You should congratulate Two Good Co's Alex Nagle and Su Mariani on being very good at Tetris. On Friday 17 April, they fit 600 high-calibre meals, 288 toilet paper rolls, 48 bottles of hand sanitiser, 61 care packs, 30 bathrobes and 30 designer handbags into their van.
By 8am, they had left Sydney for the South Coast to help women in shelters affected by the bushfires that razed the area over summer.
Nagle says, "On the road, right next to you, are buildings that are completely burnt out and demolished, next to houses that are untouched."
The head of programs and community engagement for the social enterprise also recalls seeing trees in the distance, so burnt out and skeletal they resembled "little, thin bones on top of the hill". He remembers the rubble as he passed through Mogo – a South Coast town devastated by the summer's Clyde Mountain fire – yet there were surprising scenes of beauty, too, with the landscape regenerating vibrantly thanks to the rainfall that followed the fires.
Since June 2015, Two Good has supported domestic-violence survivors through sales of its restaurant-calibre meals (made from recipes by acclaimed chefs such as Ben Shewry, Yotam Ottolenghi and currently, Jane Strode). This drive marked the start of a 12-month campaign to support women in need throughout the bushfire-devastated region.
At Nowra, they dropped off supplies to Supported Accommodation & Homelessness Services Shoalhaven Illawarra (SAHSSI), which has women's refuges and transitional housing.
"Homelessness can be complicated in terms of how people find themselves homeless," says Nagle. Domestic violence can be a significant factor, and given how many homes were destroyed by bushfires, these catastrophes only exacerbate the need for help.
"We know the crisis would increase the stress in relationships and make incidents of domestic violence more likely," he says. "That was a bit of a perfect storm in that it created more demand for services, but it also reduced capacity for them."
The demand for emergency housing and counselling was understandably high. "Some of the services have had record calls for assistance in the previous two weeks to me meeting them." Hence Two Good's support for women’s refuges in the area, such as SAHSSI in Nowra and South East Women And Children Services in Bega, "where we dropped off 70 meals".
When delivering food and care packs to shelters, Nagle says it's important for affected women to be reminded they deserve a Jane Strode-cooked meal or Oroton handbag just as much as someone who can afford it. It's why the team dropped off top-quality dishes such as smoked salmon pie with sweet potato mash, lemon and rice soup with Greek chicken, and Thai fish cakes with coconut sauce.
"As this was the first time we sent meals to the South Coast shelters, we were keen to give a large variety of meals that included some of our big winners," says Strode. As Two Good's head chef, she cooks the dishes with women from shelters, who are trained through the initiative's Work Work program.
"We were keen to give a large variety of meals that included some of our big winners."
"I was really invested in the success of this particular [South Coast] run with the great hope that we can make this a regular and permanent event," she says. "My amazing team of chefs and Work Work women … all worked so hard to fill that van with delicious messages of love in black takeaway containers."
Nagle and Mariani dropped off 100 meals to Waminda, an Aboriginal women's health centre in Nowra. "They also service quite a number of isolated communities on the South Coast. So they've got workers that'll go out and see elders, and do a lot of outreach work in the community," he says.
Given how tough it is to find toilet paper and hand sanitiser, the organisation especially appreciated that Two Good provided them with these supplies, too.
Most Two Good meals went to the Sapphire Community Pantry charity: "The very first next day, they were taking our meals out to a small community called Bemboka, which was very badly affected by the bushfires, but has quite a stoic country community there that has trouble asking for help."
Nagle and Mariani ended their long drive at 5pm, when they donated skincare packs to Bega's hospital. "We'd been on the road, for about nine hours," he says. Thankfully, a hotel gave them free accommodation and he drove back with Mariani the next day.
With COVID-19 dominating headlines, the bushfire's impact has slipped away from national attention. It's why Two Good wants to assist affected communities now – and for a year at least. This commitment is based on the fact "the road of recovery is quite long and the attention from a lot of people would've died down after a while", says Nagle.
"We want to make sure we have a positive presence … If we've got the means to reach them down there beyond the 12 months, we'll look at that as well."
To support Two Good’s South Coast campaign, you can donate to its Better Twogether campaign.