A Place for All: Taking a closer look at the Foodhall community cafe
Words and photography: Melina Theodorou
It’s hard to miss the Foodhall Project as you walk past. The space that separates its large entrance from the road is often decked with a parade of potted plants and wooden armchairs occupied by its daily of visitors.
Making your way inside, the room is filled with the hubbub of conversation, the grouchy sound of the kettle as tea is being served up, and a catchy playlist playing in the background. If you’re lucky, you might also catch someone knocking out a tune on the old piano tucked away in the corner. Plants and flowers of every kind line every available surface, giving its versatile space a truly homely feel. At a glance it seems almost in disarray, a mixed collection of long dining tables, colourful stools and chairs. But as the room starts to fill up with its daily run of people popping by for some sustenance and a friendly chat, that initial assumption could not be further from the truth.
Founded in 2015, the project is the brainchild of two University of Sheffield graduates, Louis Pohl and Jamie Wilde. Their initial idea was to create an app that enabled people to come together and share their surplus of food in order to make a meal, but this eventually grew into a physical space where people can eat together communally. The response by the community has been overwhelmingly positive, and in 2016, Foodhall became an award-winning community centre after winning People’s Choice at Sheffield Designer Awards.
Their main mission: To bring people together through communal dining. The project is dependent on its volunteers, who offer a hand in numerous ways, including running the kitchen, organising weekly events, and helping out at Foodhall’s pay-as-you-feel café. On Thursday and Friday mornings the café opens its doors and people share meals together at 12.30pm. Food collections from various shops around the city ensure that there are resources for volunteers to prepare hearty meals using fresh ingredients available that day.
Over time, Foodhall has developed beyond the realms of a dining space. Every week several events take place including a bike kitchen, guitar lessons, clay workshops, TV dinners, live music gigs and most recently an art exhibition by artist, Xumina, an asylum-seeker. All these events are run by Foodhall volunteers, who offer their skills to create community-centred activities that promote inclusivity.
The Foodhall Project has an inherently good impact on the community, and its values are deeply rooted in their belief of creating a place for all. My own experience there over the past few months was a colourful one; I had the chance to help cook meals for large numbers of people, practise my rusty barista skills, organise an event, and most importantly, I had the chance to meet a wonderful collective of people – all of which shared different stories and experiences with me during my time there. If there is one place I know I am always welcome at it’s the Foodhall, and that simple belief unequivocally proves that the project has achieved its main objective: making everybody feel at home.
In a few, simple words, what is Foodhall?
Foodhall is a community centre and kitchen in the heart of Sheffield city centre. And the aim of the project is to bring everyone together to share equally.
The idea of communal dining is a very important one at Foodhall. Why is that?
It is something that is important to Foodhall, but it is also inherently important to human beings as a species.It’s always a part of human culture and there’s lots of research that’s been done which explains why it’s so important and it’s basically that sharing food with someone is the easiest way to develop a relationship with them.
Once you build a relationship with someone they become part of your social network and your social network is essentially the most important thing to you as a person. The idea of Foodhall is to bring everyone together and to create a community, a social network; one that is accessible to anyone regardless of their identity, their circumstances or their social class, their level of education, their economics and all these different things that otherwise separate us from others. The reason that social eating is important is because that is what brings us together in the first place. It’s a point of entry and it’s the level through which these social networks can occur and then all the benefits from that social network can begin to be shared within the community.
What do you think Foodhall’s influence has been on the community?
Really positive. Community members that came to us without a place to live, without anyone to be with, have found a community at Foodhall; they found a sense of purpose, they’ve been able to take on responsibilities within the project and develop their own skills. They’ve met a lot of people, developed strong social networks and through that they’ve found stability in their sense of self which then helped them find stability economically. That is something which has happened with multiple different Foodhall visitors and volunteers who have since gone to find employment through their experience at Foodhall.
What was the biggest challenge Foodhall has faced?
Day to day, one challenge is how you create a space which is for everyone and is for everyone to be equal. Unlike a lot of cafes or music venues, we are actively seeking to engage very disparate community groups and that’s a really challenging thing because people who come from different cultures and communities will have different needs. Creating a space which serves the needs of people who come from different groups is always going to be a challenge. But the way that we do that is by engaging these different communities with the running of the project and ensuring that everyone has a chance to give feedback and a platform to either pursue their own projects or have their voices heard. That way we can try and be more responsive to the needs of the community that we serve.
The idea of Foodhall is to bring everyone together and to create a community, a social network; one that is accessible to anyone regardless of their identity, their circumstances or their social class, their level of education, their economics and all these different things that otherwise separate us from others.
How did Foodhall develop from simply being a place of communal dining to all the other things it offers such as Clayhall, TV Dinners, Arthall, etc?
The aim of the project is to bring people together to share food. What happens when you do that, predictably, is that they share more than just food. They start sharing conversations and experiences and skills and culture as well, and that’s what happens when community forms around a space and around food. Essentially what we did is that we developed platforms through which community members can pursue their own interests and develop their skills. Because we bring together a pretty diverse community there’s lots of different skills that are on offer and people are really willing to share that.
Where do you see Foodhall in five years’ time?
Locally, the aim is for Foodhall to have permanent premises in the heart of the city centre and be open as much as possible. Ideally, we would have a private place in the city and we would be open for all as much as possible. I think that is doable. I mean look how much we are doing now, with really minimal resources, and we are doing great. If we were to get a little bit more support we could create something really special for generations to come for the city.
More widely I’d love to see a Foodhall in every city, within every community, and that’s something which comes along in line with the National Food Service campaign, which is an important part of the project. It wants to secure spaces for social eating in the country if not further afield as well. The benefits of having an open social eating space in the city are made abundantly clear by Foodhall. There isn’t a city in this country that wouldn’t benefit from having a foodhall, or a space like it.
The development of a National Food Service along those lines whereby communities can create their own social eating spaces and begin to share together as equals would do so much for this country and the communities who live in it and no doubt for other countries as well. What I think is the aim for Foodhall in the next five years is to be permanent in Sheffield and present elsewhere as a National Food Service development. That would be sweet.
foodhallproject.org // 121 Eyre Street