Feeling chipper with a little help from friends at lunchtime

Shelley McGonigle is fusing food and friendship at Stratford College. Photo submitted.

THOUSANDS of people in the local community suffer from feelings of isolation and loneliness. The issue isn’t just confined to Christmas when everyone seems to be in high spirits during the festive season, it can last for longer periods of time and can play its part in the mental deterioration of an individual who might choose to stay indoors because it’s easier than facing the outside world.   

This week the Herald begins a series of articles on the effect of loneliness and how local organisations are offering a helping hand to people from all walks of life to help lose the taboo of loneliness and just maybe make some new friends along the way.

THAT traditional British favourite – fish and chips – is not only a tasty treat every few weeks it’s also a great recipe for bringing people together.

Catering and hospitality students at Stratford College have long been lauded for their lovely lunches at the college’s Academy Restaurant but now their exceptional culinary skills have opened doors to lonely people who might otherwise feel confined to their home with no one to talk to.

Once a month the students welcome guests to a deliciously cooked lunch at Stratford College as part of a get together which has now become known as The Friendship Club. The club is usually open during the academic year and is a meeting place for food and friendship.

The college’s assistant head of hospitality and catering Shelley McGonigle said The Friendship Club started from humble beginnings but has grown considerably over the past year.

“We knew that some of our regular customers had been affected by the loss of their partners and felt lonely but did enjoy coming to the college to meet people over lunch for a chat and something to eat. We decided the lunches could be a type of social meeting with people being greeted by a friendly face on arrival. Loneliness in the community is a problem and we thought if we could have a positive effect on peoples’ lives over lunch that would be good for their mental health and well-being also,” Shelley said.

The students were fully involved throughout the planning and marketing of The Friendship Club. They put posters in Stratford’s charity shops and spread the news by word of mouth but the start was slow, as Shelley admits.

“We had eight people at the first lunch,” said Shelley. “But things got busier as word spread and now our average lunch attracts 65 people and we had about that many at our recent fish and chip Friday.”

It’s the students’ aim to make the lunches as enjoyable as possible. While some prepare and cook meals others are there to meet, greet and serve dishes which cost £5 for two courses.

The menu includes cottage pie, hot pot, sticky toffee pudding, in fact anything which Shelley describes as, “homely foods that warm the heart and fill the belly.”

Social contact at the college created by The Friendship Club helps young and old alike in many different ways.

“The lunches are very popular. A person with autism said they were very conscious about eating in public but didn’t feel like that at the college restaurant. Our students welcome customers and talk with them and get to know when their birthdays are so they can leave a birthday card on their table, most of all our guests are meeting and talking with each other and make new friends. The students also benefit because they learn new skills while studying for professional qualifications. Talking to diners improves their confidence and helps them meet industry expectations whether they choose a higher apprenticeship or go off to university. It’s very rewarding to receive so many letters from people thanking us for helping them overcome loneliness in the community,” Shelley said.

If you have a story about tackling the issue of loneliness or if you volunteer for a group that helps people having to deal with loneliness, please contact the Herald and tell us your story  news@stratford-herald.com