Whitstable’s Community Dinner

There are always positives to take from bad situations, the community spirit and sense of togetherness is one such positive we can take from the Covid-19 induced lockdown we still find ourselves in. Examples of kindness have been apparent across the world and it comes as no surprise that the community of wonderful Whitstable has pulled together to take care of those in need. Businesses, social enterprises and individuals have all volunteered time and resources to make The Community Dinner possible. CommunityAd had the pleasure of a chat with Jo Verney the fabulous cafe director of The Umbrella Cafe to find out more.


So Jo, what was that initial period of Lockdown like for you at the Umbrella? It must of been a very concerning?

It was very concerning. There was the two weeks in the middle of March where it was all about reacting very quickly to ensure that our cafe was safe for customers and staff whilst also seeing our daily sales decrease sharply. We started the lockdown in a really strange position of helping to launch the project on the 23rd March whilst also shutting the cafe to the public and not being sure if we could financially save it. It was a very busy initial couple of weeks!!


The Community Dinner project has enabled you to continue caring and providing for the community in lockdown, can you explain it to our readers?

The Community Dinner Project is collaboration between Whitstable Umbrella Centre, Food Friends and the cafe. The three organisations are very closely linked anyway and I worked together with Anna Mantell of Food Friends and Charlotte Philip of the Centre, supported by the trustees, to safely and sustainably up scale both the Food Friends and pay it forward initiatives to launch it at the end of March. At that point we had no funding and we started with 32 meals and by working with local referral agencies we increased our beneficiaries over the first month. We are now providing up to 250 meals and 35 additional breakfast boxes. We have been able to provide so many meals because of the kindness and collaboration of other Whitstable businesses. The cafe has volunteer cooks and provide about 130 of the meals, but The Rose & Bloom Pub have also been involved since the beginning with their own distribution list of 32 meals each week. Other businesses, such as Samphire and Sale & Pepe have donated meals where they are able to and more recently, VC Jones have launched their own pay it forward which has allowed our beneficiaries to order fish & chip suppers using a code. COOK meals, the Kent based national homemade frozen meal company have also kindly donated 30 meals per week which means we are able to provide some beneficiaries with extra meals if needed. Another feature of the project is that each delivery volunteer only has a handful of households and they provide one weekly befriending call to each and if a household is in crisis there is then further potential to help them via extra meals, and referring them onto support services such as Red Zebra & Riverside. We have been really fortunate to receive funding (see the info graphic for the detailed list of funders) which has allowed us to provide 50 additional meals that we originally planned to and extend to breakfast boxes which are now being delivered to families each week as well. 


How crucial was The Community Dinner project to the people it directly benefitted in this unprecedented time?

The Community Dinner Project,  like the Food Friends project and the pay it forward at the cafe is not meant to be a crisis service, it is there to provide an additional service which allows families and households to eat a homemade meal together at least once a week and ensures there is further support there if needed. The other main benefit of the project is working towards reducing social isolation. Some of the beneficiaries will be really vulnerable but we are working closely with other crisis support services in the area to ensure they are getting the support they need.


How crucial have volunteers been to this project?

The volunteers are integral to the project; we simply wouldn’t be able to run the project without them. All the volunteers are DBS checked and knew that this project was going to run for a while. They have all been amazing and stuck with us! Some are already Food Friends volunteers and some know the cafe and Centre’s work. All are from the community of Whitstable and wanted to do something tangible to help. We really appreciate their support and the work they put in each week for the project. 


I know this is a difficult one but have you noticed any positives due to the outbreak of covid-19? How the community has pulled together and looked after each other?

There is always a positive! Don’t run a business if you can’t find anything to look on the bright side about. 

It has been really positive working directly with the Centre on a project. Whilst we have always worked really closely with them we haven’t jointly applied for funding before and it has opened up future possibilities which I think will be integral to how we respond to the community’s needs in a Covid-19 world.

It has also been really positive seeing the enthusiastic response from local businesses and other community services. The ones who have directly donated but also the many who have sent messages of support about the project and offered support where they can. 

Whitstable’s community spirit has been something we’ve mentioned in almost every previous issue of CommunityAd magazine, what makes it such a wonderful community to be a part of?

It is filled with such a fantastic variety of creative and entrepreneurial spirit. Take a look up and down our high street, we have so many fantastic businesses who add such value to our community and are able to sustain and even grow during this crisis. All the businesses, both the ones on and off the high street support each other. Shop by the Sea have been brilliant, Al Clarke who also chairs Whitsparkle really brings us all together and should be commended for that.

How long have you lived here and been director of the cafe Jo?

I moved here in early 2015 with my family, and opened the cafe 9 months later with Caroline Mumford who is a local Whitstablean. 


Anything else you’d like to add please feel free.

Just a clear message that this The Community Dinner Fund is a joint social project between Whitstable Umbrella Centre, The Umbrella Cafe CIC and Food Friends which has been supported by Awards for All at The National Lottery Fund, Kent Community Foundation, The Martin Lewis Emergency Covid-19 Fund, Coley Furgusson, CAF Bank, The Fred Goldfinch Trust, Whitstable Rotary and Kent County Council, alongside personal contributions to the cafe’s pay it forward fund.

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