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How to volunteer to cook for your community

What do we do when we want to make people feel better? We feed them. Bake a cake, cook up a stew, buy them soup: given that a hug is currently out of the question, it’s the next best thing.

So it’s no surprise that during the pandemic, for many of us, food was the area where we most wanted to help. Food banks have been inundated with offers even while overall volunteering figures (not including the NHS volunteers) are down, largely because of the older generation having to isolate.

Food is about more than comfort, of course. From the heartbreaking video of a nurse crying because the supermarket shelves had been stripped empty by the time she was able to leave work, to the campaign by Marcus Rashford to keep free school meals running over half term, stories of food hardship feel especially devastating.

Restaurants and food businesses have been at the forefront of the movement to help feed the nation. There are stories like the Filipino chefs in London, who provided free boxes of adobo for NHS staff, including the 20,000 UK-based Filipino nurses, many of whom had only just arrived when Covid struck.

In Bristol, Tess Lidstone of the tiny Box-E restaurant, organised more than 2,500 free food boxes and recipe videos for young care leavers, while The Radhuni Indian-Bangladeshi restaurant in Loanhead, south of Edinburgh, has given away thousands of meals to front-line workers. I could go on – and on.

You don’t have to be in the food industry to volunteer. Take “The Batheaston Baker Boys”, Jon Haslett and Harry Dawson, two young men with special needs who have been baking cakes for local hospital staff.

Or Dawn Richardson, the owner of a framing shop in Belfast, who spent the first lockdown organising soup deliveries and the second raising money to buy food for food banks, the homeless and refugee charities.

So what does it take to volunteer? Commitment and time, of course, although less time than you might imagine: organisations are keen to make it fit into your life. But also the knowledge that you won’t just be helping others.

According to a study by NCVO (National Council for Voluntary Organisations) with Sheffield Hallam and Nottingham Trent universities, volunteering gives us a sense of purpose in times of crisis, helps us cope with anxiety and helps establish a sense of solidarity with others.

There’s also­ evidence that it builds self-esteem for those who have lost their jobs or been furloughed.

For me, it’s a simple as spending time with other people after weeks of WFH. Feeding people feels good: you know it’s true.

Food Friends, Whitstable

Partners home cooks with people in need of an extra meal every now and then.

Hannah Grace-Chapman enjoys talking to her food friend, Geoff
Hannah Grace-Chapman enjoys talking to her food friend, Geoff CREDIT: Andrew Crowley 

“I make double of what we’re having and leave it on the doorstep for Geoff to pick up”

Not enough time to volunteer? How does cooking up an extra portion of your regular dinner once in a while sound? That’s the idea behind Anna Mantell’s Whitstable-based project, Food Friends.

Set up two years ago, it has mushroomed through the pandemic, with more than 60 regular volunteers, aged between 18 and 70, in a four-mile radius of the town.

One Covid-era volunteer is 27-year-old Hannah Grace-Chapman, who lives near the coast with her partner, George, and works in customer service. Put on furlough during the first lockdown, she was daunted by the thought of doing nothing all day. Posting on a local message board asking if anyone needed help, she was put in touch with Food Friends, and Mantell gave her a call.

“I told Anna the kind of things I make on a weekly basis, so she could match me up with a food friend,” Grace-Chapman explains. This part of the vetting is as important as the inevitable DBS check – if you make a lot of curry, for example, you won’t be matched with someone who doesn’t like spicy food.

She was matched with Geoff, “a lovely man,” she says. “I cook for him every Tuesday, whatever I’m making for us, but also, when I’m doing a roast there’s always too much, so I’ll drop him a message to see if he wants some. We chat on the phone mostly, then I take his dinner and leave it on his doorstep. His favourite is spaghetti bolognese.”

Geoff loves the chats and the home-cooked meals, but Grace-Chapman clearly gets a lot out of the relationship, too. “Aside from giving a bit of a structure to my week, it’s just so lovely to have met Geoff. I would never have met him otherwise, and had all sorts of interesting conversations. A lot of younger people don’t volunteer, maybe because they are too busy. But this completely fits in with your life – you are already cooking dinner anyway.”

Despite the small scale, Food Friends is run with professional care, and achieved charitable status in October. Mantell is a former nurse, and one of her prime concerns was food safety.

She got together a steering group, including food hygiene expert Sarah Howarth, and drew up a handbook. Volunteers are offered food hygiene courses alongside the compulsory DBS checks.

