Blend – Sheffield company promotes the power of food
As part of this year’s Sheffield Food Festival celebrations Sheffield Unchained met with Blend, a social enterprise based in Sharrow, to find out how they are using food to bring people together and promote healthy eating.
Blend challenges the middle class monopoly over ethical eating by making local, fresh produce attractive and accessible to everyone through community cookery classes and using food to reduce social isolation.
Chris Hanson, a community health manager at Shipshape and one of the founders of Blend, is also a qualified chef. He said that after a few years working as a chef in prestigious venues, he found that he wanted to get more out of his passion for food.
“I got bored of being a chef a long time ago, but I still wanted to do something with food because that is my passion. So I started doing cookery classes for Shipshape and then when they got more funding they employed me. It was a nice balance of doing some cookery and some community work, which is something I have always believed in. It was great to be able to support people and to use food to bring out the best in people.”
As well as running free cookery classes, Blend hosts a monthly supper club offering ‘a unique dining experience with top quality food’. The menus are put together by Chris, 31, who tries to use as many seasonal and local ingredients as possible and takes his inspiration from the community around him.
“The cleaner at Shipshape is Moroccan and has given me Moroccan recipes, some of the staff are Pakistani and have given me Pakistani recipes, the receptionist is from Hong Kong and has given me Chinese recipes and one of the Blend team has Italian family and has given me Italian recipes.”
All the proceeds from the supper clubs go towards funding Blend’s community work and they support local community organisations by hosting the clubs in their buildings.
Chris said that they have had over thirty different nationalities attending their events and that they try to keep everything they do fun, informal and social.
“We get people from all over; asylum seekers, families, the elderly and young professionals. Food is just a really useful tool to get people who would normally never meet, to actually sit down and talk together. We’ve even had single mums from council estates sitting next to and talking to asylum seekers, which is something you just wouldn’t see very often.”
The freedom to offer employment
The social enterprise was set up three years ago by a group of university lecturers, social workers, volunteers and community workers. They wanted to develop the concept of teaching cookery skills and using food as a social tool without the restrictions of having to meet funding criteria.
Chris said that they wanted to extend what they were doing through Shipshape, a free wellbeing service funded by Sheffield City Council, to offer more back to work opportunities through their community work.
“Shipshape is run by Sharrow Community Forum but is funded through the local council and focuses on offering healthy community programmes. We wanted to develop another revenue stream that wasn’t tied into delivering certain criteria. We wanted more freedom to offer volunteering opportunities and training and the flexibility of being able to employ people as and when we need them.”
Blend was set up in 2010 with the help of funding from Sheffield Hallam University through the UnLtd HE Support Programme. This initial funding helped the business to buy the equipment they needed to offer free community cookery classes and host the monthly supper clubs.
The community work Blend carries out falls under Shipshape funding, however they hope to get to a point where they can create their own revenue through their supper clubs and offering private catering and cookery classes.
Sheffield independents catching up
Blend tries to use as many ingredients from local, independent suppliers as possible for their supper clubs. Previous suppliers have included Round Green Venison farm, J. H. Mann Ltd fishmongers in Hillsborough and Moss Valley Fine Meats. The Abundance project often supplies their fruit and Chris’s dad bakes all the bread for the supper clubs.
However, Chris admits that because of their tight budget they have to buy fresh ingredients from supermarkets for their community events. He believes that this is a sad reality and that whilst there are more farmers markets and local suppliers, the ethical food scene is very middle class in the UK.
“I have seen many more independent suppliers emerge in Sheffield and the UK, however there is still a middle class bias in terms of the cost and accessibility.
“What we want to do at Blend is to try and make local produce more accessible to working class people and make it normal to cook a meal with fresh food rather than get a ready meal out of the freezer. People just need to be given the skills and confidence to cook something for themselves.”
Chris believes that compared to Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds, Sheffield still has some catching up to do in terms of its independent food scene but said that it is growing with an increase in demand.
“The independent food scene is getting better and in the last ten years it has changed a lot with the emergence of many independent restaurants and cafes such as The Milestone, Silversmiths and Tamper:Coffee.
“Sheffielders are now demanding higher standards, before the people of Sheffield were happy with ‘cheap and cheerful’ but they are now willing to pay a bit more for their food and the independent café scene in Sheffield is really thriving as a result.”
Sheffield Food Festival
Blend hosted a cooking demo at the Sheffield Food Festival on Saturday morning and a special festival supper club at the Millennium Hall, Ecclesall Road in the evening.
They said that they really enjoyed being part of the festival and the cooking demo had a good number of attendees, including children who volunteered to assist with the preparation. Chris cooked partridge with hazelnuts, gem lettuce and elderberry dressing and sausage casserole with polenta and kale.
Their supper club was sold out with twenty-four attendees and Chris said feedback was very positive, with people commenting about an enjoyable evening and ‘very nice food’.
Blend consists mostly of volunteers and they are always looking for new people to get involved. From organising a special event or helping to run a supper club or cookery class to helping with the website, Blend would love to have your help. Contact Chris Hanson to find out more: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos from Blend.