21 September 2016

If anyone understands the true power of food, it’s Ann Osborn. Ann is the Director of the Rural Coffee Caravan, a small charity that works hard to reduce the stress of isolation in rural parts of Suffolk. We caught up with her to find out more about the remarkable work that the charity does.

Tell us about your fantastic project, the Rural Coffee Caravan…

The Rural Coffee Caravan started in 2003. We take a mobile community café and information centre out to rural locations for little tea and chat gatherings that are completely free. We offer residents the chance to get together socially and access information about services that might make their lives easier, happier and healthier. The aim is to promote community spirit and cohesion, and to work to end loneliness.

What part do you play in the scheme?

I am now the Charity Director, but I started 12 years ago as a part time Project Manager. I was a ‘stay at home’ mum, with no qualifications and luckily when I started looking for a job, they were mad enough to take a chance on me! The year I started they made 15 visits. Last year we made 197.

How does Eden Project Communities come into your story?

I heard of Eden Project Communities on Twitter a couple of years ago when they were talking about The Big Lunch. I retweeted them and they asked if we’d like to apply to a Community Camp. In May 2014, we went to the camp at the Eden Project and had the best time! It was so uplifting and really refreshed and refocused us. We learnt so much and gathered so many ideas to share with our communities. We persuaded one village to have a Big Lunch last year, which was hugely successful. We want to build on that and are working hard to raise awareness of Eden Project Communities.

What effect does getting together and sharing food have on the people who take part in Rural Coffee Caravan?

Most daytime social events will involve the sentence, ‘Fancy a cuppa?’. Tea is a panacea, a balm for life’s ailments and a reward for, well, anything you want really. It’s just what we Brits do, so we built on that, added in coffee and cake, and made it all free to ensure that no one was excluded. It works so wonderfully well because it’s so informal and it’s pretty hard to be shy with a mouthful of chocolate brownie! Our outside events are like picnics and our cream teas have a celebratory feel. Food is powerful because there are so many ways to engage with it. You can prepare it, serve it, talk about it, donate it, share it and, of course, eat it! We meet so many different people with different abilities and outlooks, but everyone can take part in a food-based event, fulfilling one or all of those roles. A conversation about cake or a request to pass the sugar can be the start of a friendship. Sharing is caring.

What have you learnt from being involved with the Rural Coffee Caravan?

That people need other people, they need to be needed, to have a purpose, to be remembered and to be acknowledged. That people need to talk, to be listened to and even to be hugged. That community spirit is alive, but sometimes it’s hard to know how best to express it. That communities often need support and encouragement. That communities that have cracked it are only too happy to share their experiences. That kindness does indeed cost nothing and we need more of it!

What has been your most moving moment working for the Rural Coffee Caravan?

There have been so many. The lady who shocked and saddened us so much because she hadn’t had a conversation for TWO MONTHS! A fellow resident, who was new to the village, overheard and invited her to go to an exercise class with her. The lady was so delighted – a small gesture that meant so much.

Or maybe the sweet lady who sits in her window waving at people and keeps her back door open in the hope that someone will come in for a cuppa. We invited her out to our visits and helped her get there. Now she has friends that visit. Her joy made us cry!

It’s always very simple things, not rocket science. We need the social glue that is conversation and tea and cake to help it happen.

What are the plans for the Rural Coffee Caravan in the future?

To keep on keeping on. We already have bookings for next year and as long as funding continues, so will we. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; our simple model works. We make a difference to rural communities throughout Suffolk – and we have cake!

It’s always very simple things, not rocket science. We need the social glue that is conversation and tea and cake to help it happen.