It was another busy session at the Bensham Food Co-op in Gateshead this week. From early morning, the building was a hive of activity as helpers wheeled out food trolleys, set up the tables and laid out the produce. Within half an hour the space at the back of the church was transformed into a colourful market place; trays of fresh fruit and vegetables, bags of lentils and chick peas, mountains of bread and pastries, rice, flour, cous-cous and pasta of all shapes and sorts as well as eggs and numerous useful tinned items. The rich aroma of herbs and spices filled the air – cumin and coriander, chilli and turmeric, mint and rosemary. As the Co-op opened its doors there was a buzz of excitement as members met up with people they knew, went to select their food and talked together over coffee and cake.
The Co-op began as a partnership between three organisations. Corpus Christi Church provides free space for the weekly marketplace which is overseen by two small local Charities - Peace of Mind which helps refugees and asylum seekers and Soul Food Spaces which seeks to feed people physically, emotionally and spiritually. The three groups first met in Autumn 2015 at a local event to develop initiatives around food in the local area. The representatives of the three organisations recognised that they had different strengths but similar values, goals and ideas and all wanted to provide a different model of a food bank. We settled on a co-operative, with free, unlimited access to fresh produce for anyone who showed up and a community of mutual support and care built around the ideas, strengths and abilities of those who came along.
In the two years it has been running we have been able to provide fresh food for around 120 people every week, more than 11,000 in total, costing about £3000 a year. The Co-op’s remit has grown as people have identified other needs or suggested things they would like to help with. Clothes, kitchen utensils, toiletries, books and toys are now available too, we have a tea and coffee area where people can sit and talk over refreshments, we serve soup and bread through the winter and there is a growing sense of community and belonging amongst the regulars. Kindnesses abound – one person came back at lunchtime having cooked a meal for the volunteers using items she had been given only an hour or so before. Another member often provides recipes or makes something to show people how to use vegetables that are less well known such as beetroot or aubergine. Co-operation extends beyond the immediate membership to surrounding schools, neighbours and nearby workplaces, who have heard about us and contribute food, goods, money or time.
When we began, however, there were many voices of dissent from other organisations and “experts” who told us we would be exploited by freeloaders, that it would be easier for us to manage if we gave out packs of food and cheaper to resource if we had just tinned and non-perishable items. Others said there would be a divide between refugees and asylum seekers and local poor people. The comments about the people we wanted to help were generalisations and defined them in terms of their situation. In short they were simply “needy” and as such were the deserving (and undeserving) poor. Almost as a consequence unimaginative, low quality food seemed to be all they were worth. We chose instead to define them by who they are, their skills, their stories, their lives and their strengths, not by their deficits or weaknesses. And they deserved the very best we could offer. Our experience has shown that focussing on strengths and mutuality values people and helps to create a sense of belonging and community. Members are happy to come along to a positive, welcoming place where they play a part and are able to grow as people, increasing in confidence and self-esteem. In time, most move on but they often return to share good news – a new baby, a job, a new home.
Nobody quite knows how the Food Co-operative will develop in the future, but the lessons so far are plain to see: every person matters and brings their own strengths and qualities to the table so that together we can achieve more than we could ever do alone or even imagine in our wildest dreams. And in doing this each of us is blessed by the other. This is the better way that we seek and everyone involved in the Bensham Community Food Co-op tries to live this out in the way we treat each other and in the way we work together.
Ollie Batchelor lives in Gateshead and has worked most of his life in the social care sector, focussing on addictions, in London, Edinburgh and the North East. He was a member of the Newcastle Fairness Commission and is a trustee of Soul Food Spaces, Lankelly Chase Foundation and Just Meditation.