By: Stella West-Harling, Founder & CEO of Dartmoor Community Kitchen Hub, and President of the Independent Cookery Schools Association.

Published: 13th July 2018

My first caring role began back in the early 70s when I moved into a terrace with elderly neighbours in the adjoining house. I was a single full time working mother taking Business Studies at night in an effort to get a better paid job. My housebound neighbours were in their late 70s and had lived in their house for 50 years. Both were gentle, kind people who had no children and whose closest relatives had died.

What began as a simple gesture of mowing their back lawn gradually became daily shared meals and other forms of support. When the husband became ill I began taking my neighbour to the hospital every other day to visit, as at this stage she was in a wheelchair. This continued for six months until his death. Thereafter I was her daily helper and it was me that found her early one morning on the floor where she had fallen the night before after I had left.

I learned a lot during those years. I learned about how proud and independent older people are, not wanting to make a fuss and always worrying about being a nuisance. I learned about how selfless and dignified older people are in the face of adversity. I learned about the stoicism around the inevitable slow loss of movement, sight and hearing. And, eventually, I learned about grief in all of its guises.

I am often asked why I started the Dartmoor Community Kitchen Hub, although it took 7 years of research and some blind alleys to come to fruition. I have worked in food for over 40 years. From starting one of the first organic restaurants in the early 80s, to Ashburton Cookery School, and finally as President of the Independent Cookery Schools Association. The importance of food literacy and sustainable food have been at the core of all that I do. But my drive to begin the Dartmoor Community Kitchen Hub was really a natural result of these  early experiences. From these lessons I formed the belief that changing how we work as a community will be the most effective way of helping older people who are struggling with social isolation.

I think we can often lose our childhood gift of compassion- it disappears as our lives become too busy, leaving us so little time to look after our families and ourselves. And thus 92 year-old Mrs Next-door who we truly mean to pop in and see next week, gets an apologetic visit at Christmas. Doing small tasks and caring for people is not ‘do-gooding’- it is an honour. These people have histories which would put most of us to shame. Why, then, do we leave our elders in such circumstances that it shocks many other countries?

Meaningful change is all about renewing our compassion, and bringing our elders and fellow citizens experiencing social isolation in to a supportive community. We must no longer accept that there isn’t enough time to spare. It is about opening doors and it is about inclusion in many forms.

Using local producers for food, local people to cook, local schools for fundraising, and linking in with local health services and professionals all take that next step towards rebuilding a compassionate and interdependent community. What better way of tackling health, loneliness and exclusion, than by breaking bread- sharing food, taking a meal to someone, galvanising people to join together to focus on their gift of compassion and giving in their community.

I could share statistics which show the need and negative consequences of social isolation and individualistic communities, but all of this is already written and ever present in the news. It tells us what we already know- that tens of thousands of people in our own communities die needlessly each year, often alone, through want of care.

Recently, in almost every community in the UK our innate care and compassion came to the fore when the snow storms hit. Dartmoor Community Kitchen Hub were on ITV after we used quad bikes to get through to our clients. But nationally many people just like those we serve in Dartmoor, sit in their houses almost every day alone, often without a hot meal, and cold.

It is with this urgent need in mind that my new Charity, The Community Kitchen Trust, is being formed. The Dartmoor Community Kitchen Hub is the first Local Hub which will make up part of the charity, and is now in its second year of the Pilot Study.

Within the Dartmoor Community Kitchen Hub we have supported our community by delivering over 12,000 hot two course meals in the previous 12 months. We have provided over 1,200 hot meals and suppers to High Dependency clients living alone at home. We have also supported three disabled young people through a training programme for United Response which aims to provide a nationally recognised qualification to help individuals gain employment.

We continue to oversee the quality of food and delivery at a local Care Home and have some amazing statistics showing encouraging improvements in weight and well-being in residents over the past 12 months on a healthy diet.

We are now working to deliver a chilled meals service to our Medium Dependency residents on Greater Dartmoor coupled with a community cafe which will help to tackle the huge issue of loneliness, not just among older people, but also among the many other residents who may be financially or socially excluded from participating in community life.

As part of our work we are in the process of setting up a study with Exeter University Well-Being project who will be monitoring and commenting on the changes experienced physically, mentally and emotionally over the period of study and development of our services.

We welcome support, guidance and are willing to share our work where appropriate with other organisations.

For more on Stella's work with the Dartmoor Community Kitchen Hub please watch the video below.