Growing and cooking for community: Food for Life Get Togethers
Good food gives us the energy to keep going and nutrients to stay healthy. It can also be the focal point for time with loved ones or an opportunity to make connections with new people. It can help us celebrate heritage, connect to nature, and show our care for others.
Food for Life Get Togethers ran for four years from 2019. Run by sustainable food charity the Soil Association, the programme gave out small grants that brought people together to grow food – from herbs in window boxes, to strawberries on balconies, and carrots in village hall gardens.
To make the most of this harvest, the programme also encouraged communities to prepare, cook and enjoy food together – through festivals, cookery classes, and more.
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Food for Life Get Togethers in numbers
The need for connection
Many people feel alone and disconnected, lacking meaningful contact. In June 2023, around a quarter (26%) of adults reported feeling lonely often, always, or some of the time.
We’re also often disconnected from the food we eat – where it comes from, and the experience of preparing it. It can be difficult to afford or find good quality, locally-grown food, and people in the UK consume more ultra-processed foods than anywhere else in Europe.
Research has found that the more often people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives. The benefits of engaging with nature, and of growing food together, are well established. And we’ve seen from our funding addressing loneliness that taking part in meaningful activity makes a positive difference in helping people to connect.
For these reasons the Soil Association placed food at the centre of their get togethers, providing a low-pressure way to connect people whilst widening access to low cost, sustainably grown, quality food.
Sowing new seeds
Plant and Share provided valuable opportunities for friends, neighbours, classmates, and community groups to come together to grow their own produce and learn more about where food comes from. It awarded small grants to help people buy what they needed to get started: from trowels and gloves, to seeds and compost.
Residents were encouraged to be creative and imaginative about where to plant things: from window boxes, old containers and bags, to gardens, allotments and forests. In 2023, an estimated 46,000 people took part in Plant and Share events.
In Glasgow, the Wing Hong Centre supports older people from the Chinese community. Plant and Share was its first step into gardening and growing, and successfully brought the wider community into their activities, uniting gardeners of different backgrounds, and ages.
They grew Chinese vegetables, choosing plants that could thrive in the Scottish weather, and that might not be available in local shops.
From that first harvest in 2022, growing has become a regular activity for the group and their produce is cooked for Wing Hong’s regular lunch club, and social events for all the participating gardeners.
"Much like gardening," explains organiser Jamie Lee, "it will be very fruitful in the end as new friendships have been established."
Even though people have a language barrier or a different economic and political agenda, it doesn’t matter when it comes to food… we can easily communicate through the food.Small grant holder, Food for Life Get Togethers
Cooking, eating, connecting
In October and November, the Cook and Share campaign encouraged people to cook and eat together – sometimes using Plant and Share produce. Meals were popular, social occasions bringing together 10 to 400 people per event, with a mean of 39.
Some groups used Cook and Share events to support people struggling to afford to eat well: providing nutritious food in a dignified way, or sharing tips and recipes for healthy eating on a budget. Some brought together people from different communities, each cooking food from their own culture. An LGBT+ youth club helped young people develop life skills through cooking and menu planning, seeing shared meals as a great way to create meaningful memories and healthy habits.
Many used the event to build belonging and connections between residents. Live Active Unst, on the most northerly inhabited Scottish island, set up a potluck lunch that was "very much just come along, drop in. Don’t scare people away with a structured project… come in, drop out, no fear."
A cross-section of the community attended, with people ranging in age from four to 93, and this drew attention from elsewhere in the Shetlands, as a simple, achievable way to connect residents across generations.
Many groups made a conscious effort to use food as a way of connecting people from different walks of life – often helping to build new communities in the process.
In Sheffield, small charity The Furnival introduced food to their drop-in and language sessions for newly-arrived women from Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Libya. This provided a new avenue for sharing stories, experiences and skills, with a meal now being prepared and eaten together at the end of every session.
"I don’t think before some of these women came they’d experienced that feeling of having something in common with someone for a very long time," reflects Julie D’souza Walsh, the organiser. "Cooking supports integration and breaks down barriers."
Memories and connection were also vital in the event at CrossReach, a not-for-profit care home in Edinburgh, where many residents are living with dementia. The care home already grows fruit and vegetables, but its kitchen isn’t normally open to residents. CrossReach used its Cook and Share grant to buy pans and an induction hob, so residents could get involved.
The physicality of cooking sparked conversation and moments of connection. Shelling peas was unexpectedly popular, while holding a scone – warm from the oven – prompted people to share their memories of baking. Evidence suggests that opportunities to reminisce may have some positive effects on the quality of life and mood of people with dementia.
"I think people forget that when you go into residential care, your life shouldn’t just stop," explained the organiser, "you should be enabled to do as many normal things as possible."
What [the community event organisers] are providing is a lifeline to the communities that they work with.Adam Carter, The Soil Association
Easy access to funding
Paperwork was kept to a minimum, making it easy to access the programme's small, flexible grants. "Really easy," explained Samantha from Penrose Root Community in Bedfordshire – especially compared to other application systems, which can be "really complicated, even if it’s £50. And I liked that it was very much about what you wanted to do, that it was about us rather than the funder."
Most groups used their funding to buy ingredients, cooking equipment, gardening tools, or marketing materials to promote events.
Evaluation shows a demand for this kind of grant, particularly from grassroots groups. The small grants helped the programme connect with communities it had struggled to reach before. And the smallest organisations (with an annual income under £5,000) were most likely to say that small grants of between £100 and £1,000 were most relevant to their needs.
Some groups leveraged their grant to get further funding, or to make money go further. On the basis of their Cook and Share event, Friendly Faces of Kent made a successful bid for a £1,500 grant from Tesco. In London, the Nigerian Catholic Community bought culturally familiar ingredients for one of their regular communal meals for older people. Buying at discount through other charities, they translated £150 into £500 of purchasing power.
