Be Enriched at the Tooting Canteen

Volunteers at the Be Enriched Tooting Canteen

Geoff Simmons visited a community enterprise in south-west London to find out how they’re making good food available to everyone.

One of the great bonuses of having a year’s sabbatical from World Cancer Research Fund a few years ago was getting to know some of the incredible organisations working quietly and with great dedication in my community, improving the lives of so many people.

Volunteers at the Be Enriched Tooting CanteenThere are a lot of them around and they’re not always shouting on social media but working away doing remarkable things that many people know nothing about. One such group are the Be Enriched Tooting Canteen near my home in south-west London.

Founded by a human dynamo Kemi Akinola, now deputy leader of Wandsworth Council, they’ve done so much to brighten up many people’s lives.

They are dedicated to bringing people together over a delicious healthy meal, and providing an opportunity for people to cook, share and learn from each other. Up to 400 people a week benefit from this and sister projects across south London, which include a Food Bus.

The Canteen works on so many levels in plugging a gap in society in a time of austerity. They are based in a church and run their operation every Friday, preparing meals from surplus food donated by local supermarkets and greengrocers.

Making good health affordable

Volunteers serve soup at Be Enriched Tooting CanteenWe know that disadvantaged people are more likely to have poorer health, and to develop cancer. That’s why, when the cost of living remains so high, initiatives like the Tooting Canteen that provide nutritious meals packed with fruit and vegetables are so vital.

I looked in one day to see if the people there might want to hear about my free local history tours. Now, the details of the tours are chalked up on the blackboard alongside the food menu! On a couple of occasions I’ve provided pre-lunch entertainment, playing a few tunes and rigging up a slideshow telling people about the history of the area. This hopefully encourages them to come on the tours and find out more!

I’ve stayed to eat a few times and the food and company are highly enjoyable. People come to the Canteen for many reasons but are always assured a warm welcome in a convivial setting, and the food is exceptional. Guests are invited to give a £1 donation, but the Canteen never insists. Some can’t pay, and others give more.

Arriving a few hours before food is served, volunteers launch into a frenzy of chopping and prepping. They are all ages and some have been involved for many years. There always seems to be a new arrival and you can tell they are excited at being thrown in and faced with making sense of a tray of sweet potatoes or a bucket of radishes.

Fresh fruit crumble for pudding at the Be Enriched Tooting CanteenI’ve been dazzled at times by the array of fresh produce used and how what might end up going to waste is conjured into a quality 3-course meal. Typically this may be soup or, as a treat, a slice of watermelon, followed by a colourful plate of roasted veg, courgette frittata with stuffed aubergine, finishing with plum crumble and custard. But honestly, it’s the happy faces, the chatter, the appreciation of what is being done that leaves me with a really warm feeling and the sense that when people come together like this it really does work.

Healthy eating, mental health, physical activity – somewhere to go on a Friday to meet familiar faces and get involved. What’s not to love! Whether you live in a big city or small village there will hopefully be an initiative like the Tooting Canteen happening near you – find out and get involved. Whether you want to help as a volunteer, or enjoy healthy eating and making new friends, you’ll get so much out of this and it all helps make a brighter, sunnier, more connected society that is truly enriched.