On a side street off St Marks Road in Easton, a social enterprise provides a place where people can come together through food.
Joey Callender-Wood said Coexist – a non-profit cookery school – was founded 11 years ago by Ari Cantwell at Hamilton House in Stokes Croft, adding that when they were all evicted in 2018 they realized the kitchen couldn’t stop, and set up a crowdfunder to find a new venue.
Ms Callender-Wood said they found the venue on Mivart Street in 2019 but as it required a lot of work it wasn’t ready to open until January 2020 just before lockdown. They have managed to keep going during the pandemic as their work is considered therapeutic, she continued, but has had to lead smaller groups and socially distanced.
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However, she said many people couldn’t come anyway as they were at risk and therefore hosted online cooking classes. They are now able to return to normal, she added, and conduct different types of workshops from space.
The kitchen coordinator and workshop facilitator said: “We run community-based workshops that are free for the people who use them. These are with various charities and we work for example with young carers, refugees and asylum seekers and also people accessing drug and alcohol recovery services.
“We will work with a group for six weeks and at the end of one session we will ask them what they would like to cook or learn to cook in the next. We have a cup of tea at the beginning to see how everyone is doing. We cook for up to two and a half hours and then we all sit down to eat.
“It’s really important that we sit together.”
Ms Callender-Wood – a trained cook – said that participants have a recipe binder at the end of the sessions, adding these recipes is easy to follow and based on what they want to learn. Her goal is to teach them how to prepare nutritious yet affordable meals that they can recreate at home and don’t need many tools.
Among other things, they also run Speak & Eat, aimed at people who want to improve their English while preparing and sharing food from around the world. She described the group as very informal, but said she was assisted by an English teacher and – after the cooking but before the meal – there was an English lesson.
She said a lot of her food comes from FareShare – the largest food redistribution charity in the area – and that she receives a 30kg delivery from them every Monday. This includes fruit and vegetables, but also often dried goods such as rice or pasta.
We visit them on a Wednesday when they are running their food supply. This started at the beginning of the pandemic when they were delivering up to 400 meals a week because the need was there, Ms Callender-Wood continued.
At the moment they cook between 80 and 150 meals a week and today they cook 80 meals including a roasted root vegetable dhal with rice and curried vegetables and creamy polenta with slow-cooked leeks, purple sprouting broccoli, garlic and roasted seeds. If they have time, they also bake upside down mango cake.
“Some of them [the people who the meals are for] are brokered by some of our partner charities, while others refer themselves,” she continued. “Quite a lot of the people we serve are families, often single parents.
“We also run during the summer holidays. Today we have three volunteers, but usually it’s about five.
“There is a rotation and this group comes every two weeks, the others are more ad hoc and some people come more often than others.”
Winter is always a tough time but this year the colder months will be even more challenging for many families in Bristol.
A perfect storm of problems is currently sweeping the country, from skyrocketing energy bills to the scrapping of the £20-a-week increase in Universal Credit.
This ties in with Bristol having 41 areas in the most disadvantaged 10 per cent of England, including three in the most deprived 1 per cent, according to the latest council data.
A total of 70,800 people – 15 per cent of Bristol residents – live in these most deprived areas.
The figures also show that Bristol has 15,400 children under the age of 16 living in relatively low-income families and that 19,600 Bristol households were affected by fuel poverty in 2018, representing 9.8 per cent of the city’s households.
At the same time, around four per cent of Bristol households have been affected by moderate to severe food insecurity over the past 12 months, according to council data.
That’s why we launched Benefit Bristol – a campaign we will be running over the next few months to highlight some of the support options available to Bristol’s most disadvantaged families.
We’ll be speaking to the staff and volunteers who help run these organizations and the people who use them.
If you would like to be featured or know of an organization that we should include, you can contact our reporter directly at [email protected]
Ms Callender-Wood said the social enterprise is trying to generate as much income as possible and they also offer catering for weddings, for example, adding that they recently catered for a wedding of more than a hundred people. They also hold public workshops a few times a month, she explained, and for example she recently led one on pickling and fermenting.
Other public workshops include Caribbean cooking classes and pasta workshops. However, she said they also get some money.
She said: “We’re pretty busy. The main goal is to use food as a means to bring people together and to bring people from different walks of life and backgrounds together and interact. It also improves their cooking skills while building confidence.
“Some of the people who come can be reticent and as the weeks go by it’s very nice to see them soften up and start interacting with others.”
Keynsham volunteer Philippa Parish said she has been volunteering with Coexist for around nine months. The food scientist and nutritionist said it was brought to her attention by her friend.
She now comes every other week and described the room as amazing. She said: “It’s nice to do something for people who need it.
“We’re also quite autonomous, so it’s fun. We all work well as a team and I enjoy not knowing what we’re going to cook that week, it’s then challenging and very rewarding.
“My own cooking has changed since I came here and I’m making more vegan food now while experimenting with different flavors. It’s really a lot of fun and I always look forward to coming here.
“I think it made me a better person.”
Anneke Bull, from St Andrew’s, said her daughter told her about Coexist after seeing an Instagram post. The nutritionist has been volunteering with the social enterprise for more than a year, starting when the country came out of lockdown.
Ms Bull said she volunteers at the food delivery service every two weeks but has also participated in their public workshops, including on Lebanese cuisine.
“I enjoy all the different cultures and all the different flavors,” she continued. “It’s a great group of people that you wouldn’t meet if you didn’t come here. I also like to sit and eat together, it’s really social.”
Bearnie DeMonick from Whitehall is another workshop leader at Coexist. Among other things, she works with young carers, young people and also gives workshops for mental health groups.
She said: “Spaces like this are vital because they allow people from all backgrounds to gather around one thing – food. And everyone loves food, it’s important.
“Friendships are made, connections made that continue outside of this space. For many of the people we work with, eating together isn’t necessarily something that happens. For example, you might live in a hostel, so all that sitting together, eating and relaxing isn’t the norm.
“Because of the pandemic, some people are still nervous about getting together, so for us it’s part of saying ‘it’s fine, you can still wear your mask’. It’s about giving people that confidence and still being part of the group.”
The 62-year-old said she learns so much from the groups she works with, which she described as wonderful. She also enjoys creating a warm, loving environment, especially for some of the younger children who are going through stressful situations.
“I love having the opportunity to learn from different people with such amazing skills, I like being with all kinds of people,” she continued. “I was born in South America, so even though I’ve been here since I was eight, I know what it’s like to feel like a stranger, so I can empathize with her.
“I think this is a very special place. I absolutely love it here and it feels like an honor to be here. As someone older, it’s great to be around with all that energy.”