As the UK’s cost of living crisis worsens, more and more people are struggling to put food on the table. The number of food insecure households has doubled since January 2020, while food bank use has increased exponentially under successive Conservative governments, growing from less than 70,000 food bank users in 2010 to more than two million in 2021. People with children, or on Universal Credit, people with disabilities and people of color are particularly badly off.
Where government policy has failed, charities and community groups have had no choice but to play a crucial role in bridging the gap. And when it comes to meeting basic needs like food, community kitchens have sprung up to help ease some of that burden.
Some of us may be familiar with the outer face of a community kitchen: a group of people behind tables, serving hot meals, hot drinks, pastries and snacks to those in need. But what does it take to run one?
Here, gal-dem shares everything you need to know about starting your own kitchen.
Where to start?
The organizers rely on crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, and believe that integration with pre-existing community organizations and activists is essential. It is important to check if a food service already exists in the target community, to avoid duplication of effort. If there is already a kitchen in your area, contact us to see if you can volunteer.
Identifying a need is crucial to starting a community kitchen, either by speaking with homeless people or reaching out to local councils and places of worship who can help identify where the need is greatest. An increase in food bank use can also be seen as a sure sign that there are food security issues in the community.
Steve Bedlam, co-founder of Refugee community kitchen (RCK), says the kitchen started as an idea floated between five friends, spurred on by images of refugees fleeing conflicts like the Syrian civil war. They shared a love of food – two of them already working in the restaurant industry – so they connected with other activist groups providing food to refugees in Calais. They later turned an abandoned warehouse in “The Jungle” into a kitchen, serving over 3,000 meals a day to people living in the camp.
“We have nurses, municipal workers, people who work full time who come to get food”
Raising awareness in London began when one of RCK’s co-founders, Janie Mac, recognized a need for services in Camden. The kitchens serve a wide range of people, from the homeless to professionals. It is important not to assume the type of person served by a community kitchen; more than a decade of austerity has led more and more people to depend on donations or charities for food. In London, Steve says: “We have nurses, council workers, we have people working full time and coming to get food. These are people who work and who have children, who have a family, who do not have access or do not have the financial means to obtain nutritious food, or simply to feed themselves in some cases.
Organizers say their outreach is largely organic. Chris Burridge-Barney of Exeter Food Fight says that although the group uses Facebook from time to time, the community it serves follows word of mouth. Their dissemination on social media focuses on seeking volunteers and donations, as well as coordinating with other activist groups on solidarity actions.
How to plan the menus?
From the outset, Steve says RCK aimed to serve “food with dignity: healthy, nutritious food and, most importantly, culturally appropriate food.” He believes in the power of food to bring a person home, no matter where they are in the world. He says the biggest compliment “is when someone turns around and says ‘this food reminds me of home’”.
At first, RCK was bringing people in with shopping bags containing food donations they had asked for on social media: “We just published a list and said we needed all of this, and that arrived. We asked and we received.
To source excess food, Janie advises contacting the corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams of companies in the food industry. Many companies have incorporated CSR into their operations, although it can be difficult to find their contact details on the web. In these cases, it is best to call a more general company contact and ask to be directed to the CSR team. Chris from Exeter Food Fight adds that it is “helpful to reach out to local food waste action groups and farms that may have surplus produce”. Fundraising efforts also help purchase staples that are almost never in surplus, such as cooking oil, flour and rice.
For RCK, every meal plan starts with three basics: rice, curry and salad. Beyond that, the chefs do their best to incorporate any excess food collected that day from their partners in the food industry. They usually don’t know what provisions are available until they enter the kitchen. Janie admits that “it has its challenges” but “also a bit of excitement, because you don’t end up creating the same meals all the time.”
Exeter Food Fight only serves vegan meals in an effort to be more ethical and inclusive.
A community kitchen should be a safe space, and Janie stresses the importance of RCK “for people who are recovering, or who want to be in recovery or who don’t drink”, so that none of their meals are prepared with the alcohol. Maintaining this environment also keeps their volunteers safe, she says.
How many people do you need?
Community kitchens can start with small numbers, but consistency is key. RCK today operates across Calais with three kitchens across London, serving meals four times a week in Camden, once in Brixton and Hackney.
A typical setup at one of their Camden locations looks like three or four people cooking during the day and then handing over to a six-person service crew. Most crucial within the service team is a manager who can answer questions about kitchen operations while others focus on serving food. “If there is something wrong, the manager makes sure everything is okay,” says Janie. In one month, RCK uses 1.5 tons of surplus food to distribute more than 1,300 meals at its four distribution points in Camden.
It’s important to have consistent volunteers because they serve “people who have been let down thousands of times,” says Janie. Community kitchens play a vital role in providing vulnerable people with a sense of stability where government has neglected its duty. Once a service has been set up, visitors will easily form queues: “We are in no rush. We have no worries. They are all very patiently waiting for us to settle in and we we were putting online. It’s ‘hi, how are you?’ and that’s really good – it’s because we’ve proven to them that we’re consistent and we don’t let them down,” she says.
How to find a location?
It’s not hard to find kitchens to use. In London, RCK is working with other community groups to scout locations. In Hackney, for example, they use a church cafeteria kitchen, while in Brixton they work with another community kitchen that does not use the space on Sundays. “You’ll be surprised if you shout out to an area and say, ‘I need a kitchen to do to do a community kitchen to feed people or to teach people to cook’, or something like that , people will show up,” he says. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get. You have to put your idea out there, people will respond.
Another option is to prepare and cook meals in advance at the volunteers’ homes. As for finding space to distribute, Chris says the most important thing is to stay on council property to avoid being bothered by private landlords.
What are the health and safety requirements?
“Food hygiene classes are worth taking to learn how to chill food, how to check temperatures and how to make sure things are stored properly,” says Janie. She advises community kitchens to contact organizations that provide these certifications, as they may also be willing to sponsor free training as these services are for charitable causes. RCK offers online food safety training to its long-time volunteers.
Janie adds that what many people think is normal because they do it at home could be risky in a community kitchen, like not labeling everything. Good basic hygiene should be followed, such as frequent hand washing and keeping hair tied back. She points out that opening a community kitchen will attract the interest of the authorities, so it’s best to have “all the Ts crossed and the I’s dotted”.
Ultimately, community kitchens provide more than food: “I thought we were just going there to feed the homeless, but that’s not the case,” says Janie. “It’s the least we can do. And the service we provide to a lot of people by just being there – you can’t really put it into words.
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