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How Whitstable came together to feed isolated residents

Whitstable Community Dinner fund

Jo Verney of The Umbrella Café CIC at the Whitstable Umbrella Community Centre (left) and Anna Mantell, the founder of Food Friends (left) set up a Community Dinner Fund in Whistable CREDIT: Clare Randell

Whitstable is seen as affluent, and people love to visit – but hidden citizens struggle with social isolation and food poverty. A high rate of pupil premium is paid to local schools to support disadvantaged children,” says Anna Mantell, a former nurse and founder of Food Friends, a food sharing initiative set up 18 months ago to connect home cooks with neighbours in need of a nutritious meal and a friendly chat.

“I stopped nursing when I had children, and started to help a couple of women in their 80s who live on the seafront. I was astounded at how lonely they were. When coronavirus hit, I couldn’t bear the thought of isolated individuals suffering when it was so easy to help and give a little time.”

Food Friends is run from Whitstable Umbrella Community Centre, a not-for-profit hub for social engagement and support, which is also home to The Umbrella Café CIC. “When we’re open, we welcome all for coffee and home-cooked lunches via Whitstable’s well-established Pay It Forward scheme,” ­explains the Umbrella’s co-founder Jo Verney, also a former nurse.

Through the scheme, customers at the Umbrella Café as well as Café Revival on the high street can buy a tea, cake or meal alongside their own for those in need.

When lockdown measures forced the café to close, it was clear that Whitstable residents who were shielding and families who usually ­receive free school meals were facing harsh difficulties.

Thus the Community Dinner Fund was born: a collaboration between the Whitstable Umbrella Community Centre, the Umbrella Café and Food Friends supported by Whitstable businesses including Samphire bistro, Sale & Pepe pizza, the Rose in Bloom pub and V C Jones fish and chips.

The Umbrella Cafe
The collective is preparing free meals for those in need are prepared in the kitchen at The Umbrella Café CIC, which closed during lockdown CREDIT: Claire Randell

Since March 23, they’ve delivered over 3000 meals and 400 breakfast parcels to 163 regular beneficiaries identified through referrals from schools, health centres and charities. “The same volunteer delivers each time, forging a relationship, and ­befriending calls from our team of 15 volunteers provide a support network,” says Verney.

The Community Dinner Fund cooks around 185 home-made meals a week in the Umbrella Café kitchen. Funded initially by reserves from the existing Pay It Forward scheme, it’s received an additional £35,000 funding from the likes of Kent county council and the Whitstable Rotary Club.

Meals are supplemented by 30 frozen meals donated weekly from COOK; extras are served up courtesy of local restaurants on board.

Samphire Bistro
Local restaurants including Sale e Pepe pizza and  Samphire bistro (now open for bookings) have rallied to support the Community Dinner Fund CREDIT: Samphire

Visitors to Whitstable can also pay for an extra portion of fish and chips at V  C Jones on top of their own for someone in need (recipients receive a code to redeem). The Community Dinner Fund project is currently set to run until September, after which it will continue to support its beneficiaries with the funds raised alongside the centre and café.

Until then, the Fund is keeping in touch with residents facing difficulties in the Kent seaside town to work out how best to support them through the pandemic. “We can all learn something from this time, and drive that into something positive,” says Mantell.

Original article written by Madeline Howell for The Telegraph

Anna Mantell