• Sustainability

Karen's story - unity through love of food

Published 2 October 2023
After completing the City of Port Phillip Environmental Leaders course Karen launched the Elwood Kitchen Library. A business that benefitted both the community and the environment.

Tell us a little about yourself

I have lived in the Elwood St Kilda area for over 20 years, and love that live music venues, the beach, parks, bars, good eats and public transport are all in walking distance from home. A year ago, I moved to the not-for-profit (NFP) sector as Executive Director at Elwood St. Kilda Neighbourhood Learning Centre. 

I have an MBA and a marketing background in Retail and Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) but I started my career as an industrial chemist, so I’m no stranger to changing career paths or sectors. The move from corporate into the NFP sector has been both challenging and rewarding.

Where did your interest in the environment come from?

Really my interest came from concern for what the future will be like for my son, niece, and nephew.

I have been trying to make my footprint smaller each year and live more sustainably. Thinking about what can I do differently and picking off the low hanging fruit, but I realised it wasn’t enough and I needed to do more.

How did you come across the Environmental Leaders program?

I saw the Environmental Leaders course advertised in City of Port Phillip communications and enquired. I was very lucky to get on the course in March 2021 and it all went from there.

I came to the course with so many big ideas and I had to really scale it down to a project I could feasibly deliver. The Kitchen Library become the one idea that I focussed on and refined. From there our fantastic group of volunteers had the library open by the last weekend of November in 2021, so we are coming up to celebrating 2 years of operating this November.

What did you get out of the Environmental Leaders program?

I tend to take a lot on, and the course taught me to just pull back a little and better understand what motivates me. The facilitator Brett has been brilliant to support me with this.

It’s also been a great network of people to be a part of. It’s a strong focus of the program to support each other and help each other succeed. There’s also an alumni of previous environmental leaders who get together monthly. Catching up with like-minded people is really valuable and provides an opportunity to share ideas and brainstorm solutions together. Everyone is really keen to help and do what they can to see other projects come to life.

Tell us about the Elwood kitchen library. How did it start?

I had been reading about ‘libraries of things’ overseas and I had heard about the Carlton Kitchen Library that had been started up by Cultivating Community. I wanted to launch a business that benefitted both the community and the environment, and I really love to cook so the Kitchen Library idea resonated with me.

Our purpose is to bring people together through the love of food. By providing members of our community with access to kitchen items and zero waste party packs we enable them to entertain family & friends, celebrate together, achieve healthier eating habits and get creative in the kitchen. In turn, learning to cook something new, healthier eating and social connection all help to enhance our health & wellbeing.

I was aware also of the diversity of the area. Some people may be disadvantaged and not be able to access all these items, but they can through the Kitchen Library. There are so many kitchen items used infrequently, so it doesn’t make sense to have to store them even if you do have the space in your kitchen. There’s also people who want to live more sustainably and borrow instead of buying things. I thought this idea spoke to all people in our community and we’ve seen this first hand since opening.

Here are some of the quirkier items we have in the library:

  1. Paella Pans
  2. Chefs Torch
  3. Hibachi Grill
  4. Women’s Weekly kids Birthday Cake cookbooks
  5. Cambodian Rice Maker
  6. Gnocchi Board
  7. Tortilladora aka the tortilla press
  8. Traditional Terracotta Tagine
  9. Christmas Embossed Rolling Pin
  10. Chocolate Fountain
  11. Cold Press Juicers
  12. Gingerbread House Set
  13. Ravioli Cutters and Pasta Maker
  14. Sous Vide Cookers (donated from MasterChef)
  15. Cocktail Bar Set
  16. Fondue Set
  17. Cannoli Tubes
  18. Fairy Floss Maker

How does the kitchen library work?

The Kitchen Library is run by volunteers and operates as a not for profit. You join by signing up for an annual membership which helps to cover the operational costs of running the library. You can sign up online, check out the catalogue of items and also reserve out items you need in advance. The party packs can be borrowed for a week, but all the other items can be borrowed for 2 weeks.  You can also renew a reservation if no one else is waiting for the item. Our community really enjoys this aspect.