Getting the grant shifted how some recipients saw themselves. A relatively small amount of money could be a game-changer: "On one hand the £150 wasn't much, but on the other it was. This was a way of us being able to go 'oh, look, we've managed to get a little grant!'" said the team at Live Active Unst. "It gave us the drive to think 'We've done this, we can fundraise!'"
A catalyst for ongoing community action
Food get togethers can be the start of something bigger. Almost all FFLGT organisers went on to do more after their first event. Investments in equipment, facilities, venues and other assets gave a real boost to many groups and two-thirds (67%) of events are now held regularly, often several times a year.
A fifth (21%) of organisers planned events to connect people from different backgrounds and communities, for example during religious festivities like Eid, Diwali, Christmas and Vaisakhi, or as part of celebrations like Windrush Day.
Small grants acted as a springboard for new ideas. Most organisations that received Plant and Share grants (81%) said it was the first time they’d run this type of activity. For Silver Road Community Centre in Norwich, which used its grant to pilot a wellbeing café, the funding was a chance "to more or less experiment… and now we know we can go ahead." Cooking activities at the wellbeing café helped to create a space where people could share problems and open up. One recently bereaved participant said, "You know, you’re my lifeline. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t joined your group."
Support to try something new helped groups build confidence – and one idea often led to another. In Leicester, the Fearon Hall Urban Gardeners used their grant for tools, seeds, plants, and publicity. They tidied the garden of their local community centre, and built planters from pallets as an accessible option for less mobile gardeners.
These visible improvements sparked the interest of other groups, including local Cub Scouts. The group went on to improve the soil at the side of the road, creating an allotment area offering free fruit and vegetables to passers-by.
"It is not just for us to use, we did it to look pretty for everybody. We will use [the produce] in the café… but it is for anybody who is walking past," said the group, who were praised by judges from the Royal Horticultural Society’s Britain in Bloom Awards.
Groups also built skills and confidence among their members. In a block of flats in Stroud, Middle of the Hill Community Group brought together those trying to reduce food waste and people facing financial difficulties. “Chop and Chat” has become a regular social event, with the group preparing cooked meals for residents. It’s had further benefits: group members with few formal qualifications now have accredited certificates in food hygiene.
An investment in community organisers
The programme was a chance to build skills and connections – not just for participants, but for those running activities too. Evaluation notes the passion and resourcefulness of organisers, and FFLGT recognised the importance of investing in them. "We didn’t invent growing and cooking groups," reflected Adam. "But I think what we did was just to provide that bit of scaffolding around it."
Launched in 2021, the Network Events became a national online programme. It was a way to help community organisers expand their food work by learning new skills (such as ways to help parents of young children access healthy food), getting fresh ideas (like learning to create edible hanging baskets), and having a shared space to talk with peers (including finding out how others had grown their local food networks).
Feedback from 918 Network Event participants was very positive: 61% felt more ready and able to run food activities in their community, while a third (37%) agreed that taking part helped them to improve the way they lead their own network.
The practical learning helped organisers at different stages of their journeys. After a session on community orchards, one organiser said it had given them "the necessary tools" and confidence to consider developing one, while an experienced organiser who ran several orchards used the session "to look for new ideas and [sanity check my] own projects."
Food leaders of the future
The free My Food Community programme offers in-depth support for local leadership. Currently recruiting for a third cohort, it guides people to become food champions, with a mix of online training, learning materials, coaching from leadership specialist Koreo, and virtual peer meetups.
It’s designed to lead to action. As part of the programme, participants can apply for funding of up to £1,000 to develop their own community food project. 73% of participants strongly agreed that the grant helped them apply their learning in real life.
Participant Lynsey Poole decided to develop an edible garden alongside her project's community fridge in Larne. As well as growing fruit and vegetables, the garden has a "chatty bench" to encourage people to catch up and connect.
Lynsey established a seed library, where people can take seeds, pots and compost, grow them at home, and return extra seedlings to be shared at the garden. Some of those using the fridge are struggling to make ends meet, and felt bad about not "giving back" – so growing their own seedlings was a welcome way to do that. "It’s become very circular," Lynsey explains. Having started growing, people are now donating surplus food from their own gardens to the community fridge. She plans to use the last of the grant money for a foraging workshop, showing how to make the most of the garden.
Other participants have made an impact too. They’ve appeared on television to discuss the cost of living crisis and food equity, spoken at national food conferences, and set up local food partnerships.
The programme has boosted confidence to make change. The share of participants "definitely" regarding themselves as a community food leader increased from just 9% at the start to 68% at the end.
"You've been able to really see the confidence, the leadership – it's almost like we've activated them somehow," says Adam. "Now they're like 'right, I'm going to change the world.' And we're like, yeah, go for it!"
- Food-based community activities aren’t just a nice-to-have. They offer a low-pressure way to connect, over something that matters to everybody, while helping to improve access to low cost, sustainably grown, high quality food.
- There’s a lot of food-based community work going on across the UK, which deserves to be supported and harnessed. Events around gardening, growing, food, and cooking have the potential to reach some of the most isolated in our communities. By providing a welcoming way to spend time with others, and offering an opportunity for people be part of something, events can play a part in building stronger and more cohesive communities.
- "Good food" means different things to different people, and this should be celebrated, recognised, and encouraged.
- To achieve longer-term change, it’s important to recognise and build the skills and confidence of community organisers, alongside the delivery of activities to the public.
- Many community food initiatives, like Food for Life Get Togethers, are very adaptable. They work in urban and rural settings, with people from all kinds of communities, backgrounds and life experiences.