family (or pick any family from the database which can have up to 50 families at any one time), and pay $15 a week for six weeks.
That gets a needy family food parcels which include vegetables, rice, pasta, bread and meat, often missing from the diet of those struggling because of its price.
Sponsors can go onto the website to see what the family is receiving and to try the recipes themselves.
Almost two years since that fateful visit to the Koha Centre, around 1000 sponsored meal packages have been given to needy families by the not-for-profit. Brigitte, who’s always had a social conscience and trained as a social worker in 2005, says she isn’t surprised by its success.
“Once upon a time, neighbours knew each other and would look out for one another, especially when times were hard. That doesn’t happen so much anymore but people still want to help. They like that their money is being spent in their own community and that it all goes on food. The 10 of us involved in Arms of Angels are volunteers so every cent people give is spent on food.”
Currently, the service is only available in Tauranga and Kapiti. But she hopes to take it nationwide by the end of this year.
“Unfortunately, those who need our service is increasing. Thankfully, there are lots of wonderful people out there who care about struggling families so much they’re willing to anonymously sponsor them.”
Brigitte says she knows what it’s like to wonder where the next meal is coming from. For 20 years, she raised her children alone after her husband left when they were under 10.
“I know from experience how hard things can be. That’s why I love being able to tell recipients that a total stranger cares enough about them to pay for their meals. The look of joy on their faces always blows me away.”

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