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Stratford Circus Arts Centre, based in an area of London with high levels of child poverty, has come to realise that providing low-cost hot meals can help it engage with local families. Tania Wilmer tells the story.

Photo of a mother holding a child

For me, running Stratford Circus Arts Centre is about as many people as possible accessing the power and joy of art. Our approach to access is reflected at every level: our programming choices, how we work outside the building, our community partners, and considerations around transport challenges, as well as physical and price barriers.

We are in the business of feeding imaginations, but in order to do that sometimes we need to nourish bodies too

We have a particular focus on children and young people. Newham has one of the youngest populations in the country, and devastatingly, child poverty levels are among the highest: 40% of children live below the poverty line in the borough. One of our longest-standing access programmes Every Child a Theatre Goer is delivered with the help of the local authority. It brings every child in Year 6 in Newham (over 5,000 children) to our theatre to see a professional production for free.

Hungry children

It was during the evaluation of this programme that the issue of hunger first came up. When we asked the children how their trip to the theatre could be improved upon, several suggested having something to eat. It caused us to reflect on what we knew about the impact of austerity on local families and to reconsider our understanding of the barriers to access.

In the winter of 2015 Newham’s food banks were reporting record numbers of users and people living in temporary housing were on the increase (currently reported as 1 in 24), where often there is no access to cooking facilities. Given this context, we felt that the provision of a hot meal was an important consideration when thinking about barriers to attendance. A hungry child will struggle to enjoy themselves with their stomach rumbling, and knowing your child has been well fed is a preoccupation of all parents and carers.

Recognising this need, our programme Full Hearts Full Tummies was launched in 2016. We fundraised to make 600 tickets at £1 available for our Christmas show. Included in the £1 ticket is a sit-down, cooked hot meal (all halal with vegetarian options), served by our staff and volunteers in the café. Christmas is not universally celebrated in a diverse borough like ours, but the importance of coming together to sit down and share a meal is something that exists in all cultures.

Family hardships

We work with schools and charity partners including local foodbanks, children’s centres and refugee organisations to target families in extreme hardship and to encourage them to come. The families that we reach are facing multiple challenges, often living in temporary housing with debt difficulties, navigating language barriers, on social care plans, and many are dependent on food banks. Some single mothers are fleeing domestic violence and have immigration issues due to losing their visa status.

Through the groups that we host, and with the help of community organisations that we work with, we have learned a lot more about the circumstances the families are facing and the importance of a programme like this.

The feedback has highlighted the value of coming together as a family to sit down for a meal and discuss the show, as households are overcrowded and many don’t have the luxury of a dining table where they can eat together. Support workers have emphasised the emotional significance of creating the opportunity for a family to enjoy this activity over the holiday period.

Some of the families have had refugee status, no recourse to public funds and are therefore dependent on food banks for daily meals. For them the opportunity to eat a hot cooked meal was deeply appreciated. Another family who attended had a child on the autism spectrum, and his parents find it extremely difficult to socialise and manage family outings due to his erratic behaviour. They valued the relaxed family-friendly environment.

Moving responses

Full Hearts Full Tummies has become a significant programme for our staff. They are driven to support the fundraising, using their networks to bring in donations and wanting to participate and join the groups when they are sitting down for lunch.

The feedback from users has been extremely moving. Last year, one participant said: “It is more than I dream today. The people are excellent. I have no words. They give me so much respect and care with love. I will remember it for the rest of my life.”

Increasingly, we include a line in our budget for food in our outreach programmes in response to the level of need in this area. As an arts centre, we are in the business of feeding imaginations, but in order to do that sometimes we need to nourish bodies too.

Tania Wilmer is Director and CEO of Stratford Circus Arts Centre.

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Photo of Tania Wilmer