Updated: Oct 29
It was about 11pm on the 30th March 2020 when we received the first message - of many, many messages - that would land in our inboxes during Lockdown.
Dear Soul Food,
I wonder if you could help us? We have been given your details by a friend who has been along to your community meals. We find ourselves in a difficult situation. As soon as Lockdown began, my husband and I both lost our jobs. We have just found out that it will be at least six weeks before we will receive any support or benefits and we have no idea how we are going to be able to feed our children. Our electricity and gas supply will only last us for the next couple of days and we don’t have very much food in our cupboards. We feel embarrassed to ask for help, but we wondered if you could arrange a food parcel for us and maybe put us on your delivery list for hot meals? We are a family of four.
This message was quickly followed by another:
Hi Soul Food, sorry to bother you. I have had a look at your Facebook page and seen you deliver food. I have two kids and myself who live at home. I have seen you have helped so many families in need and until now I have been too scared to message you. Could you deliver food to us? I haven’t got much as it’s not my pay day until tomorrow?
And then another:
Hi there, I have been on your Facebook page and I was wondering if you would be able to help me in anyway? I am really, really struggling with food and living at the moment. I have two daughters and a partner, and I have just put the last of my money into the gas and electric meters. I am panicking because my cooker is also broken. I have seen that you help people and so I thought I would ask if you could help me out?
And the messages kept (and keep) on coming. At all times of the day and night. All of them telling similar stories.
In the light of this, last weeks’ decision by the Conservative government to not extend free meals into the school holidays was shocking and dismaying. And as we have seen across the UK, public feeling is strong with regards that decision. Feelings of ‘rage’ is the word that I have read and heard in many conversations with friends.
It has been incredible to see the response of local communities, businesses and councils refusing to accept that decision and offering support to families, ensuring that meals are available throughout the holidays. But just as the messages that we received at the beginning of Lockdown highlight, it will come as no surprise that food poverty and hunger is not just something that ‘appears’ in the school holidays. It is not just in the holidays that children go to bed hungry, this is a year-round situation. And this certainly evokes within me, a sense of deep rage.
Rage is such a powerful word and one that often holds negative connotations. But also rage - so closely linked to the feeling of passion - can give us the energy and the drive to create beautiful things.
I know that many of you are wondering as to how you can help to support families who are experiencing the realities of food poverty. How can you channel your rage? How can you use its power and create something good and vital from it? In answer, I say rage on. Let your rage relentlessly propel you in the ways of justice and compassion. May it be the muse that helps you to pursue beauty, gentleness and goodness. May it help you be something of the change you want to see in the world.
Could I give you three ideas that you could begin with?
How about beginning a Soul Food meal in your community?
At the moment we are having to run take away stands due to the current Covid restrictions, but a take-away stand is a good way to begin.
Maybe you are part of a church where within your walls and outside of them in the neighbourhood where you are placed, you know families are having a daily battle to make ends meet.
Perhaps you are simply a local church that wants to show your community that you care about the fact that children go to bed hungry or that they don’t have a regular hot meal and that you want to be involved in bringing about change.
Soul Food meals are declaration that the local church cares that people within our communities and neighbourhoods are hungry.
With a home-cooked meal, the warmest of welcomes and a safe space to be, Soul Food hopes to meet the emergency need of hunger. It becomes a time in the week when anyone who would appreciate a two-course meal knows that they can get one without any money or the need of a referral.
But Soul Food too, is a promise of being ‘more than a meal’. It’s a commitment to friendship and community. A promise to walk alongside anyone who would like support and a place to be where folk know that they are not on their own. We greatly encourage engagement and partner with other organisations who can offer practical and life changing support. (Organisations like Christians Against Poverty who gently and practically support people out of debt and provide job clubs and life skills programmes. Or Edinburgh City Mission who can help support families and individuals in many practical ways and do so with great kindness and care).
Ultimately, a Soul Food meal is not something ‘done’ to people but ‘with’ each other. The local church may begin the meal, but it is always with the intention that anyone who comes along can be part of making the meal what its locality needs it to be. We believe that around tables and over dinner we get to know each other. We connect over the stories of our lives and we forge relationships that are life giving and changing. When we get to know those in our communities who are dealing with poverty, homelessness, isolation and loneliness, the statistics that we hear about in the news and read in our newspapers become the stories of our friends and neighbours. They become stories that are personal because they are situations of injustice that are friends are walking through.
And for those who would say that this sort of meal is just a ‘sticking plaster’ insubstantially covering the gaping wound of the issues of hunger in our country, you are absolutely right BUT also, not completely. It simply isn’t so cut and dry.
