Melissa Blease joins the free-for-all supper club with a heart where she meets the local food heroes at FoodCycle Bath who volunteer to cook and host at an open house every week
Poverty, the housing crisis and frozen wages, cuts to benefits, rising inflation and the effects of social isolation on mental health. Watch the news on any given morning and these issues dominate the headlines while many of us grab some toast and wish we’d found time to make a packed lunch rather than spend our hard-earned cash at the nearest branch of Sarnies-to-go.
But if the average person’s morning treadmill can be what most of us casually refer to as grim, those who are directly affected by those headlines (and their numbers are increasing) would happily swap their mornings with our working day routine in a heartbeat.
But this feature is not a rant on the wrongs and rights of political policies over the “just about managing.” Instead, we’re focusing on the people who are actively doing something about it at grass roots level.
Just five minutes walk away from Bath’s most prestigious addresses of the Circus and the Royal Crescent, in Julian Road, there’s a charitable enterprise that, once a week, alleviates the pressure on the people for who considering buying a sandwich on the way to work, getting together with friends over dinner, or having a casual chat in a café with like-minded people about the latest Dr Who is only a dream scenario.
Between January and June FoodCycle Bath, which is part of a national network, rescued three tonnes of surplus food donated by local shops (Morrisons, M&S at Weston Lock, Sainsbury’s at Odd Down, Sainsbury’s in Green Park and The Fine Cheese Co among them). With the help of volunteers who accumulated more than 1,100 unpaid hours between them, they served more than 750 meals cooked in the kitchen at St Mary’s Catholic Church for people who, for many reasons, quite simply needed to be there.
FoodCycle Bath hub leader Fiona Bell, who has been a volunteer since May 2013, said: “In 2012, FoodCycle identified four main aims. The first aim was to reduce the impact of food poverty, which has had more of a focus in Bath since the identification of an area of Twerton being classified as being in the top 10% of most deprived areas of the country. Secondly – and obviously clearly linked to the first aim – we wanted to reduce food waste. It was well known that perfectly healthy, edible food was being thrown away or passed to anaerobic digesters.
“On from that, we wanted to train volunteers and offer them the opportunity to gain useful skills and experience. And, very importantly, we wanted to develop communities and reduce social isolation. This last aim has grown dramatically over my time with FoodCycle Bath, and is now equally significant – possibly even more important – than our first two aims. So, we seek to invite and welcome everyone from the surrounding community. Our volunteers are enriched by the experience of giving their time to prepare and share a nutritious meal with people they may not know, and our guests are drawn from a wide catchment area; there are some regulars (probably more single, middle aged men than women), but we’ve welcomed whole families – everybody is welcome.
On the evening I visited I sat with a friendly group – some regulars, some occasional visitors and a couple of volunteer chefs tucking in to the fruits of their own labour. Not all of them wanted to share their reasons for joining what’s clearly one of the most hospitable, genial supper clubs in town . . . and why would they?
Over a feast that included velvety fresh pea soup, vegetable curry with sides of chargrilled cauliflower and tzatziki, pineapple upside down cake with custard and huge platters of fresh fruit – all beautifully presented and served with a smile – we talked about all kinds of everything, from wind turbines and solar panels to Bristol’s alternative club scene via current fashion trends and tiger melons.
“Never has The Bath Magazine’s food hero accolade been so well deserved…”
Then each table was presented with a lucky dip of perishables, including cheeses, yoghurt, fruit, vegetables, bread and cakes, from which everybody was invited to take their pick and share. As a food writer who’s spent many years eating out in Bath, cooking for dinner parties and shopping in some of the city’s loveliest food shops, I can honestly say that my dinner with FoodCycle Bath was one of the best eating out experiences I’ve had on multiple levels.
Fiona and her team are justifiably proud of the work that they do. “The project has continued without ever cancelling an evening for almost five years,” she says. “Our meals are always cooked from fresh produce using vegetarian ingredients because we don’t have a refrigerated van for food collections, so we can’t meet food hygiene regulations around collecting meat and fish. We decide, as a team, what dishes are going on the menu, often just an hour before we’re due to serve up. We’re always on the lookout for volunteers who will take extra responsibility, locking up after a session and resolving any operational challenges or guest issues.
But once people experience volunteering with us they quickly benefit, because basically, we’re a project with heart. Our volunteers cook in pairs and make friends with people from all over Bath and Wiltshire. They learn to improvise with ingredients and often surprise themselves with the tasty results. But above all, they make a massive difference to 20 plus people every week by showing them that somebody cares and is prepared to give time to them. Our diners are also our volunteers – we call them our volunteer eaters. They keep coming back for more so we must be doing something right!”
Fiona and her team’s version of doing “something right” struck a chord for me. On as many Wednesday evenings as I can manage from now on, you’ll find me getting busy in the FoodCycle Bath kitchen and looking forward to enjoying whatever culinary creation ensues with my new friends at the FoodCycle Bath hub. Never has The Bath Magazine’s food hero accolade been so well deserved.
Find FoodCycle Bath at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Julian Road, Bath on Wednesdays from 7pm. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, including how to get involved, fundraise or make a donation, visit: foodcycle.org.uk.