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Foodhall: A New Kind of Public Space

We live in a globalised world, but despite being the most connected generation ever, cooking and eating communally has become harder. The more technologically dependent we get, the more socially isolated we become. Sheffield is home to some extremely interesting buildings, many of which lay derelict. Being a city of makers, can we reclaim these empty spaces as public places? Foodhall / Sheffield is a social experiment. It's a project that is being led from the bottom up and could form part of an alternative, people-led city centre master plan. One of the first meanwhile use schemes supported by Creative Arts Development Space (CADS) and ReNew Sheffield, and helped by the University of Sheffield, it's a communal kitchen and dining area, where the public are invited to come and cook a meal for the city or dine on a pay-as-you-feel basis. Anyone, regardless of their social status and identity, can dine at the same table, get to know someone new and re-establish those human connections lost in the modernising world. One service user told us: "I don’t really know who my neighbours are and I live right round the corner from here, but I’m realising there is a great community of people in Sheffield, coming together for a great cause." Foodhall / Sheffield can be placed in the context of a vibrant range of social enterprises and projects which have been revitalising the city. It's also part of a much longer history of cafes running as social hubs, taking inspiration from Edward Carpenter’s Commonwealth Cafe, founded in 1887 in Scotland Street, Shalesmoor. Carpenter, a radical socialist philosopher and early LGBT activist, opened the Commonwealth Café to serve the slum residents of Shalesmoor and provide them with a space in which to come together, attend talks, participate in activities and listen to visiting speakers. Carpenter was concerned that inner city life for slum dwelling workers was "sapping the strength of our populations". While it was enjoyed by many, the Commonwealth Cafe struggled financially because Carpenter was the primary patron and shut within its first year. In 2016, cafes based on similar principles, operating on a pay-as-you-feel basis, are re-emerging and nothing short of a revolution in community dining is taking place. Foodhall’s aim, much like the Commonwealth Café, is to instigate social cohesion and bring the people of Sheffield together, but this time in a built environment that has been collectively developed, physically embodying the principles which direct it. It is run completely by volunteers, some of whom are students from the University of Sheffield, and members of Sheffield Alcohol Support Service (SASS), Addaction and Camerados, a peer support group dedicated to ending social isolation. It offers a neutral space in which different social groups can find an inclusive meeting space. As one SASS worker explains: "No-one else is really doing anything like this [...] It's captivating people from every generation and walk of life. That, for me, is what makes it special." Foodhall does all of this while considerably minimising its impact on the environment and of larger food retailers in Sheffield, as all food that is served has been cooked using surplus ingredients donated by retailers, saving it from being sent to landfill. We are open from 10am till 4pm, Thursdays to Saturdays, at 121 Eyre Street, so come and experience Foodhall yourself. From 18 April to 11 May we will have a pop up by the Moor Market (Foodhall itself will be closed momentarily), at which we will gather feedback about how we approach the city’s food infrastructure and share meals with the public. We are also launching the second beta of our web app, which will allow people to advertise their communal dinners to a wider audience and freecycle surplus food locally. Check it out at foodhalls.org. This article has been written collectively by the volunteers and customers at Foodhall / Sheffield. Watch a short video on Sheffield Foodhall here Photo by Ellie Grace Photography elliegracephotography.co.uk )

Next article in issue 97

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