For about 18 months, Valley Community Meals, a local volunteer group, has been holding a weekly evening meal for people from our village and surrounding areas of the Upper Calder Valley. It’s a ‘no questions asked’ affair, where people turn up as and when they feel up to it. We operate entirely on a voluntary basis, asking only for donations if people are able to and if they’ve enjoyed the meal.
In the summer of 2022, a local councillor (and formidable organiser) started recruiting a team of volunteers to help set up a food bank. Another aim of that enterprise, coinciding with the energy crisis and the social care sector ‘warm spaces’ initiative, was to provide a comfortable space for people to gather, mingle and eat a hot meal.
Build it and they will come
No one had any idea if there was any demand for that kind of offering, but gut instinct suggested that there was. With the local Catholic church generously agreeing to donate its function room and kitchen once a week (we make a nominal donation towards running costs), we were off!
On our first evening we attracted one person – and her dog. Still, we persevered. We figured that word needed time to spread around the community, and people had to feel confident enough to approach us. After all, it’s not easy to admit you could do with a bit of help.
Gradually, numbers grew and we now have a regular client base of around 50 people, plus others who drop by less frequently. In age range, they span from two years up to their mid-90s. We’ve got to know our guests by name and been given the privilege of insights into their lives. As volunteers, we look out for them when we’re out and about, and we get concerned if we’ve not seen someone for a few weeks.
Battling social isolation
At the outset, we imagined that we would mostly be addressing economic hardship. We soon identified a far more pernicious condition – the one we encounter most often – social isolation. Loneliness is a heart-breaking thing and its impact, at any age, cannot be underestimated. Some of our guests live alone and crave company (they tell us so with disarming frankness), some find cooking a proper meal for one an expensive chore. Ours may be their only hot meal of the week.
A local social worker, who looks in on us occasionally, said she knew almost every guest at the first session she attended. This confirmed that, if isolation is our primary driver, it usually co-exists with other complex layers of need. Some of our guests have health concerns, others may have addiction issues. We don’t judge anyone: we just feed them.
We provide a three-course meal of soup, a main and a dessert. The food is almost always home-cooked by our fantastic team of volunteers (one of whom is Cordon Bleu trained). Our front-of-house volunteers provide table service. This baffled one guest, who seemed to feel undeserving of such lavish treatment – a comment which left me in tears.
Of course, it takes more human resources to operate this way, but that’s our choice. We enjoy making tasty, nutritious and filling food, and serving it in the most convivial way we can. Good simple home cooking is always the most popular and if there’s no gravy (or custard), we risk a riot.
Fresh vegetables and baked goods are donated regularly by local businesses, as well as more spontaneous donations of, say, sandwiches or store cupboard items. We waste almost nothing of what is donated. Gluts of food often end up frozen for future use: tomatoes become passata, mushrooms become stroganoff, apples make crumble, oranges make marmalade.
If we don’t have an immediate use for something, our guests take it away to use up. One extremely generous supporter bought us a brand-new under-the-counter freezer, radically improving our storage capacity. Another of our regular donors will periodically appear, arms loaded with freshly baked pies for us. And he buys us a pint when he sees us in the pub.
Most people like to stay and chat, so we try to space service out over the two hours we’re open, and encourage them to stay by providing bottomless cups of tea or coffee (one volunteer can even tell you exactly how every single guest takes their cuppa). If someone arrives very late or is in a hurry, we can provide takeaway boxes of food.
We’ve just celebrated our second Christmas. For this meal we were packed to capacity and beyond. Our guests overwhelmed us with applause, gifts and cards. One card thanked us for supporting the sender when she’d needed it most: every volunteer had something in their eye when they read that. It felt like a real vindication of what we do and will go on doing because now we know we’re meeting a need.
Going it alone, but all working together
In February 2023, we split amicably from the food bank and became our own independent co-operative non-profit group, Valley Community Meals. When we started out, most of us were complete strangers. Now we have formed not just working relationships but real-world friendships. We are mostly, but not exclusively, women and definitely of the ‘bolshy’ variety (i.e. we have opinions and aren’t afraid to speak up).
We’re all quite different in background, outlook and experience, but when we come together, although there are inevitably some tensions in a kitchen environment, we mainly just have a really good laugh. After our Christmas party this year, one of our volunteers said, “it feels like being in a gang”. It does, and it’s a gang I’m very proud to be in.
If this seems in danger of becoming rather self-aggrandising, we realise we are just one small cog in a huge mechanism of providers of this kind of grassroots social service in our area, where we all refer customers to each other. There are so many real, desperate needs in this happy valley that local government simply can’t meet, largely due to funding constraints imposed by an indifferent central government. And so, we step up and do our small bit, and our reward is in our guests’ appreciation and in the kindness and generosity of those who keep us going. We’re finding that when we nourish our community, it nourishes us back.