A taste of home

A social enterprise that has been teaching people how to cook for more than a decade is now helping homeless people

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“My favourite is apple crumble,” says Manjeet Kaur as she sneaks sugar into her pancake batter (not a Cracking Good Food-sanctioned recipe but rather one of her own concoctions). “I’m supposed to be being healthy – but I cheat.”

Kaur is one of a handful of residents at Willowbank – a homeless provision centre in Fallowfield, Manchester – who has shown up for this week’s cooking class, hosted by social enterprise Cracking Good Food.

Cracking Good Food is the brainchild of Adele Jordan and was inspired by the inventiveness of her colleagues at Chorlton’s worker-owned Unicorn Grocery, who were cooking delicious meals with ingredients that would otherwise have gone to landfill. She set the enterprise up a decade ago, with the aim of tackling food waste and poverty as well as teaching people about nutrition.

“We teach communities how to cook, in order for them to access good, affordable food that’s resourceful, that’s seasonal, that’s attainable and is as nutritious as possible,” she explains. “We believe in getting communities to eat together because we realise the importance of social eating and how that brings people together.”

“Now garlic mushrooms are on the menu. That’s a vegetable that may never previously have got eaten.”

The organisation offers free and paid-for cookery classes, foraging and, as of 2018, workshops for homeless people. The 10-week course, funded by the European Union and Manchester Adult Education Services, started in Chorlton’s Longford Centre but has since spread to three additional hostels. Jordan hopes the service may eventually be commissioned by NHS clinical commissioning groups to help improve health and reduce the strain on the public health service.

On this particular week in Fallowfield, the class is making savoury pancakes, to be stuffed with salty feta and refried beans. The group of women sit on plastic chairs, gathered around tables that have been pushed together. Everyone is assigned a task by nutritionist Amanda Aitken, who runs the workshop with an infectious energy and enthusiasm to share the nutritional value and affordability of the ingredients being used. She knows that there are barriers, both perceived and real, to accessing healthy food – but she is keen to play her part in breaking them down.

“A positive outcome from Willowbank is that the food goes back to the participants’ flats and their extended family get to taste it,” she says. “Now garlic mushrooms are firmly on the menu, which is great as that’s a vegetable that may never previously have got eaten.”

Kaur has been coming to the Wednesday morning group for several months. When she arrives, she is tired and in pain – breast cancer treatment is taking its miserable toll – but as she pulls coriander leaves and later fries her sweetened batter, she brightens.

Before she moved to Willowbank seven months ago, Kaur had been seeking asylum from India in the UK for eight years. For around half of that time, she was forced apart from her husband Amitt. She finally secured her papers in February last year – only to be diagnosed with cancer in March.

“It’s been very difficult,” she says, watching sugared batter slowly caramelise in the pan. She is making extras for the Willowbank staff and for her four-year-old daughter, Naysa. “I’ve not faced anything that difficult but, having said that, seeking asylum was a different kind of struggle. Now I’ve got breast cancer. This is a much more difficult thing to fight than fighting for your case. That one was to be safe in one country – this is to live. So basically I’m fighting, whether that’s living somewhere or being alive.”

For Kaur, the classes offer respite, social connection and, of course, good food.

“After being in hospital and then moving to Willowbank, I was not in a happy place,” she recalls. “Sometimes it’s hard to get to know people in the same building that you’re living in so it helped to come out and spend time with the people here.

“I love food. I love cooking, but I’m not the same person that I was six months or a year ago. So much has changed because of my health. Even though I was in a wheelchair before, I could go around, I could cook, I could do shopping. But now I’m on a lot of medication and I’m under a lot of stress and my daughter is demanding. My husband helps but I have been alone in the past so I think that makes me more anxious.

“Getting to know people here has been helpful, especially with cooking food. Amanda is so good. I’m meeting nice people and I’m forgetting my pain.”

Kaur knowingly jokes with me that she is a perfect case study – an articulate woman with cancer who will happily extol the virtues of the initiative. It’s partly true. However, the truth is that homelessness doesn’t always look like the thing you might expect it to.

In the Longford Centre, the evening group is guided by trained chef and organic advocate Rob Tomlinson. As soon as I arrive, he asks if I’ll be helping and points me in the direction of a pile of neatly folded aprons.

Unlike in Fallowfield, we have free rein of a fully equipped kitchen. The theme is cheap meat cuts and Tomlinson explains how slow cooking ham hock will help achieve an affordable depth of flavour. Everything he cooks at the sessions, he says, comes out at under a pound a head.

“It’s a remarkably happy social event,” Tomlinson says. “It’s good fun being in that kitchen and working together. You pick up a huge number of skills, from chopping an onion to making pizza bases from scratch.”

For those who don’t eat  meat there’s a vegetable tagine bubbling away on the hefty gas hob. Jonathan* dices and stirs and chats his way through the workshop. He’s been at the Longford Centre for six of the eight weeks that residents can stay for. He ended up street homeless simply because he had “no plan B”.

“I’ve got a lot of qualifications and over the last four years contracts that I was working for allowed me to live in hotels,” he says. “A firm then went under, which had a knock-on effect.”

That knock-on effect was eight weeks of no pay. No permanent address and no income meant that Jonathan ended up on the street.

“I had the perfect lifestyle,” he says. “Nice cars, nice house, great kids – in the space of six months all that changed. It’s hard to get your head round when you’ve never needed or wanted anything.”

He came close to turning to crime to eat and keep warm. His two children had no idea what he was going through. He didn’t want them to know. He didn’t know how to ask for advice on finding accommodation or a job when he didn’t have a postcode.

“People just frown upon you if you’re homeless and that’s it. They don’t know that you don’t want to be homeless. It surprised me how people just walk past you and ignore you.”

After two weeks on the streets, he ended up at Supporting People in Need in Manchester and then at the Longford Centre. As soon as he arrived, he got involved with the activities on offer,
from drama classes to the Cracking Good Food workshops.

“What I’ve learned is if someone gives you their time you can’t put a price on that,” he says. “Rob’s gone out of his way for me and I want to go out of my way for him. The way he goes around talking to people – he makes you feel so comfortable and relaxed. He’s like a magician half the time, not just a chef.”

Jonathan has now secured a new job and in the weeks that followed our conversation would be moving to his own place.

“I’m a million miles away from where I was when I first came here,” he says. “It’s been good.”

At the end of the session at the Longford Centre, we sit together and share the meal we’ve just prepared. Everyone takes their turn to offer something they’ve learnt from the experience. We eat, we talk, we laugh.

“One of the problems with what we do here is actually assessing how successful we are,” Tomlinson says. “You can sit down and eat a meal together and ask what people have learnt but how can we measure the amount to which we have actually altered their lives and influenced the choices they’re making as far as food is concerned?

“It’s a bit tricky. All you can do is make positive assumptions. We know full well that life is made up of a multitude of experiences, and every single experience we have is a learning experience. Just by being in that kitchen they will have learnt something. So we hope that it will stick and that they’ll enjoy cooking as a result.”

* name changed to protect identity

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