July 18, 2023

Today’s social problems need sustainable solutions. First stop: change the model

By Karen Mattison, Co-Founder and CEO
We’re all aware of the need for foodbanks and other initiatives, developed in response to the erosion of public services and the cost of living crisis. But within the social sector, a new conversation has been building, focused on supporting people out of poverty as well as helping them cope within it.

The cost of living crisis shows no signs of abating, and every day seems to bring a new raft of statistics about how many people are struggling to eat (11.3 million are facing hunger, according to a new report by The Trussell Trust) or heat their homes (2m households were in fuel poverty this winter, as reported by The Guardian).

But while this is very much a current crisis, it isn’t a new one. Many of today’s societal problems are rooted in the erosion of public services and the failure of the welfare state to provide, in the words of Gordon Brown, “A minimum standard below which no one should fall.” And as such, they are problems that need addressing at government level.

In the meantime, the gap between what the state provides and what people need is being filled by a raft of charitable and community initiatives, like foodbanks, fuel banks, clothing banks and warm hubs. These are fantastic organisations, run by fantastic people, and the work they do is vital in the society we currently live in. And we co-founded Cook for Good with a desire to contribute to this work by tackling food poverty and social isolation.

New models for social enterprise could provide the next step

In the couple of years since then, I’ve been watching what’s going on in the sector, and I’ve seen how hard it is for charities and community groups to move on from offering an emergency response. They tend to be volunteer-run, and poorly and inconsistently funded, with little state involvement. As such, it is almost impossible for them to deliver longer-term solutions which, rather than just offering emergency support, would help people who are struggling find a route out of the poverty trap.

So what’s the answer? Ideally, of course, it would be state driven. But I believe that there’s also an opportunity for the social sector to develop new models, which work alongside the emergency response providers, so we can tackle the underlying causes of poverty as well as lessening its impact.

And indeed, this is a concept that is baked into Cook for Good. We began by establishing a surplus food pantry, which provides low-cost food for the residents of a housing estate in Kings Cross, provided by the brilliant teams at The Felix Project and Food Bank Aid, amongst others. But this is just one part of a wider model, through which we generate revenue from trading with businesses who understand that social purpose can and should be central to their strategy.

The #buysocial trading model that’s supporting and sustaining a community

As our name suggests, we’re all about food and cooking, and it’s in the kitchen that our revenue generation comes to life. Having noted the growing demand from companies for opportunities to bring their teams together, we created a suite of cooking-based team building experiences, which benefit the businesses involved and support our work, both immediately and more sustainably.

So in the short term, our clients cook up to 100 meals in one session, creating healthy, home-made ready meals which we share through our Pantry and other local outreach organisations. But there’s also a significant long-term impact, because we invest the profits into our community programme, which includes:

  • An expanded Pantry, which supports more than 370 registered households and offers a growing programme of wraparound services, such as referrals for support with debt management, housing and employment advice, and tips on reducing heating bills.
  • Community cooking classes, teaching skills that help residents cook healthy, low-cost meals from scratch.
  • Regular community meals, which get neighbours together and help turn them into friends.
  • Pilots for micro-enterprise and employability projects, which support residents to gain the confidence, skills and experience that will help them access jobs, including in catering and hospitality.

The core belief that links all the parts of our programme is that we’re not just providing short-term handouts to help people cope within poverty; we’re providing support, guidance and skills to help them find their way out of it. In short, we’re trying to fix the system, not the people that system is failing.

And critically, the employees who take part in our team building events also really benefit from the experience; not just because they have been given time to come together and reconnect, but also from the sense of purpose that they get from it. As one client put it, “It’s the kind of place that reminds you of the best parts of being human.” The revenue generation model is more sustainable because it’s not just about corporate giving; it meets a business need, as well as delivering social impact.

We’re small, but mighty – and we want to help others do the same

We really believe in the concept we’ve developed, and have seen the impact it is having in this small corner of London. And what I love about working in the social sector is people’s willingness to share what works with each other.

So this is just the first in a series of blogs which will share our learnings from founding and developing the Cook for Good model, and those of other businesses and social organisations that we are working with. We would love to hear what others in the same space are doing, and to support anyone who might be interested in building on our model and piloting it elsewhere.

If you like what you’ve read about here, please do follow us on social media, share our news and let us know what you think; it would be great to start a new conversation about what the social space should look like in 2023 and beyond. And if you’re in a corporate company, and you’d like to get involved, either with a one-off team building event or a more strategic partnership, do get in touch.

Gordon Brown was kind enough to describe us as “A brilliant initiative and a fantastic example of third sector innovation, using food and cooking to reduce food poverty and social isolation. By bringing businesses and communities together for the benefit of both, it deserves to be replicated across the country.” We would love to see that happen; will you be part of the journey?