I am currently doing some work around loneliness and isolation and how food projects are supporting people. This work is in collaboration with Lucy Antol (Feedback, Alechemic Kitchen, @Grabyourspoon), FareShare and the British Red Cross. Lucy recently visited House of Bread in Stafford. Learn more about House of Bread here.
Stafford is the county town of Staffordshire in the West Midlands. Situated within 24 miles of Birmingham, and between Wolverhampton and Stoke on Trent, Stafford is a commuter town with a population of around 134,000. It has an attractive historical centre with a mix of medieval and 17th C buildings. Behind these is a traditional mid 20th C high street, with the usual chains and a noticeable amount of closed retail outlets. Stafford looks prosperous on first inspection, with the public sector providing local employment with Staffordshire County Council, Stafford Borough Council, Stafford Police HQ, Stafford Prison, County Hospital and Beacon Barracks all housed within the town.
Scratch the surface though, and a different picture emerges. There are fewer children and people of working age compared to the rest of England and more people aged over 65. This has led to increased demand on public sector funded services, with a higher than the national average of adults using health and social care services. Life expectancy has increased but years in good health have declined with men and women spending 15 and 17 years in poor health respectively. More people are admitted to hospital as a result of drinking too much alcohol. Housing affordability is also an issue in Stafford and more households live in fuel poverty (more than one in ten households).
House of Bread is located down a side street just off the main centre of the town, near the high-security prison. The House of Bread logo hangs subtly outside the building and is hung like a pub sign. The main focus at the entrance is for the companion eatery, Café 43, with bright blackboards with opening times, information on the PAYF aspect and a welcome. The building is a converted pharmacy, prior to that it was a pub. The charity was a started by a small group of people from a collection of the churches in Stafford who noticed the rising number of homeless and marginalized people in the town. After a few months, Will got involved followed by Jack who has taken House of Bread to where it is now. In the three years that it has been running, Father and son duo Will and Jack Morris have transformed the building into a multi-purpose space. There is a café and kitchen with a counter as you walk in – lots of 6 seater tables dotted about to encourage socialisation, plus quieter corners with computers and a room that is set aside for children, filled with games, bright toys, bedding, clothes and more.
On arrival, people sat at the tables, lots of chatting. All are welcomed by Jack and offered a cuppa.
What is House of Bread and Café 43?
The House of Bread (House of Bread) and Café 43 aims to make a space that help enable those people who are invisible in today’s society, in Jack’s words, visible. The House of Bread aims to support vulnerable and homeless people to be able to be part of ordinary everyday life and have opportunities to mix with members of the public on similar terms. To facilitate this journey House of Bread categorise their regular visitors as friends, and have created an in-between group called helpers, who are more than just friends but might not yet be able to take on the full role of a volunteer and are supported in that space to progress towards becoming a volunteer.
While House of Bread is a charity that helps vulnerable and homeless people, they have chosen to emphasise Café 43 as a way of reducing stigma and to encourage “ordinary” members of the public to come in as well as those in search of support.
The Café is the front end of the establishment and acts as a pivot point between those who are struggling and marginalised and those who represent mainstream society. The cafe operates three days a week – Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The purpose of the café is to get the general public to come and spend money. This not only helps with sustainability but is especially important because it normalises the space. If somebody comes in, spends some money on food and then sits on the same table as one of the friends, suddenly they’re not getting free handouts, they’re just enjoying something that somebody else who’s got something can enjoy as well. This is contrary to the typical experience those who are unable to pay are typically asked to leave these types of spaces and as a result, are excluded and isolated from mainstream society. “It’s so important that that quality of food is there otherwise the general public wouldn’t want to come in.”
House of Bread has evolved into what it is now, over a number of years. They started with an open meal 10 years ago then added a food bank that provides weekly food bags, which the police say reduced crime in the area on the days that it is offered. They now do food bags on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. There is a range of bags that are designed to support different types of households depending on their needs and capacities.
On Fridays, they run Bread Church – a food activity of making and baking bread from 10 til 2pm with a simple lunch of soup for participants, “where people come along, make two loaves of bread, one to keep and one to give away. And for a person who has nothing, who lives in a tent or not even a tent, to go away and give to someone else is absolutely massive. It’s a hugely positive thing because up to that point, all they’ve been doing is taking, taking and accepting help and then suddenly they are able to give something to someone else.”
