Food key to bringing Rochester back

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by Sam Bliss, FareShare's Digital Communications Specialist

When you visit Rochester, you quickly understand that flood recovery is complex, frustrating and hard.

You realise that the most basic needs like food, warmth, shelter and friendship are priorities.

You can read newspapers and watch television reports of floods. But until you talk with residents, visit their homes and briefly share their despair, it’s hard to comprehend the extent of their ordeal.

The meals FareShare prepares for Rochester are invaluable for the flood-affected community. Yet it is clear from our visit that free food will be required for a long time, along with many other forms of community support.

It has been eight long months since emergency services rescued 316 people with a fire truck, the Bendigo Airwing saved hundreds stranded, community heroes used their tractors and boats to take neighbours to safety and 11 people were in a farmhouse for two weeks without pillows or blankets.

Seeing the devastation unfold, Lachie Cozens, a Campaspe Shire Council Community Development Officer, tossed a bag into his dad’s ute and went to help.

He was one of the first to arrive and immediately began handing out food, blankets, and cleaning supplies at the makeshift Community Hub which saw up to 400 or so people and volunteers daily.

Lachie has been working directly with the Rochester community since the floods, and is now the Council’s Flood Recovery Team Leader, helping impacted people across the shire.

Lachie (left) hands out doonas to Rochester locals with the support of the Rotary club.

“What we provide is ‘support, connection and hope’,” Lachie says. “Just come down to the Community Hub and we’ll help sort it out. This is what community development is all about: rebuilding.”

But Lachie acknowledges that the recovery process takes time; the external environment is dynamic and new issues are constantly emerging.

“Through the Recovery Hub, we are working closely with our government partners, community organisations and professional agencies to address the myriad needs of impacted residents. Now that winter has set in, food, warmth and shelter continue to be key priorities for us and will be for some months ahead, especially as many people are still living in temporary accommodation, such as caravans and sheds in their backyards,” he says.

The floods were followed by a severe hailstorm. As a result of both, farmers have lost entire crops in this rich agricultural area that includes Victoria’s largest tomato growing region.

The weather is cold. Community morale varies. The threat of more natural disasters remains.

To help the town recover in the face of these challenges, Lachie and others have started activities to bring people together and socialise. Food is crucial.

“Good food, along with social connection, is at the heart of individual, family and community wellbeing and vital to the recovery process,” Lachie says. 

“We had leading disaster psychologist Dr. Rob Gordon here, and he told us the only measurable statistic in recovery is social capital. Food is at the basis of that.

“That’s why your FareShare pre-packaged meals are so incredible. Because a microwave or butane camp cooker is all a lot of people have. They help so much.”

Lachie has worked in partnership with Rochester Community House and Rochester and Elmore District Hospital to establish weekly community dinners and these have begun to attract attention from the locals.

“We need people to gather so they can talk to each other. And food is the best way to get people connected, especially in the cold.”

A FareShare meal on display at Rochester Food Share.

"Many people are still living in temporary accommodation, such as caravans and sheds in their backyards. ...That's why your FareShare pre-packaged meals are so incredible. Because a microwave or butane camp cooker is all a lot of people have. They help so much."

These Monday night meals allow people to catch up over a hot feed. According to Lachie, many of them are elderly and have not had to rely on charity before; they’re too proud to be seen taking a handout. 

“People can be pretty stoic. Resilient Rochester we call it. It’s my mission to break mental health stigma. By having these dinners, we’re able to provide mental health services like MIND Australia and Anglicare. On their way out, we tell them to take a few FareShare meals home. It works. It doesn’t when it seems like charity.”

Other ways to engage residents and attract them to the hub include study spaces, playgroups and exercise classes.

Community partnerships with organisations like FareShare are key to the recovery process.

“Nothing happens without support. Especially you guys, just recognising the incredible work you do. Your FareShare meals have been wonderful.”

Lachie notes the partnership with the Rochester Community House as another example. FareShare’s meals are being distributed as part of their Food Share program.

“They’re incredible. I’m lucky to work with them. And the Food Share volunteers are juggernauts. They turn up every day. Volunteers are very underappreciated.” 

He also proudly recounts a partnership between the Campaspe Shire Council, Rochester Community House, local Rotary Club and ‘Vinnies’ that distributed 600 doonas and 300 heaters.

It’s this resilient community spirit and supportive partnerships that make Lachie optimistic about a flourishing new Rochester.

Other promising signs include an Early Learning Centre that has a long waitlist due to the number of young families looking to stay.

An anticipated median house price drop next year should open
the market up further to young families and others who might want to repair a house and live there long-term.

Rochester will soon be home to Campaspe Shire’s new fit-for-purpose Flood Recovery Hub after receiving $1.4 million State Government funding. Lachie and others will be able to continue to provide essential services, including giving free meals to those who need them.

The Rochester Community House runs the Food Share service twice a week.

“We just have to be ready for this reintegration and what the new Rochester will look like,” Lachie says.

“Positive partnerships will get us through. Together, we’re bringing Rochester back!” 

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