28 September 2016

Earlier this summer, we were blown away by the Feast for Peace in Preston. Organised by Big Lunch Extras participant, Kay Johnson, the event was created in defiance of intolerance and hatred, to promote and celebrate community. The Feast was just the tip of the iceberg for Kay, who has extensive experience working with food and communities. Here she shares a bit of her wisdom about how sitting down to eat can bring people together.

A woman making a speech on stage.

When did your interest and love of food begin and what did it mean to you when you were younger?

I grew up on a small farm near Preston in Lancashire and was fed with good home-cooked food made with the freshest ingredients every day. Although there wasn’t much money around, food was always available in abundance. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, and at 17 I couldn’t wait to escape farm life! I can now see that it was a fantastic grounding and certainly shaped the way I think and feel about food now.

When did you realise that your passion for food could be used to help improve your community and what did you decide to do?

After realising that I wasn’t cut out to be a chef, I studied to become a nutritionist. My first role involved supporting food co-ops which gave people on a low income access to affordable fruit and veg. It became clear that there were so many additional benefits to this; volunteers gained the confidence and skills to get paid employment, and it was also a great way to combat loneliness, particularly amongst the elderly. Some volunteers ran cook-and-eat sessions and for many of the participants, this was the only time they ate a meal at a table with other people. I learned that it isn’t just about what people eat, how they eat is equally as important.

Since then, you’ve begun a number of additional food-related community projects – tell us a bit about those…

I worked in an Aboriginal community in Victoria, Australia, for a while, exploring how we could reintroduce some of their traditional ways of preparing and cooking food. The whole community got involved and it really was an amazing experience that taught me that gaining people’s trust and helping them to identify and overcome barriers can help them to have a better relationship with food. Food is a fantastic catalyst for getting people together.

I then worked in Thailand at a clinic with Burmese asylum seekers. I taught nutrition to people who had escaped from Burma and were training as medics to treat the many people affected by malaria, landmine injuries and other serious conditions.

When I returned from my travels I spent several years working in Scotland, mainly in disadvantaged communities. I developed a Food Champions programme where I trained people to deliver cooking classes and healthy eating workshops in hard to reach and vulnerable groups. This was a really successful initiative. I trained over 100 people who then went on to train hundreds more and I won a few awards for it. Since moving back to Lancashire I have adapted this programme to include food sustainability so we look at how to reduce waste and use local and ethically sourced ingredients.

Why do you think food is such a powerful convener of people?

There’s always a story with food. I often ask people ‘What did you have for your tea?’ I love the way you can get to know lots about people by talking about food – it’s an incredibly emotive subject. I’ve used food related activities when working with people who find it difficult to express how they feel and they find it so much easier to open up when the focus is on what they eat rather than their problems.

Has your time spent working with food-related projects taught you anything about ‘coming together’ and community spirit?

Absolutely! Over the last year I have been busy organising events which raise awareness of food poverty and food waste. I started off with Disco Soup, where I got together a team of local chefs and surplus food from supermarkets and fed over 400 people at a park in Preston. I was then offered a load of pumpkins that a farmer had been unable to sell after Halloween. I sent an email out and by morning a team of volunteers had offered to help me organise ‘Pumpkin Fest’, which was held on Preston Market on a very cold Saturday in November. We fed hundreds of shoppers with hot pumpkin soup, warm, spiced pumpkin juice and pumpkin pie – many people had no idea that pumpkins were actually food!

I love the way that food helps people to engage with each other, and how it seems to bring out the best in people. At each event I organise I am inundated with offers of help and feel very lucky to have met so many lovely people who have now become good friends.

And then a couple of months ago you had the idea for a Feast of Peace – what was that all about? What was the outcome?

Like many others I was affected by the heart breaking scenes of racism and intolerance in the news after the referendum results. I don’t mind admitting that I shed quite a few tears and wanted to do my bit to resolve things. We talk about how food sharing can break down cultural and religious barriers, that it has a role to play in conflict resolution, and this seemed like the ideal time to test it out.

I had a rough idea of what it might look like, sent an email out to a few people and in only three weeks, a team of incredible volunteers had pooled their resources to send out the message that ‘if we can eat together, we can live together’.

I wanted to ensure that the event had a positive message and for it to be a celebration of Preston’s cultural diversity. On the day, over 1,000 people gathered in Preston Flag Market to eat, listen to music and dance together.

A team of local chefs created delicious meals with ingredients heading for landfill, we had dishes from India, the Caribbean, Poland and Malaysia, as well as Lancashire, including parched peas, a traditional Preston delicacy. We also had amazing world music, including a reggae DJ, a Samba band, Bollywood, Irish and Middle Eastern dancers who encouraged the crowds to join in.

As with all my events, I had no budget and had to rely on the goodwill and hard work of friends, colleagues and strangers. Looking around on the day, I saw the community spirit there in abundance. It was an opportunity for people to ‘shine’ and create something truly special. My tears of despair had become tears of joy and pride in my community.

And finally, what is your favourite dish/recipe that to you is the essence of ‘Made to be shared’?

As a nutritionist I probably shouldn’t admit to this but it’s definitely cake! My mum makes a great fruit cake and I often take one to meetings. It’s a recipe that has been passed down through the generations and always creates a good conversation, alleviates any tension and welcomes newcomers.

If we can eat together, we can live together.