Lunchtime at the Coexist Community Kitchen

Make your way to the third floor of Hamilton House and you’ll find the Coexist Community Kitchen. It served as the canteen for the building, back when it was still a banking office, but got a revamp in 2013 when it became what it is now — a communal resource built around the sharing of cooking skills.

The kitchen currently provides 6-week cooking courses, in collaboration with City of Bristol College (who provide a tutor one day a week) and Bristol Drugs Project, a charity based in St Paul’s which works together with people who have been affected by alcohol and substance use problems and who are making their way towards recovery.

Ari and a BDP participant making bread

Ari Cantwell, our Community Kitchen Manager, who first became involved in the project as a volunteer, explains that the majority of people taking part in the course are “in more stable positions of recovery”. Attending the course two days a week provides a degree of structure and routine for participants, both of which are vital to minimise the risk of relapse, especially for those who are in receipt of benefits and not able to work more than sixteen hours a week.

Ari is passionate about using food as a way to address other issues, and sees the role of the kitchen as being “about bringing people together and combatting isolation” as much as it is about learning to cook. While cooking is a crucial life skill in itself, it is also a therapeutic activity that can boost self-esteem, particularly for those experiencing social exclusion.

When I make my way down to the kitchen on Monday afternoon, five members of of the course are preparing their celebratory meal (veggie lasagne, freshly-baked herb bread and almond and rhubarb cake) to mark the end of the course. The space is alive and bustling: everybody is busy and contributing in some way. I chatted briefly with Kev, one of the participants on the course:

I’m in recovery from drugs and alcohol, and I’m clean now, so part of my recovery is learning how to cook and I’ve been here for six weeks. I’ve only missed one day, on a bank holiday. We’ve done different food from all around the world every week.
A victorious Kev gloats over the lasagne

Kev, who has been traveling up from South Bristol every week, had never done anything like this before: “I was a terrible cook! But I’ve had a go at everything and I’ve really enjoyed it.”

As well as teaching basic cooking and related living skills such as budgeting, the kitchen serves as a space to have wider conversations about food politics and sustainability. “Eighty per cent of the food that we cook in the kitchen is vegetarian. And we get a lot of stuff that is organic”, Ari explains, which often provokes discussions about the environmental impact of food production.

In addition, the kitchen is strongly committed to supporting local independent businesses: “Most of the dry produce is from Essential [food co-operative], so we get big bulk orders, and then if we do tenants community lunch or things like that we do it through Four Seasons, which is organic wholesale.” Otherwise, it is sourced from local shops like the Bristol Sweet Mart in Easton.

The feedback from these courses has been overwhelmingly positive. As well as doing more public-facing events, Ari wants to see the programme expand: “I’d like more courses like this, so working with different organisations, maybe two courses more like this” and to continue to use the kitchen as a learning space that connects the dots between the living skills of daily life and wider political and ecological issues.

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