Feeding the community

Visitors to the ‘community kitchen’ run by Enfield charity Cooking Champions speak to James Cracknell about how it’s helping them survive the cost-of-living crisis

Outside the community kitchen in Ponders End are (from left) Cooking Champions team members Keely Forbes, Heather Bredee and Clare Donovan
Outside Cooking Champions in Ponders End are (from left) team members Keely Forbes, Heather Bredee and Clare Donovan

The soaring price of food in the UK has forced many people to rethink what they buy and perhaps give up some luxuries – but for some already struggling the impact has been far more severe.

At the weekly community meals service run by Cooking Champions from the community kitchen, dozens of regular visitors benefit from a free hot meal which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay for themselves. The service is literally a lifeline for these people, and some of the stories they have to tell about their lives are absolutely shocking – as I recently found out when I went along last month.

Single mum Ruby has been attending the community kitchen in Ponders End for around a month and told me she was “always counting the pennies” since “the price of everything has gone through the roof”.

When I asked for an example of what she was cutting back on, however, I was taken aback by Ruby’s answer. “I used to buy bread,” she said, “but I can’t afford it now – fruit is too expensive as well”.

Ruby explains that she hasn’t turned her heating on at home for more than two years and that her daughter, aged eleven, would likely go hungry if it weren’t for free school meals.

Because some people now cannot afford to turn on their oven, Cooking Champions launched its community kitchen last year as a way to help visitors turn cheap ingredients into healthy, hot meals, using the cooking equipment provided at St Matthew’s Church in South Street.

Another visitor is Emma. The mother-of-two says that despite her husband having stage four kidney failure, forcing him to quit his career in the NHS, he has repeatedly been denied access to personal independence payments from the Department for Work and Pensions.

“I wrote on Facebook about how we were struggling and [Cooking Champions founder] Clare messaged me about the community kitchen.

“It is amazing here, the people have made me feel so welcome – they didn’t make me feel like a failure.”

Emma also struggles with health issues and says her family can only afford to buy “essentials”. Like Ruby, they manage without heating in winter. “We just use blankets,” she tells me. “Sometimes we take the kids to my parents after school as it’s warmer there. I’m dreading winter. “When you have two kids they don’t understand why it is cold – you feel like a failure, it’s horrible.”

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Paula Morris is one of the regular visitors and says the food is “exquisite”
Paula Morris is one of the regular visitors and says the food is “exquisite”

Paula, another regular visitor, can’t speak highly enough of Cooking Champions. “The service is exceptional, they are friendly and thoughtful, and the meals are exquisite,” she says.

“Sometimes it is hard to find nutritious food, I have had to cut back, so I am very thankful for this place.”

Retired coach driver David agrees. “Cooking Champions is absolutely brilliant, I have made so many friends here,” he says, adding: “You go into the supermarket and it’s 50p more on this, 50p more on that, and then what you buy is getting smaller as well.”

Another visitor, who asked not to be named, tells me he’s stopped buying crisps. “It was my one vice, but I had to cut back on it. I don’t eat three meals a day any more, I just survive on two.”

While most foodbanks require referrals from designated services such as the local council or NHS, Cooking Champions is far easier for people to access and does not turn anyone away – even while demand has risen fourfold. It enables those who might not be eligible for other foodbanks to get what they need.

The community kitchen was launched following feedback from some users that they couldn’t afford to cook at home because of the cost of electricity and gas. As became apparent from the stories I heard on my visit, it has quickly become essential for many people.

Cooking Champions was sadly forced to stop providing community meals for eight weeks this summer when funding ran out, although the community kitchen and foodbank itself continued running.

Thanks to a successful crowdfunding appeal, the community meals returned in September and are now fully funded through until the end of the year. “It was so hard, having to close for eight weeks and tell people they couldn’t come,” founder Clare Donovan told me.

“It has been an achievement to run it for a year but there are challenging times ahead. We see every day how people benefit; whether it is from the meals, the cooking lessons or the socialising, it is a real community hub, and the idea of it not being here is really worrying.”

The community meals service at St Matthew’s Church runs from 12pm until 1.30pm every Thursday. For more information about Cooking Champions:
Email [email protected]
Visit cookingchampions.uk

To make a donation to the community meals crowdfunding campaign:
Visit gofundme.com/f/ztumpz-community-meals

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