A message of thanks from Peter, our Kitchen Services Manager
Here at The Food Chain, we are never short of new ideas to keep our vital services going for as long as they are needed. As it happens, 28 years after delivering our first meals to people’s homes on Christmas Day, we are still the only charity offering HIV nutrition support services in the UK.
I actually remember the kitchen’s grand opening on Gray’s Inn Road. It was four years ago. After a stint as a Food Chain volunteer, I was excited to start my Kitchen Services Manager job and make the most of this brand new space.
I have since been fortunate to cross the paths of many positive people showing incredible courage and motivation to get better despite being at the lowest ebb in their lives. From my first day at The Food Chain, the charity struck me as being a vital stop-gap on people’s journey to recovery. There is no doubt that without our supporters, the people we help would simply have nowhere else to turn to for food and nutritional care – Last year alone, we supported 500 people in crisis in their lives.
As they walk through the door of our kitchen, I want people to feel safe and understood. A smile and a cup of tea will often spark off a conversation - from job hunting and housing worries to last night’s programme on television, I spend time listening to anything that’s on their mind. For some people however, our chats help them work through life’s difficulties and find a sense of purpose.
Take Luke for example. When I met him, he was a shy young man who was struggling with his diagnosis. As he came to our Eating Positively nutrition and cookery classes, I could see that he had a flair for cooking. One day, he told me that he always wanted to be a chef so I encouraged him to sign up as a kitchen volunteer. Luke’s confidence levels grew rapidly and he soon became a lead cook overseeing the preparation of our Eating Together communal lunch service.
More than just food
Food is at the core of what we do but for me, our services go beyond those offered by a soup kitchen.Coming for lunch at The Food Chain is often the only opportunity people have to talk to others after days, sometimes weeks spent indoors, alone.
We support people over a three-month period which gives me plenty of time to get to know them. I feel my role is to make them feel at ease, and encourage them to socialise with each other and to keep learning. Many a service user I have met has simply lost the motivation to cook and does not feel like eating most days; others haven’t even chopped an onion before so seeing someone’s growing enthusiasm about food in our cookery classes is such a rewarding experience for me.
But people’s learning doesn’t stop there; whether it is how to cook on a budget and eat well at times of ill-health, or teamwork and interview tips, they may access a host of life skills to help them rebuild their confidence. Helping people to get their independence back is really what sets our services apart.
My other priority is to help reduce people's vulnerability to chronic infections and ill-health. That's why maintaining our kitchen’s hygiene and safety standards is absolutely vital to run our services. Setting out strict kitchen rules and checks has won us a five-star hygiene rating in 2014 and we have proudly maintained these standards ever since. I also spend time sourcing quality ingredients to compose balanced and nourishing lunch menus which will not only be appropriate to different dietary needs but also to the varied tastes and cultures of the people we help.
"We couldn't do it without you"
As a former chef, I really value being able to work alongside our 200 well-trained Food Chain volunteers, share my experience with them and help them bring out their talent in the kitchen. Whether they need support adding the finishing touch to a dish or refresher training on food safety and storage, I am happy to be on hand and check that they feel fulfilled in their roles. It simply would be impossible to deliver our services without our volunteers and the gift of their time is precious to us – just last year, they gave over 4,000 hours to The Food Chain!
In this job, it is easy to have a finger in every pie (though not literally) as I am also on the lookout for additional sources of support to add value to our work and keep costs down. For example, I regularly approach grocery shops and catering services across town to collect surplus food and donated kitchen utensils. Gifts like these make a huge difference as they are worth each year around £5,000. I always take heart from our service users’ joy and relief when they take home additional parcels of food items or when we manage to find a fridge or a small oven for them.
Bringing Soho's sparkle to The Food Chain
I chose to make London my home after moving from Yorkshire 22 years ago. I soon became a much familiar face in the capital’s gay scene and little did I know that this would bode well for the future: Soho bars like The Admiral Duncan, The Duke of Wellington or Halfway to Heaven are now regular supporters of The Food Chain. It is always exciting to see my friends there putting on their best drag shows to help us raise much-needed money.
The Food Chain kitchen is a versatile space so it also lends itself very well to special fundraising evenings. It takes time and effort to turn the kitchen into a space fit for lively gatherings such as Supper Clubs and themed cookery classes, but it is worth every second. I hope these evenings will become as renowned as our popular Bingo fundraiser series which raises alone around £4,000 a year; and what a privilege to share these evenings with our fabulous host Topsie Redfern, one of London’s most flamboyant cabaret acts!
Our capacity to sustain our services and all that we stand for is truly down to people like you. No matter how you’ve chosen to support us, your kindness makes all the difference; and with local councils sadly defunding HIV support services across the country, pressure is on small charities like ours to keep responding to demand.
I very much hope that you will be able to continue supporting our work in 2017.
With heartfelt thanks and best wishes for the New Year, from all of us at The Food Chain.
Peter Blowers, Kitchen Services Manager
P.S. Please visit http://www.foodchain.org.uk/support-us/donate-now/ should you wish to make a donation. Your donation will go where it is needed the most but let us know if there is a service you particularly wish to support.