“Foodhall is a multi-award-winning open public dining room and kitchen at the heart of Sheffield city centre. Managed by the community, for the community, we tackle social isolation and encourage integration across a diverse range of community groups. Foodhall intercepts food waste streams from local traders and uses this surplus to serve hot meals to all on a put-something-in’t-pot donation basis. At its core, Foodhall represents community, skill sharing, education, participation, equality and inclusion.” (www.foodhallproject.org)
Start date: 2015 – today
Location: in the centre of Sheffield, UK, an industrial middle-sized town in South Yorkshire, England with around 577,800 inhabitants, a 2-hour train ride from London
People/organisational structure: four ‘co-directors’, kitchen responsible, café responsible, changing volunteers, several working groups (community members working autonomously on a range of projects they are interested in: a journal, community dinners, bike workshops, pottery classes, film nights, garden, etc.), regulars and guests
Main idea: “tackling problem of social isolation across a diverse range of community groups” through food originating from waste streams, paid for on a CWYC (contribute what you can) – basis
Activities: making hot meals from supermarket overproduce, open café, community dinners (aka Plates), social events, music, skill-sharing workshops, open journal
Facilities: rented space in the middle of the city centre not too far from the train station, containing a professional kitchen, office space, wood and ceramics workshop, café and event space in front; open front to the street
Finances: donations for hot meals and drinks, space rent-outs, funding, gifts; economic model of contributing instead of exchanging
There seem to be many different ways how Foodhall can be perceived and understood – and also the space for it. I get the chance to experience the food and space for the first time during a seminar in summer 2017, where Foodhall is doing the catering. Afterwards, we have a dinner in the actual space – a kind of garage-feel space which formerly used to be a mortuary. Today, a large gutter painted colorfully welcomes you from the outside which is pulled up during opening times, allowing people in and attracting newcomers from the street. The furniture is all self-made from the ‘cheapest sheet material you can find’ – as one of the founders says winkingly – in a very resourceful manner. With a smart design including only a few CNC machine cuts, diverse arrangements are made possible: the parts can be stuck together in various ways to form dividing walls, seating, tables and such, contributing to the agile and flexible concept of the space to become café, workshop, massage parlour, event space, restaurant, disco, and much more.
For a world based on contribution
The two architecture graduates Louis and Jamie co-founded the initiative motivated by the need for more social dining spaces in the city, particularly for students. The project started with an app to bring people together around food, questioning the need for architecture as building. It soon became clear that a physical space which is publicly accessible was actually needed to gather people on a low-threshold basis, and Foodhall was born in its current location, as an ‘urban acupuncture’ in a highly commercial neighbourhood close to the train station (see Fig. 1).
Jamie now works in an urban design office whilst Louis was joined by three others over time: the young architect Sam, Isaac, an English literature graduate passionate about other economies and writing and most recently Alyce, who mainly focuses on grant applications and fundraising, though roles always remain flexible. Isaac runs the café of Foodhall, which involves, according to him, mostly emotional labour: “My main task is talking to people. We encourage everyone to help themselves to drinks and show them how to use the machines, so that the boundaries between customer and service provider blur more and more”. He was already involved in the student initiative ‘Save Our Sandwiches’ (SOS) when he was approached by Louis to collaborate at Foodhall.
Apparently, there are many waste food projects in Sheffield trying to bring food from the bin to the people of the city, most prominently the international ‘Junk Food Project’ that is promoting the ‘PAYF’ (Pay As You Feel) concept, replacing a fixed price with a sliding scale according to one’s possibilities. It also offers the chance to pay with one’s labour through ‘volunteering’. Sam and Isaac are sceptical towards that concept however, though they have been using it themselves at Foodhall. “PAYF is not really an alternative to the exchange logic of our dominant economic system – the interaction remains a one-off exchange for a service”, they criticise. Rather, they imagine a world based on contribution, where people support the project on a longer-term basis. Therefore, they have stopped using PAYF and have instead switched to ‘Contribute What You Can’ recently, which, according to them, generally seems to work better – both in engaging visitors who don’t have much in the way of financial resources, and in encouraging those who can afford to donate money to do so. For events and workshops, they still operate on a suggested donations-basis, though no-one is turned away for lack of funds.
The governance structure of Foodhall is supportive of this model: there are the four co-directors who operate on a flat hierarchy basis where everybody has an equal voice. New members can always join and suggest activities or changes in their weekly meetings. There are different levels of engagement when people volunteer at Foodhall – you can help out in the kitchen, do the dishes, pick up food, or run an event; once or on a regular basis.
Space for people to put on anything
Louise, the main responsible in the kitchen, took on her role because she wanted to, next to her philosophy studies and work as a caretaker. She enjoys making up new and creative recipes from scratch according to what’s there every day, together with other volunteers. Toby, another regular volunteer, is unable to smell and therefore prefers washing up rather than cooking. “If it was a paid job, I wouldn’t do it”, he underlines, being critical of prevailing concepts of work. Nigel, formerly a lawyer, now works in the wood workshop on commission and also likes to take care of the decorative plants in the space. Miriam and Isaac initiated and run the Foodhall Open Journal, which gives them the possibility to publish their writing whilst allowing everyone to contribute and make their voices heard. A massage therapist actually working in a different job comes in a few times during the week I am there, offering free massages, giving those who would normally not be able to afford a therapy to get one. At the same time, she is happy to get to practice, dreaming of opening up her own parlour at some point. These are just some examples of how Food Hall provides a low-threshold platform for everyone to contribute, take part, experiment, and learn. “There is space for people to put on anything, there are no limits”, Isaac points out.
