Free Christmas lunches for Tonbridge families in trouble

Free Christmas lunches for Tonbridge families in trouble

Essie Andrews and Sarah Hardcastle are founders of FEAST – which stands for ‘families eating and sharing together’.

It served more than 150 meals in the summer holidays, when parents do not have access to free school meals.

They have teamed up again to offer two more free feasts over the festive season, with a Christmas dinner at Tonbridge Methodist Church on Darenth Avenue on December 27 and then a ‘pizza and treats’ lunch at St Philip’s Church on Salisbury Road the following day.

They are expecting around 100 people to join them. Ms Andrews says they were motivated to repeat the offering after the success of the project in the summer.

She told the Times: “It’s a strange position to find yourself in – to be so proud of the birth and growth of a new project, yet so sad that it needs to exist at all.

“FEAST evolved from a series of conversations that reinforced our thoughts that school holidays can be a daunting time for parents.

“They provide a constant stream of food and entertainment – it gets expensive and that can be a huge worry.”

Families received one meal per week – but Ms Andrews stresses that it’s not just about putting food on the table, but also offering companionship and advice through an accessible support network.

“Everyone ate, chatted and laughed together, all enjoying each other’s company,” she said. “That’s what FEAST is all about.

‘We understand the importance of ensuring that grassroots projects such as ours are established, ready for when times get tough’

Ms Andrews believes ‘there is a need, and it’s growing’. She cites the advent of Universal Credit, which was rolled out in the borough last month.

“We understand the importance of ensuring that grassroots projects such as ours are established, ready for when times get tough.”

While Tonbridge is often regarded as an affluent area, the pressure group End Child Poverty revealed this year that Trench ward in north Tonbridge is the worst affected place in the borough – almost one in three children, 32.48 per cent, are poverty-stricken, or 322 in total.

Unlike foodbanks and other agencies which require referrals, FEAST operates on a relaxed, informal basis, which makes it less of a daunting prospect for those in need to access its services.

“We don’t believe in strict rules and qualifying conditions,” said Mrs Hardcastle. “We trust families to make their own judgement on their needs.

“It’s not necessarily about things being desperate, but they don’t need to feel quite so tough. As one of our guests told us; ‘Our little family enjoyed every minute of it’ – and so did we.

“If you know that your family would benefit from having a free, healthy, no-strings-attached meal, surrounded by friendly faces, then we’d love to welcome you.”

Families are allowed to attend both meals, and there will be a Community Larder of supplies.

Ms Andrew, a mother of three, and Mrs Hardcastle, Pastoral Support Officer at Woodlands Primary School, were instrumental in setting up the Tonbridge Parents Support Group in May.

They established the group, which holds regular meetings, in conjunction with Rev Sharon Lovelock of Tonbridge Methodist Church, after finding that there was a lack of support for parents of school-age children.

The projects are now looking to expand to new venues. “We have a vision,” said Mrs Hardcastle. “We’d love to see FEAST running throughout Tonbridge and beyond.

They are looking for donations from individuals or businesses, volunteers to help with the practical delivery – and they want to spread the word.

“The end result is magic, but there is plenty going on behind the scenes to make the magic happen,” she added.

“We don’t just need to hear from families who would like to come along; we also need donations of food – and of money – or perhaps you’d like to come along and give us a hand?

“Maybe your readers know someone who would appreciate an invitation, or another community group who haven’t heard about us yet?”

Non-perishable items can be dropped off at Woodlands Primary School on Hunt Road or Tonbridge Methodist Church.

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