Not for one moment do we believe that churches and charities that provide free food should become the 4th emergency service of our country, a point made in the recent thoughtful and thorough Edinburgh Poverty Commission report: A Just Capital: Actions to End Poverty in Edinburgh.
We believe that the issue of hunger can only be addressed by systemic change which often it seems only governments and those in power can instigate (although we believe that the story is bigger than this too.). As the Edinburgh Poverty Commission report states: we need ‘…the conditions for good jobs, genuinely affordable housing, income security and meaningful opportunities that drive justice and boost prospects.’ And as they go on to state, ‘…emergency food support (should)…serve as a gateway to other support that will ease isolation and build human connection and kindness where it has been lacking.’
And this leads me to the second idea:
Start to raise your voice and encourage others to raise theirs too.
As Soul Food communities and as individuals, get in touch with your MSP, MP and local councillors. Tell them the stories of your neighbourhoods. Encourage your neighbourhood to tell its own stories. Put names and addresses to the statistics.
Last week, six Scottish Conservative MP’s voted to not extend free school meals into the holidays. A simple internet search will let you know their names and the ways in which you can contact them and let them know how disappointed you were by their vote. Only expressing disappointment via our own personal social media platforms does not elicit change. Engaging with our politicians intentionally, does.
I was reminded this morning of the fact that in 2010, the Child Poverty Act was passed. It had cross party support and it placed a legal obligation on the government to end child poverty by Spring 2020.
The 12 billion pounds worth of welfare cuts in 2015 to the Social Security budget by the Conservative government led the 2020 target being scrapped. Today, throughout the UK 1.4 million children are living below the poverty line. In 2017, in response to 2020 targets being abolished, in Scotland, the Poverty and Inequality Commission was established to re-instigate the initial 2020 target, but still today, October 2020, 1 in 4 children in Scotland are living below the poverty line. (In Edinburgh, that always feels especially stark when you note that 1 in 4 children are privately educated). And I have to tell you, I believe in Scottish governments ambition and desire to eradicate child poverty. They are ensuring that families receive food vouchers during the next three school holidays’ and they are introducing the Scottish Child Payment in November 2020 which will enable low income families with a child under six to apply for £10 per child, per week. But we still have a long, long way to go in order to fulfil the Child Poverty Act targets. Unless people have affordable housing, jobs with secure incomes and a significantly more realistic and generous benefits system, poverty will not be eradicated and so we need to learn to challenge and to keep speaking up.
Would you consider become a regular giver to Soul Food? A Soul- Foodie?
Primarily as an organisation we hope to practically equip, encourage and inspire local churches to step into the stories of their neighbourhoods by hosting Soul Food style community meals that offer support, respite and refuge to anyone experiencing poverty, homelessness, isolation and loneliness. We work with a church to enable them to get things started and we offer continued support as the meal grows and progresses. Throughout the year we give grants to help cover a significant amount of the meal costs and we give time and ongoing training. Would you help us to continue to do this? At the moment we have 6 Soul Food meals across the city of Edinburgh and one in Bristol. We have more in the planning and formation stage. Over a week, through Soul Food meals, hundreds of people find the warmest of welcomes, the loveliest of meals and genuine support and community.
We have always talked about Soul Food as being ‘More than a Meal’, I guess in order to say right from the beginning that this is not a ‘sticking plaster’. That is why at each meal it is really important that genuine offers of friendship, community and support are on offer. In Spring 2021 we will be introducing a new Urban Leadership Course to Scotland called Urban Changemakers. This course focuses on working class leadership development from within urban priority areas, seeking to build the capacity of urban leaders for compassion, resilience and innovation in their urban contexts. It is run by Newbigin School for Urban Leadership and we are partnering with them. We hope to offer the opportunity for anyone between the ages of 18 - 35 to be nominated to take part in this programme. It has been life changing for those who have been part of it in groups all across the world and we are excited for the impact it could have on lives here. I will be writing much more about this over the coming weeks and the “More than a Meal’ campaign that we are very gently launching in this blog post! But I mention it now to let you know that being ‘more than a meal’ is at the heart of every table that is set.
On that note, I draw this long post to a close. If you would like to chat about beginning a Soul Food meal, please contact me (Jenny) at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to partner with us and support us financially, then please head here where you can sign up to give monthly or give a one-off donation.
Shauna Niequist writes of how, “This is how the world changes – little by little, table by table, meal by meal, hour by hour. This is how we chip away at isolation, loneliness, fear. This is how we connect, in big and small ways – we do it around the table.”
We believe that in addition to that, this is how poverty is challenged and lives are assured of hope and transformation, table by table, meal by meal. Would you join us?