A living room at the heart of a Valleys community

By Pamela Mason

All our living rooms say something about us and what’s important to us. And a new living room, Yr Ystafell Fyw in the Rhymney Valley in South Wales, very much reflects the values of the community that established it. When you walk through the front door into this very comfortable cafe, you cannot help but notice the ease of access (no steps), the bowl of water for dogs, the open kitchen and serving area, how light it is, the soft chairs and sofas, and the pictures on the wall, many locally commissioned.

An initiative of the Church in Wales Parish of Bedwellty and New Tredegar, Yr Ystafell Fyw is a living room created to improve health and well-being in its communities. As a café, food is at the heart of its work. All of this in a place where community is still very much alive but, with its industry now largely gone, one that thrives less than it once did. It’s a community that runs a food bank but knows that’s an inadequate response to the problems of poverty that cause the fridge to become bare. In running the food bank, the community became more aware of what it already knew, that people needed more than a food parcel. Having worked in this food bank on one busy morning, I still remember how as the range of breakfast cereals began to reduce, I was the one who decided what people would take home to eat. It was uncomfortable. No one should have control of what another household gets to eat.

Leah at Ystafell Fyw

Revd Leah Philbrick serves tea at Yr Ystafell Fyw

Food has a very different place in the Living Room, although many of the people who visit have the same problems as those visiting the food bank. Revd Leah Philbrick, who with Revd Dr Rosie Dymond is a Director of The Living Room, emphasises that food here is about giving hospitality and raising the ‘feel good’ factor of the visitors. “We aspire to serve the best coffee in the Rhymney Valley,” she adds. Not for its own sake but to help people feel good about themselves. This is no small aim in area where unemployment remains high. Some of the crockery, like a 1930s dinner plate from New Tredegar, speaks of the valley’s history and the coffee is served in china cups and saucers. The cake is home-made, as much of the food as possible is locally sourced, and it’s all presented in the form of a lovely treat, yet in responsibly small portions so that no one need overeat the delicious cake.

Food and drink is not the only or even main  aim of the Living Room. It’s about providing a space where people can share those problems that the food bank cannot alleviate and it’s a space for prayer and meditation. There is a kitchen table around which people gather to enjoy food and listen to each another. A large wooden clock in one corner strikes every quarter of an hour as a reminder of the importance of a time to be silent, while a small red desk in another corner reminds of the importance of meeting face to face rather than just on social media.

Like the community pharmacy which was once located in the space occupied by the Living Room, Yr Ystafell Fyw is about health and well-being in the community. But unlike the pharmacy, now sited a few hundred yards away adjacent to a doctor’s surgery, The Living Room is not a about providing a public service, but rather a space for the community run by the community. And as a Community Interest Company (CIC), the Living Room is a social enterprise that will use its profits and assets for the public good. What is interesting, though, is that both the pharmacy and the surgery are beginning to refer people to the Living Room for that essential prescription of “Time to Listen and Space to Share”.

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire.

 

Reducing food waste

truck dumping foodWhen an estimated one-third of the food produced on farms around the world never reaches the table, and people are going to bed hungry even in the UK, something must be wrong. How come our food supply chains are so leaky and what are we going to do about it? In a globalized economy, some of the explanation is well out of the reach of local communities, but the loss from supermarkets and households is something we can all get to grips with.

At the WRAP Cymru/FareShare Surplus Food Summit last week, an invited audience got to work on the question: How to redistribute supermarket food surplus to best effect, not simply diverting it from landfill to stomachs, but also getting the best social and environmental benefits in the process?

During the course of the morning, some fascinating facts emerged. Food banks often have a waiting list of volunteers keen to help. Whether supermarkets are willing to give their food waste to community groups depends on the attitude of the manager, their head office, and even just the staff who happen to be on duty on a given day. Only 2% of the 10 million tonnes of food thrown away in the UK each year is from retailers; much more, 70%, is from households, as we buy too much and leave things at the back of the fridge.

The sheer complexity of the problem was evident. This is a challenge to be tackled on many levels, not least IT, as the FareShare FoodCloud partnership with Tesco shows. Environmental health regulations, storage facilities, transport and training come into it too. The task of sorting out working relationships between supermarkets, community groups, local government and volunteers is probably the biggest though, and it is one in which values have a part to play.

How is the enthusiasm of many supermarket store managers and individual staff to be translated into company policy, to be reinforced by training and facilities? What motivates volunteers to help out, and how can they be made more effective? How can we remove the stigma of surplus food being for poor people and see it simply as food, for which we all have a responsibility and which we can all enjoy? How to fit food redistribution into the bigger picture of fair food for all, linking it for instance to the local food movement?

These are all questions we will be asking in our next Food Values event, in Aberystwyth. We’ll be working with an existing student initiative that links supermarkets to charities and asking how we could take it to the next level. What might that look like – a food waste café, vans, a website, a warehouse perhaps – and who could help it happen? It will mean forging new partnerships between people with very different interests, and these will be much more effective if people think in terms of the greater good, as well as what’s in it for them. It will mean people coming together on a human level, because they are members of the communities in which they live, and coming up with something new.

To do that we’ll be hearing from the inspirational food waste café at Fishguard, which saves an estimated 21 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually by diverting food from landfill, and is an important social hub. We’ll also hear from some of the supermarkets and charities already working with surplus food in Aberystwyth, and by sharing the stories of individuals involved, we’ll find out what’s important to them and see where there is common ground.

The result will be much more than an action plan for food waste redistribution in Aberystwyth. It will include an insight into what makes a community tick, and how to bring together business, community and government in order to serve their local area. It will, we hope, be another example of the way in which food, touching as it does so many aspects of our lives, is also a powerful force for individual, social and environmental transformation.