New beneficiaries are referred via the website and from GPs, charities such as Age Concern, and social prescribers. As relationships develop, so does the menu, and volunteers may end up adapting the family meal that night so it fits with their recipient’s tastes – much as you might with a visiting relative. “People get to know each other and it’s just what you do, isn’t it?” says Mantell.

The idea of sharing a meal also chimes with the recipients. “Food Friends might be the first form of support that people might accept,” she explains. This is especially true if they realise modern households tend to be overgenerous with their catering, and a lot ends up wasted, which goes against the grain for the older generation.

Mantell now works full-time on the project, which can go far beyond simply organising cooks and diners. Last month, one volunteer called to say she couldn’t get hold of her beneficiary.

“We had to get the police to break down the door and we found she’d fallen,” says Mantell. “Her life was saved because of that volunteer. Nobody else would have found her.”

As for the future, Mantell is would like to see more of us cooking for our neighbours. “I would love to say, in five years’ time, Food Friends will be across the UK. When I think of the impact we’ve had on people’s health and well-being just in Whitstable, it would be amazing to be able to spread that.”

Buckingham Free Meals

Marcus Rashford inspired a 14-year-old to set up Buckingham Free Meals to help those who are struggling.

Sulayman, founder of Buckingham Free Meals, serves sausage casserole
Sulayman, founder of Buckingham Free Meals, serves sausage casserole CREDIT:  Andrew Crowley

“It’s important that people have proper meals that actually taste good”

When 14-year-old Sulayman heard that his local MP, Greg Smith, had voted against providing free school meals over the holidays, and footballer Marcus Rashford had launched a campaign to overturn the Government’s decision, it struck a chord.

“A lot of my friends are not privileged, and it’s not just people on free school meals,” he says. “I think there’s a gap between being eligible for free school meals and having enough money to buy meals, and unfortunately the Government doesn’t cover that small gap. People do really struggle.”

Sulayman put a notice on the local community Facebook group, asking if anyone was interested in helping out those on free school meals over the autumn half term, and was deluged with offers of help within hours. Buckingham’s mayor promised to let them use the community centre, and the local primary school cook volunteered to head up the kitchen there.

Sulayman has been a keen cook since childhood, baking treats such as beetroot brownies and chocolate orange spice cake, but concentrated on organising the cooking, staffing and distribution of meals. He put up posters, and set up a table outside the community centre to receive donations.

“By the end of half term, we’d had £2,000 to £3,000 worth of food donated. We went from one table to about 10,” he says.

Initially, Sulayman planned for just a day or two of cooking, “but every day we went on, more and more people contacted us”. More than 400 meals were handed out, including sausages and mash, chicken curry and fish and chips.

The volunteer drivers delivering meals reported stories of real need, and once half term was over, they continued making grocery deliveries on an informal basis. Sulayman’s school, where his favourite subjects are geography, history and chemistry, has been supportive, with some teachers making donations themselves.

Sulayman decided to start up Buckingham Free Meals again for Christmas, but this time it wasn’t so simple. By now the Community Centre was being used for vaccinations. A local councillor arranged access to the local Adult Learning Centre, but two days before Christmas Day, Buckingham was hit by floods.

On the night of Dec 23, the team, including co-organisers Jay Bunyan and Rachel Bellick, spent hours rescuing the supplies and transferring them to the community centre, now stood down from vaccination duty over the festive period. Christmas deliveries went ahead, and since then they have been cooking between one and two meals per week.

It’s no longer just for families with school-age children. “Thirty per cent of our recipients are elderly, mostly living alone,” says Sulayman.

The menu has broadened too, as for Sulayman it’s about more than just fuel. “I think it’s important that people do have proper meals and filling ones that actually taste good,” he says. There are enchiladas and fish cakes, and there’s always a vegan or vegetarian option. On one memorable occasion, Sulayman’s grandmother came in and cooked biriani for everyone, including all the drivers.

Last week, Sulayman was awarded one of the Census 2021 “Purple Plaques” dedicated to community heroes up and down the country. His future plans include setting up a community kitchen to teach cookery and budgeting. After that, who knows? Greg Smith might face a challenger yet.

Lunch Bunch, Kendal 

Covid almost put paid to Lunch Bunch, until organisers pivoted from a Kendal café to a delivery service.

