Moonee Valley council’s ‘Mamma’s Kitchen’ is giving East African women the chance to use their cooking skills in paid work, and it’s helping to build confidence and experience.
“It’s hard for us to get a job,” explains Fahan Ahmed.
Ahmed is one of the 14 or so women — all residents of nearby housing estates — who now work at Mamma’s Kitchen, a catering service run by Moonee Valley council since November 2020.
Many of the women, who come from countries including Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, did not have any work experience before joining Mamma’s Kitchen. They’re not the only ones — on the Flemington and Ascot Vale housing estates in Melbourne’s inner north, the council estimates that female unemployment sits around 38%.
But Mamma’s Kitchen is giving these women the chance to use their cooking skills in paid work, and it’s helping to build confidence and experience.
They produce around 700 meals a week in food aid for the public housing towers, where needs are especially high at the moment due to economic fallout of the pandemic. Run out of the council’s own commercial kitchen, the project has been able to fill a gap for familiar, halal food for the residents.
“Cooking is the strongest for our community because we already have children and we are already cooking for them, so maybe they feel more confident,” says Ahmed.
“When they see that Mamma’s kitchen is working, they can see we’ve done something and we’re going somewhere. So there’s hope in the community.”
Mamma’s Kitchen has a big impact on the women who work there, says senior project officer Lauren Kerr.
“The women said it most acutely, that one of the largest issues they had was just a complete lack of confidence in themselves and their skills. They didn’t feel like they had anything to offer as mums that didn’t speak English that well, which is devastating,” she tells The Mandarin.
“Now after three months of Mamma’s kitchen, women that wouldn’t have been able to look at me make eye contact, smile. They’re just completely different. Those paid employment experiences are what makes the difference.”
Barriers to work
Mamma’s Kitchen is only one of the initiatives the council is running through its Flemington Works program.
Flemington Works started as a two-year project funded by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Resources aimed at tackling low labour force participation among women and young people on the housing estates.
“Things were grim and had been grim for quite some time,” says Kerr.
Previous job-matching programs had helped people temporarily, but failed to translate into longer term impacts when the money ran out. This meant there was appetite to try something different.
The council started by taking a codesign approach — asking residents what the barriers are to work and what skills and interests they had.
Among people who grew up overseas there are challenges such as English proficiency and low self-confidence. Some of the women were unfamiliar with workplace basics such as what superannuation is and what their rights are. But they identified that many have completed job readiness courses and hold certificates in areas such as commercial cookery, offering a skill base to build on.
The other big group is young people who have grown up in Australia. Tertiary qualifications are common but graduates find it difficult to get work due to discrimination and a lack of professional networks. Many are interested in social justice and have qualifications in creative industries like graphic design and film-making.
The big challenge for the council was overcoming scepticism of the codesign process. Awatif Taha, now a support officer for the program, initially had to be convinced to attend the meetings because she thought “nothing is going to happen”, she says.
“We do these things, and they never show again.”
But she was won over by the openness of the process, allowing residents to raise their ideas and the things that frustrated them, such as the Job Network system.
“Any issues happen, we bring it to the table,” says Taha.
“When I go inside, I find really strong woman.”
Showing participants that you can deliver is a vital part of making codesign work, says Kerr.
“You need to deliver the solution that they think might work really quickly. You can’t say, ‘thank you so much for your time over the past six months, now we’ll test it’. It has to be operating in parallel with the process.
“So, when young people said, ‘we haven’t had any paid work experience, we experienced discrimination, we’re scared of going into workplaces’, immediately that was enough for us to pitch to our chain of command: we need paid internships … what can we do?”
Working with the community
The pandemic has made it difficult to find positions for participants, with industries like hospitality severely hit by lockdowns.
Nonetheless, Flemington Works has so far achieved 168 placements for 101 people.
Some have been hired to work on the project itself, such as Taha. As a support officer, she acts as a bridge between the women working in Mamma’s Kitchen and the head chef, Kerr explains:
“She can let us know what sits underneath the iceberg that the women are probably not as comfortable sharing — whether it’s training needs, whether it’s childcare, or a big one is the war in Tigray in Ethiopia, with people losing family. So if someone’s not too happy at work or they’ve decided not to come in today, we know why.”
Having support staff from the community was something that both Kerr and the codesign participants flagged as important. Kerr recalls an East African colleague explaining Kerr had been oblivious to “some dramas” that had occurred in a codesign session.
“She applied her cultural knowledge and understanding, and she schooled me. … My lens about what was good is completely irrelevant.”
Making the most of social procurement
As part of Flemington Works, the council has used reformed social procurement processes to arrange for 75 placements under two cleaning contracts.
Moonee Valley has provided support for the cleaning companies around issues such as working with non-native English speakers. This ensures participants receive the support they need to stay in work, but has also opened up opportunities for those companies to bid for social procurement contracts elsewhere.
But introducing social procurement at the council, and the associated change in attitudes required, has not been easy, says Kerr.
“How do we change our procurement processes? I don’t have power to do that, the procurement team does — do they see this as part of their work? How do you then monitor that happening? Are we resourced to do that? Is it expensive to make sure that the cleaners who said they’d give us 35 employment outcomes deliver?”
The experience has also demonstrated the value of diversity in leadership.
“I think if we didn’t have a CEO that had lived in social housing in Braybrook as he grew up, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to try things that the women suggested,” she says.
“That makes a difference to moving codesign recommendations through because you’ll get people in these positions that go, ‘oh yeah, that makes total sense, it’s going to improve our service, we should do that’.”
If that authorising environment is not there, then reconsider whether codesign is the right choice.
“Do it if there’s an appetite from your chain of command that if local people have ideas, then they’ll be implemented really quickly. But if you can’t do that, it’s okay, you don’t have to. Just use a different process for engagement.”
All this hard work paid off for Kerr and her colleagues last year, with Flemington Works winning an IPAA Victoria Leadership in the Public Sector award for human-centred service.
The long waiting list to join Mamma’s Kitchen shows the project has been positively received by the community too.
But first it will have to be extended past the initial funding period.
The Flemington Works team are now focused on working out how to make Mamma’s Kitchen financially sustainable.
Kerr also hopes to ensure it can provide regular, reliable hours for its employees — catering can be unpredictable, but casualisation is part of the problem the project is meant to tackle.
So Mamma’s Kitchen is working on a delivery arm and new products, and is hoping to partner with organisations that have large catering budgets.
Taha hopes it will continue and develop into new opportunities for the women involved, whether in cooking or other pursuits.
“Now everyone is happy, you know? This really is a dream coming true for our community.”
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