Working at the Cambridge Community Kitchen: The town/dress divide ‘isn’t really fun’

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As Steinbeck wrote, “happiness does not arise from its roots, nor does it float, but rather is manufactured.” The community may be too. For the Cambridge Community Kitchen the walls were happily lined with posters listing not rules but what looked like agreed upon boundaries, ideals and mutual decisions that served as the bricks of a culture of respect. Just a two minute walk from my accommodation in Cambridge on King Street, it feels like another world.

I stand on top of six cabbages, rolling towards the edge of an immaculate metal counter. I cut them into 1cm pieces (as specified by the poster that warns me at eye level) so those who have trouble chewing can still get the neatly wrapped meals and slice the wrong pieces. The knife is dull and I am fully aware of my culinary incompetence. Stabbing a Sainsbury’s brand chicken korma doesn’t really teach you how to be skilled. Ten minutes earlier, I had walked through a narrow doorway, pushed my way through the mixture of anger, emotion but hope that littered the entrance, and stopped in front of walls marked with slogans : “freedom is a verb”, apparently, and “all hot people move to Bristol”. The second certainly seems true. Maybe I should consider a masters program there.

“With mutual aid, it is the norm to give when we box give and take when you can’t”

After four hours of cooking, we packed the meals and shipped them. We made 280 servings of bean and cabbage pasta. It was good – hot and pleasantly bland, filling and slightly on the wrong side of cooking. The timing is more difficult in bulk. In the glow of the setting sun, a volunteer explained that the Cambridge Community Kitchen runs two such sessions a week, in addition to running delivery and cleaning rotations, providing meals to those in need across the city . It was born as a non-hierarchical organization – proudly not a charity – organically after COVID-19 prevented them from providing their usual open house meals. Since then, the operation has only grown, never straying from its core values. The character of a non-charity model is splashed like graffiti on her walls, either alienating or inspiring.

After putting us in contact with their sister organization, Erik and I went to ask these questions at the “Cambridge Solidarity Fund”. We meet Tetra and Crow at a cafe of their choice on Regent Street. It is far too early for any self-respecting humanities student. Croissant and coffee in hand, we grab a table near the window. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten up this early,” I admit. A quick scan of the room tells us that we are the only students here. The choice of coffee then seemed a bit deliberate. Close enough to the university for us to meet but not too close to enter its realm: a neutral space between the “real” Cambridge and the University of Cambridge; between the most disadvantaged parts of the most unequal city in the UK and the establishment is landed, arena owner, colleges of wine decantation. An intermediary between excess and rarity.

“Academic inequality also runs through the veins of the city, the narrow roadways that line the restricted college grounds”

Tetra, a volunteer, admitted that not being an official charity “is probably a reason why people don’t donate”. Yet they argue that the “accountability structures” of normal charities “don’t work”. What Crow, another volunteer, called a ‘charity-industry complex’, means most funds channeled to charity don’t go to those in need, instead lining the pockets of shareholders and bodies directors. A binary is placed between the giver and the recipient in the charitable model — with mutual aid, it is the norm to give when you box give and take when you can’t. Additionally, if either project were granted charitable status, it would fall under the Lobbying Act, unable to make political statements in the run-up to an election. Their organization can therefore express itself freely on political issues. Tetra, above the noise of a bustling cafe, laughed saying it’s true that gaining charity status would also be ‘a big ballache’. Through their humor, they made an important point: the complicated process involved makes small-scale, community-focused work incredibly difficult.

“Cambridge Mutual Aid told us they gave scholarships to needy students”

Such community work is organized, as Crow explained, by about three people “sitting at home [their] laptop “. Their organization, no matter how small, changes the lives of many. By handing out monthly grants of £50, the Cambridge Solidarity Fund operates a no-questions-asked policy. “We don’t want to know” why people apply, Tetra told us. They prefer to trust people. This is where they differ from most charities. Those who sent in anonymous thanks nonetheless reveal the importance of such work, as well as Cambridge’s dire poverty situation. One recipient wrote that “he got [them] food and [they] could pay rent”, and another that “the £50 helped [them] put food in the fridge and buy presents for Christmas”. In a city where university students are allegedly supported to the highest degree, an anonymous recipient wrote that “the fund has really helped [them] to be able to help my eldest son get revision cards and stationery to help him prepare for his GCSEs”. Educational inequality also runs through the veins of the city, the narrow roadways that border the restricted college grounds.

With no organization receiving money, or even leftover food, from the University, the old town/gown aphorism is abundantly clear. The topographical divisions, marked by high stone walls (or perhaps red brick) are emblematic not only of a sharing of wealth but of a barrier to aid: in 2019, homeless woman gave birth under stony gaze at Trinity College, her twins being born in her austere and unforgiving entrance. Cambridge University, I suspect, would argue that it technically owes nothing to such organizations: that it looks after its own and the city its own. However, the University of Cambridge does not take care of its own. In fact, the Cambridge Solidarity Fund told us that it had given scholarships to needy students. Of course, they never asked directly, but when they are emailed from a Cambridge University CRSid and asked to meet at a college gate, the situation is crystal clear. Perversely, money flows the wrong way, down a steep slope – from the community to the University. “We receive a donation from a bursar,” Crow said. Later, xe clarified. Xe meant that the bursar herself gave £20 a month, not her college.

“If we’re talking big messages,” Tetra left us, “they want students to understand we live”Ia town “. For all the Cambridge bubble jokes, “it’s not really funny”.

Hands frozen after cutting cabbage, I return home by King Street. Wisteria hangs lavishly from the high stone borders. Half-off pink glasses, the lilac border looks less attractive. I always stop to take a photo, and post it guiltily on my Instagram story. As I enter Sidney, I slip through the beautiful checkpoint.


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