Food bringing people together

There is a queue of almost 100 people when I arrive at Tang Hall Community Centre at 11.00am on a Wednesday in July. Many people regularly show up for the popular Community café, run in partnership with Food Circle and YourCafe, where anyone can get a free nutritious hot meal and can fill their shopping bags with fruit, vegetables, pantry staples, bread, baked goods and sometimes a bunch of flowers too.

people sitting around sharing lunch outside on a wooden table with a yellow food truck behind them

Having recently provided funding for the café through a Belfrey Small Grant, Stephen Collins, the friendly manager of the centre invited Two Ridings along to see how it all works. And what an operation it was.

So popular is YourCafe that it has to be ticketed and managed, and food and produce has to come out in waves.

There were dozens of volunteers making this busy lunch and food service run smoothly. Volunteers giving out tickets, managing the queue, giving out different foods within the hall, cooking and serving from the food truck, tending the veg patch and smiling and chatting with everyone.

Some people eat in the hall, some at the communal outdoor seating area, there is chat and bustle and a feeling of camaraderie and support.

“You have come on a special day” Stephen told me, “ A real time for celebration as Ali one of our volunteers received his citizenship today! He’s a talented man who speaks seven different languages and he uses his language skills to help and advise many people that come here. His citizenship means his wife can now work at the hospital.”

The Community café serves a number of refugees and asylum seekers and Ali acts as a translator for them. His involvement has seen other people from different minority communities volunteer, giving the centre a diverse and welcoming feel for everyone. And that is exactly how Stephen wants it to be.

“Our ethos is to be friendly and welcoming to everyone. We provide a community hub that benefits local residents, seven days a week.”

The centre is also home to several local charities and community groups in York including The Conservation Volunteers, Blueberry Academy, GoGet York cycle coaching and the Tang Hall Big Local, as well as hosting lots of fitness classes, creative sessions and a weekly youth club. It’s a hive of activity.

In fact the Community centre very much seems to be an informal signposting and support service for many people who come along, as much as a place you can do an activity in.

Stephen went on to explain that without funding from Two Ridings during Covid, the centre may well have folded.

“We have had three major crises in our history, an arson attack in the 90s, flooding in 2015 and then Covid hit us. During that time we received three grants from Two Ridings and we simply wouldn’t be still here without you.”

He explained that before Covid he felt he knew the people in his patch well. He knew the centre was addressing social isolation and health inequalities in Tang Hall. But Covid was a big eye opener.

“We ran a Community Covid Hub from the centre. It was Joe’s (from Food Circle) idea to deliver food to people and we quickly delivered to hundreds and started calling those who were shielding. We met people we didn’t know existed. Our volunteers still call people from that time who can’t get to the centre. Our volunteers are amazing!”

Stephen is very proud of the work they do with food.

“Food is a great leveller for everyone. And food opens up other support that people need. After Covid we knew we wanted to get people back in the centre, to be together, socialise and connect, and offering food most of the week is the best way to do that.”

I chat with the volunteers in the queue and those working on the vegetable beds. They love being at the centre and helping others. They are beaming as they tell their own stories of how good volunteering makes them feel, and how they love the centre bringing people together.

Stephen points out that one of them, Bearnie, was actually a volunteer back in the 90s and it was her efforts that got the centre rebuilt after the arson attack. She is now a trustee of the centre, one of a board Stephen says are ‘absolutely amazing.’

It’s really humbling and quite astounding to see the impact a local community centre has, run by the equivalent of only two full time employees, alongside an army of amazing volunteers. We are privileged to be able to work alongside them.

And just before I leave, ensuring that everyone else has had their fill first, I am given a bowl of the most delicious chickpea stew I have ever had.

No wonder there are queues down the pavement for it.