A more recent format are the regular community dinners taking place every Wednesday called ‘Plates’, where anyone can volunteer to do all the cooking under a certain theme. The first one was run by Louis – a Lasagne festival -; the second one, which I was lucky to take part in, by Alyce and Henry serving Mexican food. These events allow “different kinds of demographics” to come to Foodhall, as opening hours during the day don’t always make it possible for students and workers to come. Furthermore, the community dinners bring in a little more money, as the people attending tend to be more able to donate than those with less or no means during the day, which balances out the costs. During the event, people sit around a long shared table, which allows even newcomers who come by themselves to join the conversation and meet new people.
A ‘utopian oasis’ where money doesn’t play a role
Many people who come to Foodhall are at the forefront of austerity measures, being on job seekers allowance or other forms of benefit, including Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Local Housing Allowance (LHA), or Universal Credit, which replaces all combinations of the above, living under very precarious conditions, on the streets or in homeless shelters (1). Foodhall offers a space where money doesn’t play a role – nobody is judged by that.
Nevertheless, the projects needs to survive in a system that runs on money: the rent needs to be paid, for example, which is 960 pounds each month. Some people do get wages, but not for activities which volunteers are doing for free; rather, for managing the building, keeping up the infrastructure, and applying for funding – “all the boring stuff”. Bigger grants could create jobs in the operational and structural development of the projects, but are difficult to get; public parties are generally used as fundraisers. The directors keep their living costs low and find smart and resourceful solutions to bypass and reduce the normal daily expenses. Most importantly, Foodhall depends on their volunteers and, after first struggling, managed to establish a ‘dream team’ of regular volunteers through an open call on a volunteer database, followed by a week of training. People make friends here and like to come on a regular basis as far as their everyday lives allow for it.
Foodhall can be understood as a ‘utopian oasis’ where things work differently than elsewhere. You can tell by the confusion when people enter the space for the first time and are unsure how to categorise the space, and how to socially interact accordingly – is it a café or a caféteria? Whom is it for? Am I allowed to be here and how does it all work? – depending on people’s age and former touchpoints with projects such as this. “War veterans and elderly people often remember places like this, during the postwar and prewar period, where people depended on exchange and mutual help”, recounts Louis, “such people are always ready to help and understand the concept straight away.” (2)
Day 1 – Volunteering in the kitchen
As anyone can volunteer to help in the kitchen, I signed up online on the open rota sheet for the first day. After a long and tasty community dinner, I come back to the space in the morning to help prepare lunch with others. Everyday, the all-vegan menu is made up from scratch by the people who happen to be volunteering. As most food is donated, you never know what amounts and ingredients to expect. That way, new recipes come into being and everyone can bring in their ideas, experiences, and culture. A cheerful Louise and two other volunteers are already in the backspace looking at the food available for the day. One of the volunteers starts mixing up Chai tea when he sees the vast array of different spices – another pops out to get some soy milk to top up the donations. Everyone seems very independent and self-determined, there are no hierarchies in the kitchen other than that of experience. After some pondering and thinking, we decide to make stuffed peppers, green vegetables, carrot salad, and some leftovers from the Mexican night. Louise starts making an experimental Mango-Polenta cake. The work is meditative and fun – I look forward to the final results and the people’s happy faces about all that food. When it is ready, Isaac checks what is on the menu to be announced to the hungry crowd outside, rushes out and comes back in with orders. We start heaving the food on the plates (from the hotel next door which were found in the trash) and taking them out. The place has filled with people while we were in the back, the atmosphere is busy and anticipating. As soon as everyone is served, I sit down with my own plate and mingle with the guests, tired but happy.
Day 2 – Being a guest
On the next day of my visit, I wanted to see the other side of Food Hall and join Isaac in his work in the café. Or rather, I become a ‘guest’ who helps herself, as there is no division between guests and ‘service providers’ in the café space. There is hot coffee and tea, fruit and reheated pastries which would have landed in the bin. They are tasty and filling. The space is cold as there is no heating, but everyone seems to cope well with it. A range of regulars comes in to occupy the seats. It takes me some time to get used to just helping myself, to overcome my habits of being served and paying off that service straight away. I get myself a copy of the community journal and immerse myself in the reading. I feel a bit useless and guilty not helping out in the back of the kitchen, as I know after the day before how much work it involves. I try to relax and mingle with the regulars. Being a researcher from abroad on a mission, I feel very self-conscious next to people who are really struggling in life. People are talkative and welcoming, and spend the morning waiting for the food to be ready. The massage therapist comes in and gives people massages. When the food comes out, she starts giving me one. The food is tasty, warming, and more than plenty. When the day is over, I feel more tired than the day before. I can imagine what huge amounts of emotional labor it involves every day to talk to people and cope with all the stories encountered.
(1) According to Foodhall’s own measured impact, 35% of incoming people belong to the latter group, 35% to the wider community who like the idea, and 30% to the student community.
(2) During periods of wartime austerity, there were communal kitchens run by local authorities to provide cheap, nutritious meals to all, e.g. the ‘National Kitchen’ (1917-1919) or ‘British Restaurant’ (1940-1947). More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Kitchens and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Restaurant
Figures: kindly provided by Foodhall
Photos: Katharina Moebus (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License)
Special thanks to Isaac, Louis, Sam, Louise, Miriam, Toby, Nigel, and everyone else for sharing their insights and being so welcoming during my time at Foodhall!