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Spotlight: The Gatehouse’s Community Café

The Gatehouse must be one of the only social enterprises in Oxford where an upsurge in usage is not necessarily a good thing. Since 1988, it has been providing support and sanctuary for Oxford’s homeless community. A large part of its role revolves around offering meals on a near daily basis at its Community Café. At a time of global inflation and increasing food scarcity, this Community Café has never seemed to be more needed. So, Cherwell met with key organiser and manager, Zoe to discuss the role of food in supporting those in need in Oxford.

Six nights a week, The Gatehouse serves a variety of tea, cakes, jacket potatoes, toasties. Its website states:

“In 2022 the café and the community centre served up 10,000 meals to over 400 guests including over 6,000 baked potatoes to people who are rough sleeping, on low income or/and are vulnerably housed.”

Zoe said, “We’ve diversified our food range. We offer jacket potatoes four nights a week. We offer fresh homemade soup in the winter period.” And reaching out to local businesses, The Gatehouse has “a partnership with Gusto, Italian and every so often they provide pizzas.”

In the past, food was donated by “about 36 food groups made up of various church groups, faith groups, and general members of the public who would donate sandwiches.” But, as it did with everything, the impact of COVID-19 changed everything.

Many of the people who had been donating since The Gatehouse first opened were elderly. Zoe continued: “we lost a few members due to COVID sadly so we’re down to about 12 food groups now. We’re about two-thirds short of what we need to keep providing.” 

Despite the building pressure of food costs, restaurants are pitching in. Christmas dinner was provided by Hawkwell House in Iffley; there is an occasional KFC night; the Oxford Food Hub collects leftover food from supermarkets and places like GAIL’s. But “in terms of regular support, there isn’t necessarily one set company.”

Does support come from the University at all? Beyond annual grants – which operate on an ‘money for food or money for another project, not both’ basis – some colleges will donate food. But, despite sentiments of goodwill, this isn’t always helpful. “A lot of the food has been cold, not re-heatable leftovers that we end up throwing away.”

The Gatehouse’s Café may be volunteer-run but it prides itself on its disciplined efficiency and providing the best level of service it can to those in need. In 2015, it was awarded two food hygiene ratings of five as brandished on The Gatehouse’s website. Zoe praised the dedicated team: “all the credit goes to the staff and the volunteers in the Café because they work so hard and stick to our strict policies.”

Happily, there is always an abundance of people who want to help. Working on the reports for 2023, Zoe found that volunteers and donations have saved The Gatehouse about £10,000. But the economic instability that has been milling since the Pandemic began has left a sharp dent in what the Community Café can afford to provide. 

“Our average weekly food bill since COVID has risen from £150 to £350 per week. The Cost of Living Crisis also means a massive loss of donors.” 

National austerity is not just changing prices, it is also changing the demography of who needs the support of charities like The Gatehouse. “Historically, we were well known for helping people with substance misuse issues. Whereas nowadays, we’re not only seeing more people with mental health issues, but we’re also seeing people with jobs and an ostensibly normal life but, on top of rent and bills, just can’t necessarily afford to feed themselves.” 

While offering food to those in need is the crux of the work of the Community Café, the space it provides for people to meet and shelter is equally important. And without nine volunteers per night, it cannot open, providing instead a takeaway service. Volunteer numbers have always fluctuated with the shape of the Oxford term as students come and go. But since the Pandemic, numbers are only just beginning to stabilise again. Zoe said that probably “60-70% of our volunteers are students. So moving online during COVID hit us really hard.” Other volunteers were elderly. “For a year or so we were operating on skeletal staff.” 

Even now, student holidays jeopardise the consistent service The Gatehouse can provide. If there was one thing that could be done to help, Zoe said, “I would try to encourage anybody who’s wanting to volunteer or donate to spread your help across the year.”

The Gatehouse provides other services for those in need – clothing, counselling, showers, community – but food, as Zoe put it, is the “vital lifeline”.

“There are some people that rely on us for food on a daily basis and without us, they wouldn’t be able to eat.” But, it was emphasised that, until you see the Café in full swing, “you don’t really get it.” Seeing volunteers and local communities band together to offer what everyone needs and deserves – the “vital lifeline” of food – “hits home a lot more when you see it in person.”

Volunteering opportunities are accessible throughout the year at www.oxfordgatehouse.org 

With thanks to Zoe at The Gatehouse for providing this interview.

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