Rapid response: social enterprise shows the way

Cyrenians volunteers in masks and gloves prepare meals in response to coronavirus crisis

Nurses and doctors working flat out in intensive care units do not have time to plan or cook healthy meals.  They barely have time to eat.

It’s one of the startling facts galvanising an extraordinary social enterprise. National governments could learn from grassroots innovation. At local community levels there is a rapid response to the urgent needs not just created but also exposed by Covid19. 

From a community kitchen in Leith, hundreds of meals are delivered every day across Edinburgh.  To the homeless who now have beds in hotels where kitchens are closed. To the elderly and vulnerable in need of support, to people without food or cash in the wealthy capital city’s pockets of destitution.   To care homes and sheltered housing. To health workers on the front lines at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and Western General hospital.   ‘We didn’t anticipate that but if anyone needs to eat properly it’s our nurses and doctors,’ says Sue O’Neill-Berest. She’s the food education manager at the Cyrenians Good Food Programme who finds herself in the heat of what was a smallish teaching kitchen now transformed into a highly disciplined production line. 

‘Last Thursday we produced 1,000 meals in one day’, she says when we speak on the phone this week.’  Last week they reached a total of 10,000 meals many of them prepared from food that would otherwise go to waste, turned into healthy curries and casseroles cooked and distributed by teams of volunteers.

The daily death toll is a tragic reminder of this pandemic crisis. But food insecurity is not new.  Daily hunger defines the inequality and poverty that divides communities.  Life in lockdown has revealed great cracks in the structure of our fragile society. Yet there is another story. In every city, town and village, across Scotland (as in the rest of the UK) communities are responding with astonishing speed and enterprise to get help and food where it is needed most.

From cook school to production kitchen

Let’s take a virtual trip to the low building in Jane Street, a small industrial complex near the bottom of Leith Walk. In the parking area we might spot the cables connecting a massive walk-in fridge and freezer trailer to the kitchen.

Biggar Chill trailer freezer with stacks of food ready to be stored

‘With 40 tons of food to store you need a pretty big fridge,’ says Sue. Biggar Chill, a freezer hire company, responded quickly to the appeal for help.  ‘Delighted’ the company posted on their Facebook page, ‘These people are doing a fantastic job’. 

It’s a sign of how swiftly and efficiently this 50-year-old charity has adapted to dramatic changes. Until the March lockdown, the Cyrenians kitchen was the centre of the Cook School programme, teaching basic skills and encouraging healthy eating.  At the same time their city-wide network of Community Cook Clubs offered a chance for local people to cook and eat together. It’s more fun, and it brings different groups of people together. Or, as Cyrenians CEO Ewan Aitken underlines in a recent blog: ‘Our maxim “something to eat, someone to eat with” was borne from listening to those who experience food insecurity on a daily basis.’

With lockdown threatening increased insecurity, the kitchen continued to provide meals for some community cook club members. Then more requests began to arrive. From 26 meals to 48, then (when NHS needs emerged) 96 more and now the average turnover is 600-700 meals a day.

Ready steady cook

Inside the kitchen (the virtual tour is illustrated by social media pictures) we are likely to find four to five volunteers. In gloves and masks they are hard at work to a rhythm of chopping, mashing, portioning. One of them is Meena Bhana, an IT specialist who is also a member of local voluntary group World Kitchen in Leith.

‘It’s great to be able to help,’ she tells me later by email,  ‘Guys at Cyrenians are doing a great job. Working in the kitchen with other volunteers, knowing we doing something that is going to be appreciated. It’s more like a Ready Steady Cook kind of planning. Depending on what ingredients come in, we plan what needs to be made…batch cooking curries, tagines with rice or pasta bolognese, sausage casserole and mash, haggis with neeps and tatties off course!’

Non-stop production. With around 20 volunteers, a rota of two shifts a day, five days a week is co-ordinated by Scott Kirkham. Daily deliveries arrive from FareShare (the national network redistributing food saved from waste) bringing palettes of ‘wonky veg’ – piles of carrots, turnips, cabbages, potatoes – and there are mounds of other food stuffs from supermarkets, hotels and corporate kitchens with full freezers and no staff to feed.  ‘We’ve got mountains of mince,’ says Sue who speaks highly of the generosity across a wide range of public, private and third sector organisations.  ‘The media often concentrates on what’s bad. But there are a lot of good people out there.’

Virtual kitchen prepares for tomorrow  

The far from exhaustive list of contributors includes Aberdeen Asset Management, RBS at Gogarburn, George Hotel (Intercontinental Edinburgh), Tesco, Co-op, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s. And there’s a bewildering line up of charities and social enterprises, food banks and community kitchens, providing an inter-connected service supporting urgent social needs as well as daily meals.  The aim is to avoid duplication, reducing wasted effort and unnecessary costs.  

There’s no command and control centre, no centralised co-ordination. ‘It’s been an organic process and that might be uncomfortable for people who prefer more control. But, you know, it is working well.’

And what about tomorrow?  Evolution continues with plans for a virtual kitchen. Trial runs of Cook Along events promise an enterprising development of the community cook clubs. Under Donnie MacLean of Scotland Food and Drink there are plans to launch regular community master classes – demonstrating simple ‘low risk’ meals (‘no fish, no meat’) to cook, eat and perhaps share an extra helping with a neighbour.

The live-streamed cookery class will invite donations of £5 from those who can afford to pay, bridging the gap of inequality, bringing divided communities together in a social setting.

‘The idea is to create a legacy,’ says Sue, ‘When this is over we still need to be a sustainable charity.’  And with that our mobile conversation ends as she heads back towards the heat of real life.

For more information about Cyrenians visit their website: cyrenians.scot To support their work, donate through JustGiving/Crisis Appeal

Follow Cyrenians on Facebook and Twitter

Featured image and Biggar Chill photograph is from the Cyrenians Facebook Page

This story is also published on Sceptical Scot where Fay Young is co-editor

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