Come for the food, stay for the revolution
11 February 2023
This guest blog has been written by Emily Connally, Managing Director of Cherwell Collective. Emily spoke at an Oxford Social Prescribing Research Network meeting in February 2023. Here she outlines the work of Cherwell Collective and how it relates to social prescribing.
Britain faces yet another crisis this winter, while still reeling from the last. Whether it’s the cost of living or Covid, or even the climate crisis to come, we’ll experience increased food and housing insecurity as well as social isolation; this is likely to result in an overall drop in well-being on both physical and mental health metrics. The infrastructure set in place to temper the impact of each crisis through the professional and voluntary-community sector (e.g. food banks, citizens advice, social prescribers, etc) has been oversubscribed for years now, with not enough resources and drastic levels of dropout in staff. Supporting existing infrastructure by welcoming the vulnerable to be a part of the solution underpins the preventative model we use to boost community resilience to crisis at a Community Interest Company called Cherwell Collective.
Cherwell Collective's principles
We provide a support infrastructure that bridges gaps in current services pushed past capacity. Our approach hinges on a historically untapped and under-engaged population: users of the services themselves. Our model is a ‘one stop shop’ for non-means tested food access, which brings people in the door. They can then also benefit from peer-to-peer signposting on to whatever other services they might need.
We earn credibility by giving people what they need. Whether it’s food, company, awareness of other services, or skills to build their confidence to navigate a way forward beyond pure survival mode. So, what is beyond survival mode? Well-being, connectedness, empowerment, and resilience. What’s more is that our aim is not the basic provision of essentials, nor is it social connectedness. Our strategy is to empower those in our community who, due to social, financial, or medical inequities and exclusions, believe reducing our impact on the climate is beyond their reach. We do this through the following food-related activities:
● Distributing food and other surplus via Cherwell Larder Marketplace
● Repurposing food surplus in our cafe, Climatarian Kitchen
● Growing food for the community in Harvest @ Home
Friends feeding friends
Originally a COVID emergency food delivery service, over 3000 people have now registered for Cherwell Larder, where food surplus is provided on a ‘pay what you can’ basis at Exeter Hall, Kidlington. There is no means testing at Cherwell Larder; we have a completely open door policy. Further, the core volunteers who run Cherwell Larder are individuals who struggled with food access in the past. This model creates a path toward peer-to-peer signposting; this allows people to have their hands held not by an expert or authority, but by someone who has experienced similar challenges in life, who can talk with credibility about services or support they accessed to help.
Our decision to avoid means-testing reflects two values that drive our work: 1) all people, no matter their circumstances, need food to survive; and 2) all people should participate in services that reduce food waste (e.g. ‘shop surplus first’).
Users of the service have described the impact of this approach on them personally in the following ways:
“A triumph in breaking down the stigma of food banks and creating a sense of community.”
“It's been quite a life saver, actually to be fed with stuff was massive, when we didn't have any food. Everyone's really nice here. I can't honestly think you can say you feel uncomfortable here.”
“Here I am who I am, so that's what I like about it. They accept you for what you are, allow you to do as much or as little as you want, but allow you to feel part of the community...It's not just a larder. It's a community.”
Food alone will not sustain us
Climatarian Kitchen was originally founded to help people make the most of food surplus by sharing knowledge, creating recipes, and running demonstrations and courses. Climatarian food is 75% plant based per plate, relative to more traditional British recipes. This approach enables healthier food choices for diners and for the planet (we carbon cost each portion at £1 suggested donation per car mile). Our community can come to our venue to eat together for breakfast, lunch, and dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays on-site this winter as part of our warm space initiative, and can join for lunch three days a week the rest of the year.
We know social eating is important for individual happiness, community connectedness, and general well-being. Our community corroborates this effect, with the people we support telling us of increased connectedness and well-being, and the impact saving waste has on them personally. The following quotations from lunch attendees support this idea:
“It's very helpful for people who've got depression. Because if they want to be alone, they can be. If they want to share a table they can just come and sit with us. And we just let them sit there or we talk to them.”
“I just think it's great. It's local. The people are local. I love it. It’s the fact that you don't have to have that extra worry. You can do the recipes and learn something else to cook, new ideas.”
“For me, the knowledge of saving some food from going to landfill… I think they're doing a lot. I'm amazed that it's so successful. I'm amazed there's so many people coming. I'm amazed it's this quality.”
Our relevance to social prescribing
Social prescribing has become a recognised part of health service provision in England. It aims to support patients with difficulties they are facing that cannot be fixed with tablets or medical procedures; for example, loneliness, food access, and housing problems. It is supported through social prescribing link workers, who are employed to connect people to organisations and activities in the community that can assist them with their ‘non-medical’ needs.
Our cafe provides link workers with an opportunity to visit our services and slowly triage individuals to us for more support. They can come, have a cup of tea, and then retreat, allowing clients to become more independent in connecting with others on site. Disengaging with their clients is critical for link workers, who lack the capacity to hand-hold during activities and balance a full caseload. We provide a community that they can tap into without being a part of, with the responsibility for embedding the individual falling on the community as a whole, and not on the link worker. In this way we can assist link workers with their workload.
