Let's Eat

The people’s pantry in the heart of London's King's Cross

Meet two women using food to improve the lives of a local community


It’s a grimy morning in London’s King’s Cross and I’m browsing the shelves in a small, spotless supermarket in the heart of a housing estate. Alongside crates of shiny oranges and apples, and boxes of cabbages and potatoes are neatly stocked shelves of groceries from a variety of major supermarket brands.

This is no regular minimart, it’s a “people’s pantry” operated by social enterprise Cook For Good, where registered shoppers are able to fill their baskets for £3.50.

“There were people queuing out of the door when we opened this morning — you could barely move in here,” says Karen Mattison, one half of the female partnership behind the operation.

The circular building, refurbished for this purpose is a short walk from the shiny, regeneration around the stations of King’s Cross and St Pancras.

“We identified King’s Cross as a brilliant place to work because so much investment has gone in. We’re five minutes and a million miles from the amazing developments of Granary Square and King’s Cross. Part of the plan of that development was that it would really impact on the local community, but it has remained untouched. People’s lives haven’t improved or changed because of the developments down the road.”

Liverpool-born Mattison explains that the dream for her and co-founder, Robinne Collie was to open a teaching and production kitchen on an estate where a community already lived. It would be a site to give “fantastic culinary skills and teaching” to help locals secure jobs in the hospitality industry as well as offering community cooking classes and meals.

“We didn’t want to just drop in and go — we wanted to go in deep” she explains over a cup of steaming vegetable soup that has also been offered to the shoppers alongside teas, coffees and pastries.

Mattison, who previously worked in employment in the charity sector, helping women get back into the workplace, explains that when she and Collie met a few years ago they quickly discovered common ground. “We were judges on a WIZO awards together and afterwards, over coffee, ended up discussing how we both wanted to get more involved in helping communities. Not just corporate volunteer days — which are not very sustainable — but to go deeper.”

With the help of Peabody (a housing association) two completely disused buildings on the estate were restored. “We have them on a rent and utility-free basis, so long as we’re providing social benefits”.

She explains that Food for Good has three aims, the first being success of the Pantry which they run one day a week. It has been so successful, they have already doubled their capacity — opening two sessions a day.

Stock is supplied by the Felix Project and Food Bank Aid, but the food isn’t just handed out. “People pay £3.50 to come and shop and get up to 10 items, which are worth about £20 - £25.” On the shelves are a range of grocery items.

Shoppers need to be pre-registered and are checked in on arrival. She stresses it’s also more than about the shopping experience, it’s also about social connection. Shoppers are encouraged to stay on for the hot drinks and pastries that are included in the £3.50 shopping fee, over which the group, who range from young mums with babies to retirees from a wide range of cultures, mingle and chat.

The socialising is a big part of the project’s success. “They come 50 per cent for the food and 50 per cent for the other aspect — which I would call addressing social isolation and connecting community.” They can also get advice and support from a variety of advisers who pop in on different weeks. Issues they can ask about include how to get repairs done to their properties; how to get back into employment or managing their utilities.

The Pantry is staffed entirely by local volunteers from the estate, which, Mattison explains, can help the long-term unemployed get back into work. “It gives them work experience, a sense of community, training support and if they want to do some paid work, they can do that over in our kitchen.”

Helping locals return to work is Cook For Good’s second core aim. That may be through volunteering here, as Algerian mother-of- three Amel does. “I want to work, but I can’t for now because my husband is disabled, and I have lots of responsibilities with my children. This opportunity makes me feel like I’m valuable — I’m still doing something.”

She also is being given skills for eventual employment. “I like everything about food, cooking and baking — it’s my passion and I’ve been getting work experience in the Brigade.” The Brigade is the team that works in the project’s teaching kitchen.

We walk over to meet Mattison’s co-founder Robinne Collie, who’s hosting a team of showbiz agents on a corporate cooking day — the third of the scheme’s goals. Collie explains that the group (guided by two chefs) are cooking food destined for delivery to families. Spring rolls are being filled and folded; chicken satay marinated and giant trays filled with mango, coconut and lime-cake batter. The steamy air is full of mouth-watering, spicy cooking smells.

Collie, who had previously run Food at Work, which offered cooking for regular corporate teambuilding and also taught cooking from her North London home, has taken things a step further to giving back. She introduces me to Zara and Nadia, two local young women who are working here today assisting their corporate visitors, a talent agency.

The corporate team have been here since 8.30am and by lunchtime will be ready to eat some of this food and to pack the rest into boxes to be handed out. “It’s a bit of a restaurant challenge to get the food ready, and they also get to know people in the local community,” says Collie.

It’s a virtuous circle, with the work in the kitchen (refurbished with donations from big companies) being funded by the corporate events. The visiting professionals may also prepare soup to be handed out to families or in the Pantry, using surplus unsold vegetables.

Additionally, Collie and her chefs run cookery classes for the local community and stage fund-raising supper clubs in the kitchen to raise funds and give the Brigade experience. “Ed Balls came and cooked with our community cooks in the morning, and they prepped together a menu from his book Appetite. In the evening we were joined by 50 paying guests, and Ed demonstrated his cheese soufflé, which they ate as part or the wider meal before a Q and A,” says Mattison.

Companies are already returning and making connections with the local community, helping with soup-making or cooking and serving three-course meals in the building’s first-floor dining area to locals, who can bag tickets online.

And it seems to be working for locals: “Cook for Good is really bringing the community together. Before, people felt like strangers, but now they recognise each other and stop to talk. Older and younger members have something to look forward to on a Thursday, and somewhere to go to get help and advice — and they leave so happy,” says volunteer Ayse.


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