By Greg Allen Pretty
A Food Van Feast has done much to lift the spirits of people in Mallacoota after two isolating events over the last year-and-a-half, bushfires and the pandemic.
People in the area have a spring in their step after hundreds of them came out earlier this month for some much-needed social interaction.
Bushfires surrounded Mallacoota at the end of 2019, not only causing loss and destruction, but a sense of separation from the rest of the world as residents and summer visitors were hemmed-in, huddling together on the foreshore under blood-red skies. Even when the fire passed, the town’s only road to the highway was too badly damaged to be used for some time.
The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic since then have kept the community fairly isolated as they set out on the path to recovery from the fires.
So an event like the recent Food Van Feast under the winter stars has been good for the mental wellbeing of locals, according to organisers and attendees. As part of the East Gippsland Winter Festival, and supported by Connect Well East Gippsland and Wellington, people came together to celebrate their resilience and sense of community.
The Feast was organised by the Mallacoota Preschool Association and Toy Library Inc, which itself sustained smoke and ash damage during the fire, followed a few weeks later by further damage from heavy rain on 20 January 2020.
“It was a really good opportunity to have a positive event for the kindergarten and bring all the families and community together, to celebrate what we love about our kinder and have a fun family day out,” said event coordinator and preschool committee member, Jodie York.
“The state government pledged $2.5 million for a new kinder and our fundraising adds to that,” she said.
Jodie said at least 500 people, including 80 children, attended on Saturday 10 July from a town with a population of 1000. A few had also come from Bairnsdale and other towns.
Around $2,500 was raised to replace the 42-year-old building with a new preschool and toy library. But while the money was important, the happiness and connectedness created by the Food Van Feast was even more valuable.
“We had food, entertainment and fun for the kids. The food stalls were of different varieties and nationalities and three local bands performed. And we had a really bright display of locally made lanterns,” Jodie said.
“It was a great opportunity to have an all-inclusive event for everybody to come together and enjoy after we’ve had so much separation with Covid. I think that was a great benefit, as well as for the local economy.
“The social connection for people who would normally cross paths in their daily life, brought them together again for their enjoyment of a food van and live music evening.”
Jodie said the recovery journey from the bushfires has been a slow one.
“Covid had really gotten in the way of that a lot.
“There’s no precedent for recovering from a natural disaster while also enduring lockdown and social isolation.
“But I feel that in the last few months, things are starting to come together and take shape.
“A lot of money has been pledged to the community for many different projects, so it’s quite positive to see new things being built or rebuilt,” Jodie said.
Mallacoota’s Food Van Feast under the stars was made possible by funding from Connect Well East Gippsland + Wellington, a partnership that works together to improve mental health and wellbeing outcomes for people in the region. The positive community response to the event is a great example of this funding at work.