BY DENISE PIPER

Homemade pizzas, lasagne, vegetable pasta, meat in gravy, roast potatoes, hash browns, apricot slice, and homemade apple and blueberry crumble: Soul Food What's Cooking Whangarei certainly offers plenty of rib-sticking good fare.

Two days a week, the organisation has a meal open to everyone, catering for Whangarei's homeless and disenfranchised.

For the last five years, Rochelle Hedges and Chris Youens have been the backbone of this organisation, now a registered charity. Thanks to free rent, the meals have run on a Monday and Friday night from the Anglican Church hall in Regent for the last three years.

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Chris and Rochelle have now become well-known and trusted by the city's rough sleepers and those who would otherwise go hungry.

The assault and death in December of Whangarei homeless man Eddie Townsend was "heartbreaking", as he was a regular, Rochelle says.

"We helped him a lot, not only with food but with rolls for his dogs," she says.

Rochelle can relate to regulars because of her background. As a teenager, she spent a few months living in a car with her mother and sister.

The experience made her want to help others in similar hardship.

"I don't know why, probably because not many people helped us and my mum was always a giver," she says.

That generosity of spirit is a quality Rochelle now sees in a number of regular clients, who often want to give back however they can, including washing dishes and sweeping the floor.

"One guy didn't need our help anymore but he turned up with a roast and some veggies and asked if he could serve it. He said 'you guys helped me, let me help now'," Rochelle says.

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The first night Soul Food ran a meal, the police said there were only three homeless people in Whangarei. A "fair few" more than three turned up, encouraged by Chris who walked the streets, dressed as a homeless person.

Now 20 to 60 people are served each night, although not all are homeless. Some are children – three come in prams.

Soul Food What's Cooking Whangarei also offers free pickups from Otaika and free healthcare checks once a fortnight. Donated clothes and toiletries are given out when available.

The organisation prides itself on opening the doors to everyone, no questions asked.

Chris says some people come along purely for the company and that is welcomed.

There are just two rules: treat everyone with respect and, if you wouldn't eat it, don't serve it, Rochelle says.

At Soul Food, taking food for later is not only allowed, it is actively encouraged.

Wrapped sandwiches are served every meal, as they are a favourite to stuff in pockets for later, she says.

Leftovers are packaged for clients to take away and regulars, if they miss a meal, are found and given food.

The fact that Chris and Rochelle know where many of the homeless sleep, shows some of their credibility with the rough-sleeping community.

"We know some people who only survive on the food they get from us," Rochelle says. "Sometimes, we're their last resort."

Chris says it is sad Whangarei is spending hundreds of thousands on the Hundertwasser centre, when it could be building a homeless shelter instead.

"We don't need fancy buildings. I would like to have the council do more to help homeless people."

Soul Food now works in with Open Arms Day Centre, which provides meals and support to homeless people during the day.

Rochelle says Soul Food has an "awesome bunch" of about 20 regular volunteers, plus monthly support from members of the Mormon Church and the Catholic Church.

Local organisations also donate, including Stan Semenoff Group, Baker's Crust, Handsome Frog Café, Penguin Wholesalers and Food Rescue.

Chris says everything else comes out of their own pocket, and they have a double garage filled with fridges and freezers full of food to turn into meals.

"Mondays and Fridays we feed them but seven days a week we're still running the group with pick-ups of food, drop-offs of food parcels and organising for the next meal," he says.

It can be quite hectic for the couple, with Rochelle working as a caregiver as well as volunteering. As well as spending time with their three children, the couple are also busy planning their wedding.

But their love for each other will not stop them sharing the love with those in need.

"We're doing Soul Food the night before the wedding, as far as we know," Rochelle says. "Just because we're doing what we want to do and getting married, they're still hungry," she says.

"We just love doing it really."

If you would like to get involved with Soul Food What's Cooking Whangarei, contact Chris on 021-0870-5352 or Rochelle on 021-0871-9979, or drop off food to the Anglican Church hall, corner Kamo Rd and Deveron St, Regent, between 4-6pm on Mondays and Fridays.