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Grub’s up: the projects tackling food poverty and social isolation

We investigate the community projects grappling with Bristol’s growing food poverty.


Photos: Arvind Howarth

“A lot of people, me included, we fall in the crack. If you’re really vulnerable, there’s places. If you’re not vulnerable at all, there’s places. But if you fall in that crack in the middle, there’s no support. And that’s the sad thing about it… Everyone at some point needs a hand. That’s all it is.”

I’m talking to Stephen one Saturday afternoon over a free three-course lunch at Foodcycle in Barton Hill Settlement. He is 51 and homeless, and is an expert in Bristol’s charitable food provision. “I tell you one thing: you don’t need to be hungry if you’re homeless… the ironic thing is, I’ve never eaten so good and so varied!” On offer this week is green soup, veggie burgers with fried plantain and potatoes, and coffee and walnut cake or fruit salad.

Stephen has been homeless for 20 years, and sleeping rough or in shelters for the last three months. For most of his life he worked as a builder and never thought he would end up destitute, which is in part due to his manic depression. “They put me on antidepressants but they just plateau you – there’s nothing. The mania side of it – I spin off and can’t get my words out, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that!’, then the depression… as long as that one don’t hit, as long as I keep myself busy…  that’s the thing about [the meal at FoodCycle], it’s filling up the day.”

FoodCycle is a national charity that runs nearly 40 community kitchens across England. In Bristol, volunteers collect surplus food from Gloucester Road by bike (although that’s not where the name comes from), and turn it into free meals for whoever wants to partake. There are three teams in Bristol: the cooks, the servers and the food collectors, who collaborate in providing this ‘almost-vegan’ meal every Saturday at 2pm.

My first time at Bristol FoodCycle, I volunteered and joined the serving team in providing table service to 48 guests who were a broad mixture of ages and nationalities. Although open to everyone, it seemed that some were there for necessity. As soon as guests were allowed in, some rushed over to a table with excess food – mainly bread and cakes – for taking, and it was soon all gone. Some brought tupperware in case of leftovers, and left with crumble.

It is no surprise that such enterprises are taking off in the UK, where a decade of austerity has left many struggling to put food on the table. According to the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank provider, over the last five years the number of emergency food parcels provided to people in crisis by food banks in its network has increased by 73%. Two thirds of people who used their food banks had problems with benefits in the year before, while others are pushed into food poverty by ill health or challenging life experiences like eviction or divorce.

The Trussell Trust now have more than 1,200 food banks in the UK, and there are hundreds of independent ones as well, helping to feed those who can’t afford the basics. North Bristol Food Bank gave 4,536 food parcels last year, with emergency food supplies increasing by more than half between April and September, and this is just a snapshot of rocketing foodbank use in Bristol.

There are many other initiatives filling the gap left by food poverty in Bristol and nationally, who are also addressing issues as varied as social isolation and climate change, through the medium of food. The week before, I met with Louise Delmege, whose National Food Service (NFS) campaign is gathering momentum in Bristol.

The first National Food Service meeting, which took place in Bristol in January 2020

“We are a network of new and established community dining projects up and down the country working together to support and grow the movement, share resources, and campaign for food justice,” she tells me.

“Community dining addresses the interconnected problems of food insecurity, social isolation, and an unsustainable food system. Everyone benefits from cooking and eating together. The self-organised models we promote build projects that go beyond emergency food provision to something that can improve people’s lives for as long as they want to run it.”

The network, which held its first Bristol meeting in January, is guided by the principle that food is a human right and everyone should have access, rather than a commodity that you must be able to afford. “Our goal is for there to be a community dining project accessible to everyone in the country, self-organised by the communities that use them,” Louise explains.

“You can sit in company without being rich, and you won’t be moved on. These are the spaces where ideas for social change can flourish”

Louise Delmege, National Food Service

At the meeting, nearly 30 people formed working groups to hammer out a way forward for the NFS locally. One aim is to open a new community venue in Bristol, which would provide cooking facilities and free food, as well as somewhere where people can spend time without feeling pressured to buy something.

Louise explains: “NFS is as much about space as it is about food. Our towns and cities are increasingly isolating with less and less public space. NFS projects are spaces where you don’t have to spend money. You can sit in company without being rich, and you won’t be moved on. These are the spaces where ideas for social change can flourish.”

The Wednesday before, I attended another weekly feast – this time at Super Supper Club, in community venue Baggator in the Old Pickle Factory in Easton. Organiser Rachel Hodgson led a very organised team of volunteers in turning supermarket leftovers, including meat, into a three-course supper for a suggested donation of £3.

A busy night at the Super Supper Club

The atmosphere at Super Supper Club was very friendly – with about 30 diners at canteen style booths and small tables, and an open kitchen area where the busy volunteers were just separated by a counter. Aromas of cumin, onions and turmeric against a backdrop of sweet banana crumble filled the air, and chatter amongst strangers, family and friends created a buzzing atmosphere. I joined a table and met Heather, whose first visit it was, and Lisa, an off-duty volunteer. We were joined by a guy called Tom who lives in the back of his truck, and we chatted away like old friends.

A piece of the puzzle

Read more from our solutions series

Super Supper Club is another Bristol initiative addressing the twin problems of supermarket food waste and growing food poverty by repurposing ingredients that would otherwise be thrown away. Guests are invited to take home any leftover groceries – I get radishes, new potatoes and easy peelers. The menu is usually written the night before. Today it’s spicy veg or onion bhaji soup with warm seeded rolls, followed by homemade Scotch eggs with new potatoes and salad, and apple or pineapple and banana crumble with cream.

As well as issues of waste and food poverty, the meal addresses isolation and loneliness for guests; volunteers benefit from the social aspect too. Rachel explains why she does it: “I have bi-polar disorder and was very ill with it. Having a purpose gave me value, and strength to get up, get dressed and cook… When the counselling put me back on the road I still had the Supper Club to maintain my wellness.”

The volunteers at Super Supper Club plating up

Rachel used to volunteer at FoodCycle and first started a supper club in Café Connect in Easton, which started small: “Eight people ate bread and cheese.” Then charity Neighbourly set the club up with food collections, first from Marks and Spencer, then Lidl, and the Super Supper Club, celebrating their fourth anniversary this month, moved to its current home in January 2019.

“I’m glad this is open to everyone. It helps remove some of the stigma.”

Tom, Super supper club guest

Tom proceeds to educate me about some of the other places I could go to get free or cheap food – his knowledge is extensive. He laughs: “I’m not a scrounger, I promise!” I tell him: Me neither – I just happen to like cheap feasts. “I’m glad this is open to everyone,” he tells me. “It helps remove some of the stigma.”

Back at Barton Hill, I meet another Stephen, a 75-year-old who was adopted as a baby, and lived in Bristol his whole life. He has lived alone since 1977 when a social worker separated him from his mother and moved him to a flat in Kingswood, where he has lived alone ever since.

He has been coming to FoodCycle meals for several years; I ask him why. “People are more isolated nowadays, aren’t they? All their families are split all over the country. There’s that sense that you have to go and mix with other people. You can’t just sit there at home on your own, else you might as well be in your coffin. You might as well be dead.”

I get chatting to another guest, and mention I am researching this article, and he says: “These people really need so much. It’s great that you’re here doing this, and writing an article, but what else are you doing to help?” 

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