Cook Together: A Community Cooking Club
St Mary Hornsey Rise stands on a leafy avenue at the topmost end of Islington, but like in most parts of London, the aesthetics tell a misleading story.
The Victorian church serves Hillrise Ward, one of the most deprived parishes in the country, and, along with Tollington next door, it rates among the top five most deprived wards in Islington.
The Hive Foodbank has been operating from our building since 2016, addressing the relentless food poverty that adds to the struggles of so many of our parishioners. The Hive is a separate charity, run by non-church people but is fully supported by the congregation. And this reveals something of a theme at St Mary.
How it started
Near the beginning of the pandemic, an out-of-work chef, along with two furloughed events coordinators – all local but not church-goers – asked to use our kitchen to make hot meals for those in need in the community. And so ‘Friday Night Takeaway’ was born.
For over a year we served 100 dinners on a Friday evening, providing not only nutrition but a vital moment of contact during a lonely season.
Eventually the need for free hot food became less acute and it seemed right to bring Friday Night Takeaway to an end. But we didn’t want to lose the connections we’d made through that service. The church had also become a surplus fresh food redistribution centre, with the help of mutual aid groups, local supermarkets and the Felix Project, and we wanted to continue to support our community’s access to healthy food, as well as develop something that would empower and enable people out of food poverty.
How it developed
So, in September 2021, we launched ‘Cook Together’, a community cooking club which aims to address food poverty and loneliness through making tasty, easy, healthy and cheap meals and eating them together.
Each Friday afternoon we attempt a new recipe that uses at least one or two items you might find in an average foodbank parcel, such as tinned tomatoes or kidney beans.
Every participant, or pair of participants if they’ve come together, makes a four-portion dish from beginning to end on a two ring hob. We’ve discovered that this is often the only means of cooking that people have, especially in temporary accommodation.
Favourite recipes from the last six months have included minestrone soup, which one participant described as ‘100% better than Tesco’s!’ and a mushroom stroganoff, that someone else declared she was going to hate but upon finishing the recipe, ate two bowlfuls and exclaimed:
I can’t believe it’s as tasty as meat!
It’s been exciting to see people enjoy the opportunity to experience new flavours and cuisines and feel inspired to make the recipes again at home.
How it has impacted
At the beginning of the project, we didn’t anticipate the range of ways in which Cook Together would seem to benefit people.
We’ve been privileged to see an eleven year old girl who lives with autism and who is (according to her mum) a very fussy eater at home, find the methodical chopping and stirring we do helpful for regulating her senses, and she eats everything that she’s made, to her mum’s disbelief!
A man in his forties with diabetes has come along to discover some healthy meals he can make himself instead of relying on takeaways.
Another person who suffered a breakdown during the pandemic told us how she is finding the group therapeutic and calming and good for her mental health.
Chatting and listening as we cook is so important to building friendships and helping people feel seen and known. In some ways, it’s even more important than the food we make. But we are a very small team and at times we feel stretched too thin to be effective in this ministry.
We have expanded recently to welcome more participants, but to serve them well, we’d love a couple more volunteers and lead cooks. If you’re inspired, get in touch!
We’re so thankful that this work has been possible due to the support of Compassionate Communities and we’re praying that God uses Cook Together to reveal more of his kingdom and his love for his children, meal by meal.