How to Cook a Community Food Project

In 2020, during the second COVID lockdown, a new food project started in the town of Wiveliscombe in Somerset.   The idea had been kicking around even before COVID; to find a way of taking surplus food from the shops and turning it into nutritious meals.  But COVID isolations and lockdowns brought a new focus.

Wiveliscombe is a small market town, nestling in the foothills of Exmoor. It has just under 3,000 residents but is well provided for with local shops and services given its large rural catchment area. The population profile leans towards the older end of the spectrum. In terms of wealth and poverty levels it is middling; some people are very comfortable while others are struggling to get by.

The food project has brought all kinds of people together, some motivated by the desire to help their neighbours, many inspired by Marcus Rashford’s work on food poverty and others arriving from climate and environmental campaign groups.  

To help communities learn from and possibly duplicate the project, we’ve set out details of the project below, in the form of a (relatively easy to follow) recipe.

Good luck – it’s a delicious feast!

Ingredients

1 x chef.  Kate is our resident chef. She trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London before becoming a food writer, caterer and teacher at Bordeaux Quay in Bristol and her own Walled Garden Cookery School in Cornwall.

1 x steering group. Three local people including Kate. Rosie B coordinates the volunteers and prepares the work rotas. Sue H does all the outreach in the community. 

1 x kitchen. We were lucky to find that our rugby club had fitted out its kitchen to a professional standard about 10 years ago. A new committee wanted the club to be more active in the community, just as the food project started looking for premises.

65kg food donation per week.  Our food comes from Fareshare in Bristol, picked up from their Taunton depot every Tuesday.  We don’t know what we’re getting until we get it.

A generous pinch of storage for food, ingredients, fridges and freezers.

1 bunch of other food donations.  People have been dropping in surplus veg from their allotments. A local farmer brought several trays of ‘small’ eggs. 

Assorted extra ingredients to taste.  There’s always something extra needed to turn the Fareshare supplies into a tasty meal. 

50 volunteers. In the first three weeks over 50 people came forward to be involved.  Some have lots of catering experience, others have none. Some will be beneficiaries of the project.  They work in teams of 6 on a monthly rotation.  About 20 have taken their Level 2 Food Hygiene certificates since we started.  Ten volunteers are drivers for food deliveries.

1 x host organisation.  Everything was setup really quickly so no time to constitute ourselves.  Wivey Cares is a local charity providing support for vulnerable residents and they kindly agreed to be our official face.

1 x community freezer.  The local church has allowed their freezer to be a community pick-up point for frozen meals. Customers simply log what they take.

Start-up funding. We had to get going at a rapid pace. Wivey Cares enabled us to get our publicity materials, the Rugby Club offered us the first month rent free and people donated generously to our weekly costs. Kate also put in her own money to get things going.

Weekly costs. The kitchen costs £50/week. Fareshare costs £25/week.  Other ingredients and supplies cost £50-100/week.

Preparation

  1. Kate was in touch with a number of Somerset food initiatives and the Council about a potential project in the area that could help address COVID hardship. Meanwhile other local people were thinking about a project to tackle food waste.
  2. Fareshare were approached but had no slots for the next few months. However, a local council officer was visiting Fareshare when a vacancy came up, and was able to promote the Wiveliscombe project as ‘oven ready’. Back in Wiveliscombe, confidence and experience had to make up for the lack of funding and a business plan but nevertheless food deliveries started the following week.
  3. Six local people quickly got together to make a plan. There was a huge rush to produce publicity, attract volunteers, get people through their Level 2 food hygiene certificates, find a kitchen, and buy equipment. 
  4. A Saturday street stall raised awareness. A test run in the kitchen provided hot soup for shoppers and brought in much needed donations.

Recipe 

(Serves 300)

  1. On Tuesday, armed with coolboxes and ice, Kate collects the Fareshare supplies from the depot 12 miles away. She takes it back to Wiveliscombe where she sorts through and logs everything, and refrigerates where necessary (she has a number of fridges in an out-building).
  2. Wednesday is spent planning recipes, buying any extra ingredients.
  3. 8am on Thursday, Kate arrives at the kitchen. A team of 8 volunteers follows – some of whom do the full day while others are replaced for the afternoon shift. It’s a COVID-safe workplace, but there’s an energetic vibe and spirits are high. The morning is spent prepping – chopping vegetables, making sauces, roasting vegetables, cooking chicken.
Tomato sauce prepped in the morning, ready for liquidising
  1. A hearty lunch is served (made during the morning) to all the volunteers.
  2. The afternoon is spent cooking the finished meals, combining the prepped ingredients from the morning and then packing into pots. Labels are attached and then they’re frozen.
  3. Cleaning up the kitchen and returning everything to the stores.
  4. Friday is distribution day with volunteers delivering meals, sometimes a full week’s worth, to those who need them.  Other meals are put in the freezer at the church where people can collect them according to their own need.  Some people want to pay – a guide price of £2/meal is given.  If 50% of people pay, that covers all the costs.
  5. Saturday. A stall outside the shops to drum up extra interest.  Hot soup is served in exchange for donations, which are sometimes very generous. 
Veggie beef stew

