Cheers Drive: one year of pioneering food aid

Cheers Drive is one year old this week.

As the country looks back on the past twelve months, we are marking the first anniversary of what has been an unprecedented programme of citywide cooperation that has forever changed the way we think about food aid in Bristol.

Kat Caldwell is Caring in Bristol’s Operations Manager. She played an instrumental role in setting up Cheers Drive as an immediate response to the pandemic, and continues to chart its course one year in. In this post, she reflects on the past, present, and future of the project.

A humanitarian response

In the run-up to the lockdown there was so much uncertainty as the council and homelessness services in the city grappled with how to ensure people experiencing homelessness were kept safe during the coming months. Once the “Everyone In” plan was confirmed and contracts with hotels were secure, it became clear where the gaps were.

With self-contained accommodation in the form of hotel rooms, people had no way of cooking for themselves. Access to food was extremely limited as food services had to close or scale back and people were required to stay inside. In order to support people to stay inside and stay safe, food would have to be delivered to them. At the same time, restaurants across the city sat empty with chefs and other staff furloughed and eager to help support their community.

An early Cheers Drive delivery, April 2020

Partnerships are paramount

With around 300 hotel spaces secured, the operation to deliver hot, nutritious food every day would be huge and collaboration on a massive scale. Caring in Bristol was uniquely positioned to get such a service up and running in record time thanks to it’s existing partnerships and relationships in three key areas:

  • With key players in the city, including Bristol City Council, St Mungos and Golden Key providing referrals for 300 people.
  • With the hospitality sector; Caring in Bristol and Josh Eggleton had worked closely together on Caring at Christmas already, and Josh, along with Shona Graham and Dominic Borel, led on the catering operation and brought together chefs, kitchen porters, kitchen spaces and leftover ingredients from across the city.
  • With our amazing volunteers; Caring in Bristol had a large and dedicated volunteer base from existing projects who we could call on, and they came through in huge numbers, along with many new volunteers.

Cheers Drive was born on Wednesday 25th March 2020, delivering fish & chips from Salt & Malt to 60 people in hotels. By the following Monday, we were working from three kitchens, delivering breakfast, lunch and dinner to 200 people; and we haven’t stopped since. At its peak we were delivering three meals a day to 400 people in hotels and those still sleeping rough, as well as carrying out health checks and providing toiletries and entertainment.

Shona Graham  (Emmeline), Leanne Purton (Pearly King Cakes), and Mike Orme (Dela) outside Spike Island, where one of the first Cheers Drive kitchens was set up in March 2020

In one year, Cheers Drive has:

  • Delivered 160,000 meals
  • Supported 850 individual people
  • Worked with 248 volunteers providing 22,500 hours of their time
  • Collaborated with 9 referral partners, 5 community food groups, and 11 local restaurants and caterers

Cheers Drive was started as a humanitarian response to a crisis – we didn’t expect to still be here a year later! But the project quickly became an essential complement to the ‘Everyone In’ scheme and our priority continues to be to support people for as long as was required.

As the pandemic rolled on, the accommodation situation for people changed. The number of hotel spaces reduced to 100 in the autumn as many people were moved into temporary accommodation, supported housing, or long-term housing. Cheers Drive had to adapt to meet the changing needs of our beneficiaries.

Josh Eggleton portioning up meals at the Kensington Arms, May 2020

Adapting to change

For those in hotel accommodation with no access to cooking facilities, prepared meals were a necessity. We worked with BCC, St Mungos, Golden Key and hotel providers and set up ‘heating up stations’ so residents could collect, heat up and eat their meals when they wanted, providing some sense of autonomy.

For people who moved into temporary accommodation, our priority was those with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ i.e. people who cannot claim benefits. We began providing prepared meals, but our beneficiaries told us they wanted to cook for themselves now that they could finally do so. So we worked with Fareshare to provide weekly food parcels including fresh fruit and veg, bread, milk and ambient goods. ‘People First’ is one of our core values and it’s so important to us that we listen to our beneficiaries and adapt our services to meet their requirements.

‘Collaboration’ is another of our key values, and that has been at the heart of Cheers Drive throughout. The Bristol independent hospitality sector has been a key part of the project from day one. 28 chefs from 14 restaurants were involved in the first stage of Cheers Drive, when we were producing all the meals ourselves. We’re now working with 11 restaurants and caterers across the city who provide delicious and healthy meals for our beneficiaries 7 days a week.

We’ve also been proud to provide culturally appropriate meals for our beneficiaries:

  • During Ramadan 2020, providing hot meals after sundown for people to enjoy thanks to a collaboration with Feed the Homeless
  • Working in partnership with 91 Ways and Food Without Borders to provide halal meals over the winter
Coexist Community Kitchen preparing food for Cheers Drive, October 2020

What’s next for Cheers Drive?

We’re still providing meals to 100 people in hotel and hostel accommodation every day, and sending a weekly food parcel to around 60 people, and providing hot meals to those still sleeping rough via a partnership with BOSH. We’ll continue supporting these people for as long as required – we expect this to reduce as lockdown restrictions ease, the vaccination programme continues and life returns to some sort of normal.

Fresh fruit being packed for delivery, March 2021

But our work is far from over. A success story of the pandemic is that hundreds of people in Bristol have been moved into long-term accommodation. This includes people who may have been sleeping rough for many years and so may struggle to maintain a tenancy.

Running a household can be a daunting task if you’re not used to it and food is a big part of that. From budgeting for your weekly shopping, being able to access fresh and affordable food, and cooking for yourself on a regular basis, it’s a lot to deal with if you have been unhoused for a long time.

We believe that food can be used as a tool to support people to maintain their accommodation. Food can also be a way to link in with your local community, to learn new skills, and to form social connections.

The next stages of Cheers Drive are based around these ideas and will be informed by our beneficiaries. We’ll have more to share on this over the coming weeks and months.

For now, we want to say thank you to everyone who has contributed to make Cheers Drive a success: our partners, funders, supporters, volunteers, beneficiaries, and the people of Bristol  – you are all fantastic.

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