How 'Eating Together' reduces isolation

The Food Partnership wanted to find out about communal eating in our city, because we suspected community projects such as lunch clubs were doing something amazing but often quite hidden – but we were astounded by the sheer scale and variety of activity we found.

Our survey of projects across Brighton & Hove showed that 1,265 shared meals take place a day, or almost half a million a year (462,334). This was based on the 68 projects that responded to our survey and which serve a shared meal – we estimate there are at least 85 projects serving shared meals in Brighton & Hove.

What is a 'lunch club'?

The basic model for a 'lunch club' is "the opportunity to have a meal, often an affordably priced meal, outside of the home and the opportunity to meet with others in a social setting." Some projects offer breakfast or supper, and they are located in a range of venues, from church halls to day centres or community centres. Many projects are aimed at a community of interest, from older people to people living with HIV, whilst some serve meals as part of a wider offer such as community garden projects or homelessness services. Some projects, most notably the Real Junk Food Project, focus on using surplus food and are open to the whole community. We were surprised to see the range of people attending these projects. Although many people think of lunch clubs as being for older people, we found projects were attended by people of all ages and by many people from vulnerable groups.

Benefits of shared meals

This report started out as part of the Food Partnership's work to understand food poverty as we wanted to know whether community projects such as lunch clubs play a role in reducing longer-term or 'chronic' food poverty (see our recent blog for more on upcoming work on food poverty). Although we found plenty of evidence that projects are supporting vulnerable people to access food, the research also made clear the huge role of shared meals in bringing people together and reducing isolation. 100% of projects said companionship/ friendship/ socializing was very or quite important for service-users attending the project. We also found shared meals were contributing to good nutrition and health; offering formal or informal advice; offering valuable volunteer roles and acting as a gateway to other services.

Challenges for projects

60% of projects reported either a big or small increase in demand and many were concerned this would increase further. With meal costs ranging from £2-6 or even free, projects were also trying to balance their own sustainability with ensuring those in need could access the meals. Despite the huge numbers of meals already served, many projects felt more vulnerable or isolated people could benefit – whether through help with transport, accessibility or improved promotion.

What next?

We saw how resources like surplus food, free venues, transport help and volunteer support were vital to projects' success. The report recommends that commissioners and large organisations with resources explore ways to offer in-kind resources, pilot funding for innovations and support with promotion. We also recommend that funding is sought to offer more support to these projects, such as promotion, training and networking, and specialist advice.

The Food Partnership is keen to work with partners to offer this support. After seeing all this inspiring work, we certainly plan to continue shouting about the role that shared meals are playing in improving the health, nutrition and mental health of the city – tackling isolation, food poverty and acting as a gateway to advice and support.

Read the summary (pdf, 508Kb) or the full report (pdf, 995Kb).

To find lunch clubs near you, go to the It's Local Actually website and search for 'lunch'.

Thank you to Morgan Claverie, University of Sussex intern, for all her hard work without which this report and research would not have been possible.

Photo credit: Jo Thorne, at Plot 22 Community Garden