Interview: Birgit Kehrer from ChangeKitchen CIC
ChangeKitchen is a social enterprise catering company and cafe situated in the heart of Balsall Heath. By serving up delicious vegetarian dishes and teaching people how to cook healthy meals on a budget, they aim to use food to change lives.
Over the Summer, ChangeKitchen have been providing hot food for events at the Balsall Heath’s Living Room (a cosy space nestled in the empty Gala Pool in Moseley Road Baths) as well as cakes for anyone who pops in during the day. And they are also hosting a free food demonstration as part of our line-up of events on Saturday the 9th of September in the Living Room.
We caught up with Birgit Kehrer, founder of ChangeKitchen, to find out more about their work…
Hi Birgit! Can you tell us a bit about ChangeKitchen?
Change Kitchen is a social enterprise catering company. We deliver high quality, tasty event catering and support people back to work at the same time; that’s our main social mission. We have supported people with multiple labour market barriers back to work; from people who have experienced homelessness or addiction to young carers.
When COVID came and there weren’t any events, I decided we would be part of the solution during this time. The whole team became key workers and we were part of the Big Birmingham Community Emergency Food Response. I was in charge of Birmingham City Council’s hot food provision for vulnerable people. We cooked thousands of meals a week and delivered them with voluntary drivers for the first three months of the pandemic. We had a huge number of volunteers – it was amazing!
We got some funding to do that for another 6 months and, since June 2021, we have been funding the meals from our own profit. Every week, we cook between 100 and 400 meals for people in need.
It’s all cooked from surplus food to improve our environmental impact, which is another one of our missions. It’s never bad food we use, it just may not be ‘perfect food’. Often it is good food that has ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time or food which is coming to the end of its life but still perfectly safe to eat.
In December 2021, Jericho Foundation got funding to extend our kitchen. We’ve now got a much bigger kitchen and, in June of this year on our 13th Birthday, we launched a cafe! Our reasoning for the cafe was that we don’t like it when people aren’t given any choice about the ‘free food’ they are offered because that is not empowering.
The cafe has a ‘pay it forward’ option where people who can afford to are able to pay for an extra meal which will be given to someone who needs it for free. This is partly an education piece. If we ask people to help, hopefully it will be an indication that makes them question: why are we living in the 5th richest country in the world and there’s people who are starving? People need to know that this is happening and help if they can. It’s sad that this help is needed but I can’t change that; I’m doing my bit to change what I can.
When did you move to Birmingham?
Over 30 years ago, I came to Britain to do a Master’s in Bristol, met my current partner, and then we moved to Sheffield for a while where he had a job and I was working on my PhD. My partner then found a permanent job at a different university which was in Birmingham. I really liked Birmingham and knew lots of people in this city, so we moved here. I like the vibrancy and mixed population of Birmingham; there are so many people from all over the world coming together.
How big is the team at ChangeKitchen – and how has it grown?
When we first started, there were only two members of staff – Roman and Colin – and me. They were the inspiration behind this whole thing because they were keen and motivated to work but they weren’t being given the chance because of their homelessness background. That was the thinking behind it; I saw there were people who wanted to work and thought let’s get them out to work then.
Now we have a team of 10 staff. We are all really encouraging to each other. There is no Gordon Ramsay style shouting going on in our kitchen! There is a welcoming atmosphere and lots of education involved. Everyone works to their own ability and is encouraged to learn more and try different jobs.
What makes you feel excited when someone new joins the team?
The thing I’ve noticed quite a few times is when someone first comes in, they are often low in confidence as they haven’t worked for a while and feel disengaged from society. Just being part of a team is really rewarding and can help improve someone’s confidence massively.
For example, if they help cater a wedding and then everyone tells them how amazing the food is and they see everyone is happy, that can offer a massive sense of achievement. Or if you work at a nice event where everyone is dressed up and you’re in a world that you haven’t been part of for quite a while, that can really lift someone’s spirits. Not feeling worthy is an issue which lots of people who come to work for us struggle with and something like that can massively change their mentality.
Can you give us an example of someone who has benefited from working at ChangeKitchen?
We have a lovely 19-year-old apprentice now who has had a difficult life.
She came on a healthy eating training course for young people (another service which ChangeKitchen provides). I could instantly see she was bright and wanted to learn but also seemed quite lonely, so I asked if she wanted to come and volunteer with us. She was delighted I had asked her, started volunteering with us and then became an apprentice.
She has cerebral palsy and is in constant pain so requires some additional support. We make sure she takes regular breaks and check her mood, so she doesn’t feel too anxious. In the beginning she wouldn’t come to events. I was keen for her to have the experience, but she was reluctant for a while. This Summer though, she has worked at three weddings and really enjoyed them!
We just helped her get a flat and furnish it, and she says it’s the first time she has ever felt safe. She says we are her family now.
What made you want to get involved with Balsall Heath’s Living Room?
We were keen to work with Moseley Road Baths because we are your neighbours and your closest caterers! We meet the needs of the local population because we know how mixed the audience is. And it makes total sense to have food in the space – a living room should always have food on offer. So, we said yes as soon as we were approached to get involved; we knew we’d love to do it and could make it work.
I really like how the Living Room has the whole creative side to it. There are lots of creative organisations involved who we have worked with before like Flatpack and Retrofit which gives it a real sense of community. Moseley Road Baths is enough of a draw, but it is even better with all of these partners involved.
And I love that there are so many free activities – that is close to my heart! Lots of families are on lower incomes now so having something free for kids to do during the holidays is so important.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the food demonstration you’ll be giving in the Living Room on Saturday the 9th of September?
The workshop will be all about empowering people to cook low-cost, healthy meals for themselves. The session is going to be particularly interesting because we are going to be using a thermal cooking bag. We will start the meal off on the stove but only for about 10 minutes and then put it inside the bag where it will continue to cook for three or four hours.
The thermal cooking bags are amazing because they work like slow cookers but without any electricity – they are just really, well insulated bags. You can start it off in the morning and then, when you come home from work in the evening, you will have a hot meal ready for you.
Finally, what does the future hold for ChangeKitchen?
When I started ChangeKitchen, everybody would ask me where I wanted to be in 5 years’ time. I think people thought I would say I wanted 3 outlets, 7 staff or 70 vans – something like that. However, what I said was I want to be part of the solution that makes healthy food a right rather than a privilege. That is still my big thing.