It’s not just food that’s the space allows House of Bread to provide Citizens Advice with a desk. They run Craft Hands once a week, making art and crafts and have previously run games clubs and music quizzes. Jack went onto explain “essentially what we do here is to create a social environment. Before it was about getting people that food, who were desperate and at a point of crisis; now it’s a real social place.” House of Bread also works with Drakes Hall female prison, offering inmates on licence in their last year the opportunity to come to the café and re-socialise as volunteers as part of the ‘Through the Gate’ programme. Will and Jack are hoping to create a triage nursing station for their visitors who don’t have the capacity or desire to engage with the statutory healthcare system. They also are working to get drop-in support from Women’s Aid.
One key point that Will made was that they are absolutely not sustaining a poor lifestyle for vulnerable people nor are they giving the government a free pass to withdraw support. In addition to advocating for the homeless with local and national ministers around housing support, they provide a platform for those who are homeless to tell their own stories. They have worked with Channel 4 to highlight the lives of homeless people in Stafford, some of whom have now died. House of Bread is just there “to help people”. They have won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services.
Will also goes to schools to talk about not just what they are doing in their community, but also about the importance of a circular economy. This extends from the ethos that underpins how House of Bread remains sustainable. It is entirely community-supported. They will trade and barter to get what they need and they have developed an excellent network that supports these needs. They do not take funding from outside sources because they do not want to be tied to external agendas. They want the freedom to be able to “speak truth to power”.
How does surplus food support House of Bread?
House of Bread has worked hard to set up the kitchen at Café 43, complete with 5-star food hygiene. One volunteer, an ex-Army chef, who can cope with volume, cooks the food. There is also have another site, which is a warehouse for the food bags. This they have filled with rescued freezers and fridges to store the food that they use. Surplus food is an important resource for House of Bread in this process. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have that food….From day to day, if we had to go and spend money on the quality of food we’re giving out, we wouldn’t be here. And certainly people wouldn’t be coming in, if we were having to go out and buy the stuff, it wouldn’t be the same quality that FareShare are bringing in. People wouldn’t be saying how nice it is. So yes, everything that happens here is down to that. Because the only thing we spend money on is milk. It’s the only thing we end up having to buy because obviously tea and coffee is massive so we get through so, so much.”
By linking up with FareShare, specifically, House of Bread has been able to improve the enhanced family bags. It allows them to provide the tins, but also the convenience meals, meats, fruits and vegetables that enable someone to have proper meals. They said, “So yeah, we wouldn’t be able to run the café without FareShare. And we also wouldn’t be able to have the quality bags that go out because of that.” The café has always been at the heart of what they do, and the better quality of the food the abler they are to do all that they do, “we’ve had smoked salmon here, caviar, we do a very nice line in funeral buffets, in terms of surplus because people often over cater.”
But it is not just food. It is the fact that food has the capacity to get people in the door so that they will access other support. “It does show that food is just the beginning because it doesn’t matter how often you give someone a food bag, the food here, the food bag isn’t going to stop someone taking drugs or help their mental health or help them get a job, what will do is the interaction with our caseworkers and our volunteers whilst they are eating that food.”
According to Will: “The other by-product of FareShare is our ability to supply fresh good quality food because a lot of folks are living by the ping of the microwave. And they’re eating well, so they sleep well, so they’re able to make informed decisions. You see it. So people can say I’ve been eating and sleeping so now I can have a conversation about where I want to go and what I want to do, you can’t have that conversation with someone who’s hungry or hasn’t eaten consistently.” Here the food is enabling people to have the mental and physical capacity to connect with a wider social context.
The commensal qualities of the food that is provided and the way that House of Bread intersects with Café 43 is also supporting people to be able to socialise with others and maintain and rebuild bridges with their families. It offers opportunities to socialise to people who can not afford to do so. It provides safe spaces for homeless parents to spend time with their children. It offers opportunities to develop working skills. It is also helping to prop up an underfunded social support system, which needs propping up in the current national political context.
The diversity of the surplus is also exposing people to foods that they would not normally eat, or have not tried before. For example, Jack gave the example: “people come in and say what’s that? It’s an aubergine, oh I don’t like that. Have you ever eaten one? No. Well, that second bowl of soup you’ve just eaten, that was aubergine.” House of Bread take advantage of this diversity and use it to their advantage. “That’s why we always have soup on a Friday. We make bread and then while that’s cooking we make soup. And we make it by colours because of all the different veg that goes in there, but if you tell them veg is in there they won’t go near it but I have the Dulux paint chart app on my phone which if you point it at something, it tells you what the equivalent colour it is on the Dulux colour app. So last week we had Mexican Mosaic soup. But it’s great. If I was to tell someone there was marrow in it….” By using foods creatively, such as the colour based soups and tweeting about them, Jack has also managed to leverage paint from Dulux.
This food also supports Will’s efforts to explain to children what a circular economy is and why it is important not just for the environment, but for people and communities as well.