On the second week this is how it went.  The Fareshare supplies included:

  • 3 boxes of tofu turkey
  • 1 case of coconuts
  • 12 butternut squash
  • ½ case of sweet potatoes
  • ½ case of limes
  • Loads of potatoes
  • Pumpkins
  • Yellow peppers
  • Malformed skinless sausages
  • Wonky carrots
  • Chicken drumsticks
  • Vegan beef
  • 2 cases of soya milk
  • 30kg of dried fruit
  • Mozzarella and cheddar cheese

Extra supplies bought included soya sauce, lemon grass, olive oil, celery, foil and other small but essential items.

The finished meals included:

  • Three different soups (carrot & ginger, Thai vegetable and roast vegetable)
  • Veggie chicken pie with carrots and mash
  • Veggie beef and mash
  • Chicken stew with chard / carrots and mash / rice
  • Meatball casserole
  • Macaroni cheese

Number of meals cooked: 300

Volunteers also took home 2kg portions of the dried fruit to make Christmas cakes for distribution through the project.

After-dinner chat

After three weeks the project is going very well.  The number of volunteers is growing, a grant application of £5,000 has been approved (to be used for buying equipment), and all the key partners are very much on board (the rugby club even replaced a professional grade fridge which wasn’t chilling to the required temperatures).

Kate, the chef, has been key to the project working.  We are lucky to have someone with her experience of large scale catering and training.  But anyone with restaurant kitchen or catering experience will know how to prepare and produce meals at this scale.

There are questions about who is benefitting. The data (e.g. free school meals numbers in local schools) suggests that people in need are out there, but the GPs, NHS and Council will not share the information they hold.  So distribution relies upon word of mouth and local publicity.  The project is very aware of the need to protect the confidentiality of anyone receiving meals & in some situations is working through ‘gatekeepers’ who distribute the meals so the project never knows the identity of the recipients.    

In many cases people are collecting for vulnerable neighbours.  In other cases it might be people who have not eaten properly at home for years and welcome this helping hand.  Sue liaises with the schools, surgery, local parish councils, churches and village agents to build up our client base. People are encouraged to self-refer. So far, most of those using the service have been people living alone, often the elderly & families needing extra support, some living in isolated rural areas. 

Ability to pay is not always the obstacle to people eating healthy meals – so some are grateful for the meal and are very eager to pay.

There seem to be very few families using the service – it’s most people living alone.  How to reach those most in need (an estimated 200 families) and overcome their obstacles? Pride is thought to be a factor, so the project needs to present itself as empowering, not demeaning. We hope to access more families & children, working through the schools.

It is possible that some people who are not in need are taking meals.  The response to this is philosophical; a few people exploiting the system can be overlooked so long as the greater good is being served.

Not all meals are popular in this part of the country where meat still comes with two veg. Feedback on the beetroot soup from one elderly lady: “I’m not having that again – it went straight through me”. Other ingredients are alien to some customers – celeriac, what’s that?  Popular dishes include those with mashed potato.

Volunteers are learning so much from Kate who is bringing the tricks of the trade from restaurant kitchens to this community food project.  Huge amounts of preparation are essential, whether it is chopping vegetables, or preparing sauces that are then used in a number of different dishes. Efficiency in time, effort and use of ingredients are the keys to success (and knowing how to make it wonderfully tasty!).

Kate is also live broadcasting cooking lessons from the kitchen every Thursday morning – see the Facebook page for the Ready Steady Cooking Classes!

Future plans include community vegetable growing and community meals (a bit like the British Restaurants in the 1940s) although that will have to wait for post-COVID times.

Can it be sustained? The project places a big demand on Kate, but she has trained many chefs and cooks in the past so the plan is that she brings on enough volunteers to be able to run the project without her.  As a social enterprise the project could be financially viable if about half the meals made are paid for.

Links

Wivey Food Project https://www.facebook.com/wiveyfoodproject/

Wivey Cares https://wiveycares.net