Since 2014, Open Kitchen Social Club has provided weekly community social eating events in Sheffield, UK. It was originally a convergence of the work of Out/Side/Film and Sheffield Refugee And Asylum Seeker Action Group (RASAG), who had been working together on a weekly IT support session. The primary work of this group was to support destitute asylum seekers with online skills, creating email and social media accounts, to build an online community of solidarity. Part of this weekly session was a meal and when we could no longer find a suitable IT suite, we decided to focus on the food element, holding our first Open Kitchen event in June 2014 at Regather Co-operative.
In early 2015 we moved to St Andrews church, which remains home to our core Monday event. Open Kitchen is now a staple in the weekly life of the Broomhall area of the city. In recent years we have seen an increase in the numbers of British people attending, as people are being hit hard by problems accessing the universal credit system. The large numbers of people being sanctioned, and therefore having zero income, through the ever more draconian benefits system, have nowhere else to go, as we are the only free meal in the city on a Monday lunchtime.
In 2018 we started providing a second weekly meal on Tuesdays at the newly opened home of City of Sanctuary, who we continue to work closely alongside. The Sanctuary is a safe space for asylum seekers and refugees in te city centre, so this meal is more clearly focused on providing food for that community. In 2019, we began collaborating with another natural ally in the city, The Foodhall Project, to run a new pilot project on Wednesdays. Universal Cafe was a slightly different project, in that it focused on those in receipt of Universal Credit, and, in addition to a delicious hot meal, was a drop-in advice centre for those struggling with the shift to the enormously controversial new benefit.
In total, just before the onset of COVID-19, we were feeding, and offering advice and support to around 120 people a week. To ensure that the people who do need to know about us are able to find us, we have a number of services such as Assist, City of Sanctuary, and the weekly multi-agency drop-in for asylum seekers at Victoria Hall, where people are signposted towards us. Many also find us through word-of-mouth.
Originally conceived as a way to support destitute asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants, we quickly began to welcome anyone in food or social poverty in the wider community. From the beginning, food has always been provided free of charge to ensure that it is accessible to those in the most need and that everyone remains on equal terms. We briefly experimented with a ‘pay as you feel’ system but found it a barrier to our core community of destitute asylum seekers.
Participants are encouraged to get involved with cooking, cleaning and hosting the events and providing peer support to one another. The kitchen is a place where anyone can get involved and it very much works to everyone’s benefit to invite our global community to share delicious recipes from their home countries.
Since we began, the benefits of social eating have been increasingly highlighted. In 2018, we took part in research conducted by Sheffield City Council into development of a food strategy based on the principles and benefits of social eating, as pioneered by small community groups like ourselves and Foodhall. As Sheffield has grown to become something of a centre for the social eating movement, we have grown as part of that and are proud to be a member of the National Food Service network that sprung up from the Foodhall project and is now growing quickly across the country.
As well as our Weekly Cafeswe hold occasional events and trips for our members, semi-regular arts and crafts session, particularly around lantern-making season, and many opportunities to cook at commercial events. We work hard to maintain a strong and anti-hierarchical community that flourishes across cultural divides and we have seen relationships, friendships and a unique peer support network grow, where people from all backgrounds gather to help cook and share stories, wash and tidy up together after eating, help each other fill in forms and play games together.
Because many of our attendees and volunteers have been accessing our service for some time, we know when things are starting to go wrong, and can put extra support in place for individuals to make sure they keep attending and receiving support. We also have a number of bi- and tri-lingual volunteers to bridge language gaps.