Show me an example of a local authority really demonstrating its support for a community food project

Written by Ben Messer for Food Matters. 

Food Matters

In March I visited the London Borough of Brent in North West London to take part in an event: Unity for Food Security – beyond the food bank. The event was hosted by Sufra, a local charity established in 2013 to ‘address the causes and consequences of poverty in the local community’. I was inspired by many things about this event, not least the enthusiasm and energy of the Sufra staff, led by Director Rajesh Makwana, his deputy Gill Carter, and food aid lead, Nina Parmer. But also: their community wellbeing model (taking a more holistic approach not focusing solely on addressing food insecurity); the commitment and positivity of the volunteers working in the community shop and kitchen; the quality of the lunch that was provided; and the guidance and advice offered by the ‘Beyond the food bank’ Toolkit they were launching.

Staff and volunteers from Sufra (photo by Andy Aitchison)

Food Roots Programme

The event was an opportunity for others to learn from Sufra’s experience and for this reason participants in the Greater London Authority’s Food Roots Programme had been invited to participate. Food Roots is a programme providing support and training for organisations and projects in 21 London Boroughs building resilient and sustainable food systems and exploring different approaches to food access. It is delivered by Food Matters alongside programme partners TSIC, Sustain and The First Love Foundation. Food Matters piggy-backed the Sufra event to deliver an afternoon Action Learning Set on sustainable financing and fundraising for Food Roots participants. This involved participants presenting real funding opportunities that they wanted to explore and deciding which opportunities to focus on using a dot-voting system. The top 2 chosen opportunities focused on: collaboration and joint-funding across borough boundaries; and, funding for collaboration and bulk-buying of culturally–appropriate food for community food pantries. My colleague Helen and I then separately facilitated the 2 peer groups or ‘sets’ – asking questions to un-pick and clarify the opportunity, helping the presenters understand the opportunity more deeply, and identifying ways to make the most of the opportunities. Both sets were really interesting and provided the presenters and participants with lots to think about and some useful ideas and next steps.

Food Matters Action Learning Set (photo by Andy Aitchison)

Meanwhile Spaces

One thing really struck me about Sufra’s event – and that was the place. It was held in the Community Wellbeing Hub – Sufra’s community kitchen and community shop in the heart of the community in Brent on the first floor of Bridge Park Leisure Centre, just off the busy North Circular Road. The Centre is ear-marked for demolition and re-development and is beginning to show its age with lifts broken, some dark corridors, heating on the blink etc. – a little ragged around the edges perhaps – but in the meantime it makes for an excellent community hub. It’s easily accessible, spacious and welcoming, and has a range of different versatile spaces, one of which we used for the afternoon Action Learning Set. Whilst still operating as a Leisure Centre for most of the week, the first floor space is run by Sufra as the Community Wellbeing Hub – based on a membership model offering affordable food, meals and advice and guidance, on Mondays and Tuesdays. The flexible and open approach allows the public to use the community café whilst wellbeing project members can use the Leisure Centre’s facilities, helping to meet a range of Public Health aims.

For me this is a true demonstration of Brent Council’s support for the work Sufra is doing to support vulnerable local communities. Not only do they support Sufra’s use of the Leisure Centre, they have also provided funding for the Community Wellbeing project, and the Unity for Food Security event was attended by Leader of Brent Council, Cllr Mohammed Butt, and addressed by the lead Council Officer, Peter Gadsdon (Corporate Director of Resident Services).

Community Food Shop run by Sufra (photo by Andy Aitchison)

I enjoyed my visit to Brent, was inspired by Sufra, and the Action Learning Set was extremely productive and valuable. Also, seeing the creative and effective use of the old Leisure Centre was a real highlight for me. I think other local Councils could look at similar opportunities and meanwhile uses of facilities and venues where they are – not just for community food projects but for a whole range of activities that support community wellbeing. The Sufra hub is a great example of meanwhile use of a venue before re-development begins – and to be honest this could still take a while. You could argue that if the Government was doing its job properly it shouldn’t be necessary for charities like Sufra to step in to support people facing financial difficulties and unable to feed themselves. Unfortunately, the need does currently exist, and so, in the meantime…

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