The Blueprints To Real Change
I speak as a person who’s been living on Blackbird Leys since 1999. When Covid happened, we were running a football league called the Diversity Football League. We had 24 different nationalities. The players came to us and wanted to know what will happen. Everywhere is locked. People may not have food. How can we support our community? We and the other groups from the Oxford Community Action (OCA) team came together and wrote a letter to the county council and Oxford City asking for space. We didn’t have money to rent a place, but we needed space to store donated food for collection. We had a college in Cowley Road, where we had 40 families at the beginning of Covid. Within two weeks we had 80 families. And at our peak time we had 600 people.
In 2021-22 we realised we needed a bigger place. We met someone who was then director of Ark-T, Emily. She offered us to come to Ark-T to do food distribution every Wednesday. We’ve carried on since then, and the families still came. In fact, we still have a family who came to us right at the beginning. And OCA is still a community-led organisation where all of us are working on a voluntary basis. But we thought, why shouldn’t we become a social enterprise? That’s where Flo’s came into this. The first day of our OCA Kitchen we were over at Flo’s, because Flo’s gave us the space. We had such a high turn-out at that lunch that the OCA and Flo’s cooked together.
OCA Kitchen can’t thank Flo’s enough for the support that they give us. Any event they do they will always help us and say come along. The first Friday of the month has become part of our calendar. Every Monday is for the free meals. And my school holiday children—45 kids—come there and eat the food. They really want to help communities like ours who don’t have space or aren’t getting the help we need. For example, when we need help with writing a grant application or whatever the community needs, they are here to support us.
Flo’s is the place to go to and ask for help, and I see their model as a kind of blueprint. This social enterprise was born on the basis of seeing what Flo’s do. We’re still learning. We’re not saying we’re 100% where we want to be. Our model is that we do catering, that we sell food to organisations, and we have a café that now runs 9am—3pm Monday to Thursday. And that all goes to pay for our staff, because every person who cooks for us gets paid, and it also covers the rent of the place and the food that we buy. Then we have a small fund that we donate for our holiday activities so the children can have free meals.
We’re one year old but we’re already seeing the benefits of community grassroots. The chefs come from within the community. They are empowered by the OCA Kitchen. They already know how to cook in their own home, but we give them a certificate basically saying, you can cook in a big kitchen because you have a food hygiene level 2 certificate. We also empower them. They may think, I don’t want to be staying at OCA Kitchen when I could be working five or six days a week for a big company. Or they may say, we could be a social enterprise too and go and sell food in the market. So OCA Kitchen is bringing us together while allowing people to ask questions. We have 16 people. At the moment we use nine of them regularly and I have watched the confidence of those nine grow so much. I can see the questions coming. They want to be food sellers on a stall, for example. And we say there’s nothing stopping you. We’re there to support you.
I want to learn more about Flo’s, and how they use their money to support the places they want to support. For us, I’m not looking for business profit. We make money to pay the people who we hire. The rest has to benefit the causes we care about. I really want to work with Flo’s more. I can see their vision. I like what they do. I read about it on their website. I understand what they do in terms of social and community activities. What I have learnt in my year of OCA Kitchen is that what we’re doing is worth it. And for the chefs who are cooking for us, it’s worth it. If catering gives us £1000, £650 will go to the staff and food and £300 will be money that we can spend as we want to. We used to struggle to buy bags for Wednesdays for the food, not anymore!
We feel like we’ve got some security now. We understand where we are and can cope with pressure. We are not worrying about whether we need to stop something. Before, I used to worry about where the money was coming from. The support we’re getting from the OX4 Food Crew who we’re partnered with is a huge help in terms of the food that we do on Wednesdays. Before that the government used to support us—it was Covid—but the minute they cut that in 2022, we didn’t know what would happen. If we didn’t have the OCA Kitchen and the lottery funding that Flo’s support us with, I don’t think we’d have been able to continue with the food bank.
The funny thing is that even with OCA Kitchen it’s still a case of people telling people. I mean we have a friend whose birthday party we’re doing. Normally he used to spend £600 or £700 in a restaurant but now OCA Kitchen is cooking for it, so the money is going straight to the community. That means it’s not just the OCA Kitchen it’s helping, it’s the people. It’s important that the public really understand what we are doing as part of these exchanges. There’s another person we are doing a birthday party for—a party for 100 people in July. It’s someone who just came in and ate our food. We didn’t know him before. That shows the resilience we have: the community buys into it. Everyone understands why we’re doing it. In the long term it will be a place where we can all say it helps whatever we’re going to do.
What's changed for me is that I feel like I know more people and more about what they do and what their organisations do. I used to think that what some organisations were saying, they didn’t do. But since I’ve got to know more of them, I’ve seen that the amount of time and planning and all the things they do for the community themselves is huge. You can learn something from other organisations. They have expertise that I don’t have. But at the OCA we really love people who have exactly the same values as us. Our whole concept is led by community. Our whole concept is that we don’t want any other agenda to come in. Yes, as an organisation we have values and we have acted on them but that has to be lined up with the people we want to serve. We need to make sure the people we serve feel comfortable, that they understand that we care, that we respect their values.
I left full-time work in January. I’ve had plenty of time thinking to myself, what’s my next step? I was passionate about working for the community—nearly 15 years at East Oxford United, the Diversity Football league, and OCA. I had all that time to build my relationship with communities. Now what I’m passionate about is a real change—action. It doesn’t matter how small it is, but everyone wants to see something happen. And when they buy into it, they are the ones who will finish it. You just give them the ideas and resources, and I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed. The next steps will build themselves. At the moment our food bank is run by communities. As an organisation we are just there in name. It’s the people who run it. They see that it’s valuable and they don’t want it to collapse.
When people work collectively to tackle an issue, however small, they come up with a better way than you would individually. Your voice will be bigger. Your numbers will be bigger. You’re achieving more and more people are benefiting. The next phase will be working very closely with people who are touching what they say they’re touching; people who want to achieve change they really believe in. In 10 years’ time, I want to see not only this OCA Kitchen, but plenty of OCA Kitchens around. I want to see more mothers acting independently, doing things they believe in. I don’t want to only see food banks. I want to see people using their own house to grow something, because in OX4 the next food poverty mission will be how to support the growing of food for every person we touch. That’s the real change. What is here now is going to be the blueprint.