Items are borrowed, cleaned and then returned to us in the same condition. We also check everything is clean when they are returned.  We operate from the St Kilda Elwood Neighbourhood House and are open on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings for people to come in and browse and collect reservations. People also use the library as a try before you buy idea as well.

A lot of people join us and then donate items to the library. 96% of items in our library are pre-loved. We’ve had donations from Masterchef, local businesses and community members.

All of our electronic items are tagged and tested quarterly. City of Port Phillip gave us a Quick Response Grant and we have trained up a volunteer to do this and purchase the equipment for this as well.

How has the kitchen prevented waste?

We’ve prevented 5,650 single use items from being purchased and ending up in landfill. Also by donating the items to the library, we prevented over ½ tonne of product from entering landfill.

What’s your plan for the future?

I’m planning to expand on party packs as they’ve been really popular. We’ve also secured a Grant from the Palais Theatre so we are literally starting to purchase new items now.

The party pack buntings and table runners are made by our volunteers. So we’ve called up our volunteer sewers who we’ve had from the beginning who really enjoyed being involved in the library and they are all coming back to help create the next lot of party packs.

We are also going to purchase some induction cookers and members have also been asking for multiuse items for future. We ask our members too what they would like to see in the library and get those items added to our catalogue.

What are you most proud of or made the biggest difference?

I’m pretty proud of the library. We’ve had a really solid group of volunteers. In a time where nationally volunteering dropped off during covid and people have struggled to get volunteers back in, we haven’t had those issues. We’ve got a good group of volunteers and the library brought us together during a time when restrictions were isolating many of us. It is great being part of this tribe and we are all proud of the difference we are making for the members of our community.

How has the community responded to the idea?

The community has responded very positively to the idea and come on board. We’ve grown very quickly to 156 members. We’ve got all walks of the community, from people who are disadvantaged to people who want to live more sustainably. 

We have lots of word of mouth from people hiring out the sets, particularly the party packs and that’s how the word is spreading in the community about Elwood Kitchen Library.

Have there been any interesting stories about items being borrowed.

We had our first male member who joined us as he was having a Super Bowl party. He wanted to have a fried chicken-off, so he borrowed the deep friers that were donated to us from Masterchef. We’ve also had one of our members borrow items for a St Kilda restaurant she worked in, to ensure they had extra appliances, woks and grills to help them cater for the St Kilda Festival crowds last year.

One of our members Zoe borrowed a party pack for her daughter's 8th birthday party and the Women’s Weekly Cookbook for the cake. Here is what Zoe said about the library:

“I was upset by all the waste from paper plates and cups that we generated at the last party we had, and I wanted a more sustainable option. So I joined Elwood kitchen library specifically to borrow the high tea party pack which  looked beautiful, with pink, white and grey dishes and cups, tiered cake stands and lovely tablecloth and rose decorations. The girls were very impressed by the table set-up when they arrived but the hit of the party was the cat cake. When booking the party pack I mentioned to the kitchen library volunteers that the theme was cats, and one volunteer, Jo, remembered that the library had a retro Women’s Weekly cake cookbook with a cat cake in it. So I borrowed that too and my friend diligently made the cake according to the instructions. But the cat turned out distinctly evil looking! I think it was the way the smarties were placed for the eyes. My daughter found it amusing and loved it, so we kept it as it was and the girls dubbed the cake ‘Chester the evil cat’."

What would you say to people wanting to take action but not knowing where to start?

Firstly, you can do it. Keep searching for ways to get around the hurdles you come up against. Finding a space to carry out a project, is one of the biggest challenges people come up against. Partnering with others is also a great idea. Don’t underestimate how much work is involved, but also when you are passionate about something it doesn’t feel like working. When you are passionate you have another driving force to keep things moving.

How do people join the Elwood Kitchen Library?

It’s super easy to join us. Just visit our website and then sign up. The website is great and easy to use. Or you can come and visit us on Thursdays and Saturdays if you would like to sign up in person. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook

You can also purchase a Gift Membership for family or friends online. Those who have been gifted access to over 500 kitchen items and a great selection of zero waste party packs have told us it’s one of the best gifts they’ve received. It’s feedback like this that makes our team thrive.