Kate Tordoff (in red) helped by volunteers Krystyna Slosarska and Rhod Vaughan
Kate Tordoff (in red) helped by volunteers Krystyna Slosarska and Rhod Vaughan CREDIT:  Chris Watt 

“Knock on a door to deliver a meal, you might be told to check in on Doris at number two, as well”

The inaugural Lunch Bunch in September 2019 at Kendal Parish Hall was a huge success. Fifteen vulnerable elderly locals came together for a meal cooked by volunteers Gillian Cowburn and Helen Pateman of the Kendal People’s Café, a pay-what-you-can café that uses waste food from local shops and restaurants.

There was music, games and a chat, and much-needed social contact. Lunch Bunch became a monthly event – until March 2020, when along came Covid. “It all went out of the window as soon as we locked down, because they had to shield,” recalls volunteer Kate Tordoff. “We just panicked. We knew they were going to have to shield for a long time. So we decided to take the food to them.”

The women pulled together a team of volunteer delivery drivers, and developed a strategy. “Even if it was only going to be once or twice a month, there would be somebody on their doorstep with something that we’d made specially for them and a few words, just to check how they were going, and offer any other help,” Tordoff explains.

Worried about the logistics, they started by alternating hot meals with soup and a sandwich. “Then we did a little survey to find out what people thought, and they all thought that they could make themselves a soup and sandwich, thank you very much!” says Tordoff with a laugh.

The team concentrates on traditional home cooking such as cottage pies, roasts and casseroles, and some 1960s throwbacks including duchesse potatoes. Nostalgic puddings go down well too, like jam roly-poly, Eve’s pudding, and apple Charlotte.

The recipients, she says, “enjoy the food, but more than anything the contact.” Families, banned from visiting, sent messages saying how grateful they were that someone was looking out for their loved ones. The clients look out for each other too, as Alison Nicholson, a Queen’s Nurse and one of the lead volunteers, says.

Kate Tordoff runs the Lunch Bunch deliveries
Kate Tordoff runs the Lunch Bunch deliveries CREDIT: Chris Watt 

“If you knock on a door to deliver a meal, you’ll be told, could you also go to see Doris at number two. I’ve not seen her out.” And while the music and games may not be possible right now, jigsaws are passed around (after quarantining), along with dinners.

The team now cooks 40 meals at a time, once a month. “Because of Covid, we have identified more people who need our support,” says Tordoff, who now runs the Lunch Bunch deliveries. The food is chilled and taken around in cardboard containers, ready for reheating in an oven or microwave.

The delivery team, many of them nurses and carers, go to four to six “clients” each, giving them time on the doorstep to have a chat and check all is well – and get feedback on previous meals. Tordoff says, with a note of relief: “It’s invariably been positive.”

There are more than 100 volunteers now, as many joined during the pandemic. “Some are available only because of Covid and won’t stay when things normalise, but I think quite a few will stay,” says Tordoff.

“You can just drop in and do a session, every now and again, so it doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. And I think a bit of companionable cooking and chatting, and just a chance to air some of your feelings outside of your own home, has been really important for the volunteers.”

How and where to volunteer

Small local initiatives

Often the most exciting to volunteer for. Post on local Facebook groups and nextdoor.co.uk to find the ones near you, or try websites such as endchildfoodpoverty.org, the Marcus Rashford-backed organisation with a map of food charities all over the country.

Food banks and distribution networks

The main food bank organisations have been inundated with offers of help, but most will put would-be volunteers on a waiting list. Smaller food banks may still need help, in particular with deliveries and collecting supplies, so it helps to be a car driver. Administrative roles, working from home, may also be available.

  • Trusselltrust.org is the largest network of food banks in the UK.
  • The Independent Food Aid Network maps more than 450 independent food banks nationwide.
  • Givefood.org.uk has a database allowing you to search for food banks in your area, and where possible lists what specific foods each needs.
  • Fareshare.org.uk is a network of organisations that take surplus food and redistribute it to charities. Locations nationwide.

Shopping and cooking

  • Thefoodtrain.co.uk – Scotland-based organisation that supports older people with grocery deliveries, and cooked meals through mealmakers.org.uk. You can volunteer to cook an extra portion of a meal, do shopping or deliver food, as well as simple befriending or doing odd jobs.
  • Foodcycle.org.uk – Cooked up more than three quarters of a million free meals out of surplus food in 2020, at locations all over England. There are volunteering roles in the kitchens as well as hosting and running collections.
  • Salvationarmy.org.uk – A Christian organisation that has provided more than two million meals over the course of the pandemic.

Original article written by Xanthe Clay for The Telegraph

Ruth Lapka

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