Further, our cafe is an important catalyst for peer-to-peer signposting. We often say “come for the food, stay for the revolution”; the idea is that people come here for food access and we then get them to stay for a cup of tea and chat about what else they might need or want. This is a staunch contrast to the clinical and sterile environment of a medical room or office. Chatting over food is beneficial in reducing pressure to speak about more challenging issues; it presents automatic ice breakers (e.g. “this food is tasty”, “I had no idea beef had that kind of carbon footprint”). There is an added benefit of collective response and inclusion; the cafe is open and people are often speaking about problems, which brings a feeling of being part of a group even if the problems each person wants to solve are very different.
Anyone visiting our cafe will hear our volunteers asking for help and in many cases from those dining (e.g. “hey our pot washer is off”, “can you help us shift some tables?”, “we need to sort donations, are you going to be around for a while?”). This ‘everyone can get stuck in’ approach strengthens the community and increases the catchment of our provision as the deeper engaged each member is, the more sustainable and resilient our community can grow. People feel they can contribute and be a part of the system rather than taking from it.
Food security from the ground up
Ultimately the most deeply embedded form of engagement is our gardening program, Harvest @ Home. During the lockdowns over 900 people were supplied with garden starter kits to learn to grow their own food. These households were recruited via foodbanks and food larders. We have since expanded and started a GreenSpace garden network, with growing spaces for the community supported by local leads in Kidlington, Bicester, Banbury, and Witney. These growing spaces provide a way to share knowledge, grow together as a community, offer a safe contemplative space and, of course, food for humans and animals.
We are increasing our efforts to have people prescribed time in these gardens together, through something called ‘Green Social Prescribing’, since research shows that increased connectedness to nature predicts better health and well-being. Part of this work is highly seasonal but the benefit is quite clear to our users:
“When I've had bad depression, and I can't get out the house. I haven't got shopping. I've got no fresh food in the house. I can cope with just walking over there pulling up a leek and a couple of courgettes. I've got some veg for a few days and that's been a god send.”
“I felt so much better for it, just being around people, having done something productive and helpful. Being outdoors in the sunshine and had I not been invited, I would have stayed indoors and escalated a lot worse. They created a really safe place to go over to you know, I feel safe going there.”
“And I'm naturally quite an introverted person, and if I wasn't doing things like this, I probably wouldn't be engaged with anyone else much at all. So by forcing myself to come out and talk to people is probably a good thing because otherwise I just sort of sit at home all the time.”
Evaluation and engagement
Our ‘food groups’ - Cherwell Larder, Climatarian Kitchen, and Harvest @ Home - seek to collectively provide support and bridge gaps in current service provision. We have immediate food needs met by the larder, social connectedness through the cafe and volunteering, and an eye toward prevention through building of hyper local greenspace gardens for growing food and staying connected as a way to build a better life. Our focus behind the scenes is on evaluating this impact and putting our theory of change to the test. As our aim is to reduce the carbon footprint of the community, we want to know if connecting people to nature is what leads to behaviour change, or if we must also connect them to one another and build the confidence that we are not alone in the climate fight. This is fundamental to our aims, which are to:
- Reduce waste and facilitate a circular economy to make the most of resources available
- Increase collective knowledge (e.g. through skills sharing and education)
- Build a sustainable future for our community together
Through our activities, as outlined above, we support the well-being of our entire community:
- We foster social connections and reduce isolation; whether it’s over a cup of tea and a chat, repurposing textiles to make quilts for those in need, or growing food together.
- We promote improved mental health and increased physical activity through older adults seated exercises, garden work, or moving around supplies for our distributions.
- We fill gaps in the current options available to social prescribing link workers and actively collaborate with local units to provide bespoke opportunities, often for those most traditionally excluded.
- We capitalise on collective wisdom and an extensive network of local businesses to make the most of the resources available. We actively instruct the community to do this through demonstrations, guides, kits, and courses.
- Our evaluation also indicates increased connectedness to nature and social connectedness predicts more environmentally responsible consumer decisions when shopping, supporting long term goals of resilience to climate change through increased connectedness and well-being.
Emily L Connally, DPhil, is Managing Director of Cherwell Collective, a Community Interest Group based in Oxfordshire and the founder of all of its constituent groups (Cherwell Larder, Harvest @ Home, Climatarian Kitchen, Oxford Party Library, and Waste Innovation Station HQ). The views expressed are those of this author of the blog.
What to read next
20 December 2022
In this blog, Stephanie Tierney reflects on some conversations she has had with people involved in a community organisation set up during the COVID-19 pandemic. It complements her interest in social prescribing. Social prescribing involves connecting people to support in the community (e.g. voluntary organisations, charities, local groups) that can help with their ‘non-medical’ needs (e.g. loneliness, financial concerns, housing problems).