Sonia Kneepkens is a social designer and researcher. She took over responsibility for the lunch club that has run at Pembroke House for nearly a decade. Here she describes the application of Method-C combined with her own skills and tools to learning about how this routine event.
The lunch club and its history
The lunch club is a Thursday event from about 12:30 - 2:30pm that happens in the upper hall of Pembroke House. People (mainly 60 and over) come together to get a hot meal, but it’s also a place for connection, and introduction into the other services at Pembroke House. When Ali cooked for the lunch club, it was just a small group. This was about 8 years ago. It started very informal, as a group of older people wanted to come together on a Thursday. At first Ali cooked what they were asking for, but slowly he introduced more ‘foreign’ flavours. He cooked them some typical Iranian dishes which they really liked. Lunch started to become a conversation between people from different backgrounds.
When I took over from Sarah, I was looking forward to immersing myself in the people and their stories and develop the lunch club from there. Soon I realised I was expected to be much more hands on and make sure the day would run smoothly. I realised that the lunch club previously was run in a controlled way where one person has all the responsibility in hand. When I wasn’t immediately taking that role, I noticed that the lunch club was not running as it was and not many people were taking responsibility for their parts. As a collaborative designer I wanted to turn the lunch club in a place that is for the lunch clubbers, by the lunch clubbers. However, as the lunch club has been around for 8 years, I realised I was creating on top of a rich foundation and needed to understand this better before making changes. I took up the role of lead responsible, stepped up, while putting temporarily on hold any drastic changes I thought of making. A new way of learning came up, through slowly building relationships with the volunteers and the attendees and gaining their trust. Whenever someone showed interest in a certain task, I gave them permission to take ownership of that task and make it their own. This could be as small as how to serve the food or calling bingo. In this way I could slowly step away from certain tasks and keep more of an overview. This helped me to reflect on and learn about the lunch club, while having time to talk with people and understand the impact this club had on their lives. I kept detailed reflections after each lunch club to reflect on what happened, what did we try differently, what worked and what didn’t. From these reflections I’m now writing this piece.
When I started to go to the lunch club the table setting was always the same; 3 tables on each side, 6 in total. Most people sat on the same chair each time. If someone else would sit there, it wasn’t uncommon that they were (often not too politely) asked if they could move. When I took over the hosting role, I kept the formation the same in order to keep it familiar. Most of the lunch clubbers have been coming years longer than me, and changing host would be radical enough and all the change I thought of introducing in the beginning. After dancersize finishes I calculate how many people I think we’ll be expecting. A group of the lunch clubbers participate in dancersize, while others sit on the side and watch. Mostly we’ll go for 6 as many people turn up late. And then later on when we’ve got a better picture, we add more tables or take some away. For about 4 weeks we had 8 tables because of people who were volunteering at WLR and children from Surrey square school who were coming by. What was great about this is that it led to a fuller house and people sitting closer together. The upper hall is quite spacious and when there aren’t many tables set out they will be quite far apart, which leads to little engagement between the tables. Over the last months (right before and after the summer break) we’ve had less people showing up. This will lead to gaps at each table and a feeling of emptiness. Ideally we have as many chairs as there are people and it would always feel cozy and ‘full’, but this is hard to estimate. A lot of the staff, volunteers and even lunch clubbers tend to come in late.
The layout of the space has a big impact on how and when people are being served. This is something I didn’t notice in the beginning, but one of the volunteers, Tom, told me how a group of lunch clubbers sit on the table closest to the hatch to make sure they get served first, and so that they can go for seconds without too much effort. All though I love this, it made me look at how people are being served. When I started the volunteers would serve whomever caught their attention and the tables close to the hatch would always go first. An efficiency I brought in was a serving system. One issue was that by randomly serving people, some people would have already finished their plate by the time someone else on the same table would get their lunch. People don’t mind waiting a bit, as long as they can eat together at the same time. Each week we started serving at a different end of the room, and one table at a time.
Another space essential to the lunch club is the kitchen. This is a small space that was originally set up to cater for cooking lessons. Feeding 60+ people was never in the plans! There only fit about 3 people at a time in this space, which is not a lot when you want to cook food for a big group of people with limited time. This restriction leads quite regularly to frustrations with the chef, the kitchen volunteers and the people who are waiting for their meal! The lunch club grew out of a small group. As it got more popular the expectations for the meals were the same; ‘meat and two veg’ and a delicious homemade dessert to finish it off. There seems to be no space to prepare they food and also serve it from the hatch. Little efficiencies we have introduced have helped slightly, like a trolley to help set the tables which gives back space by the hatch to start setting up the food to be ready for serving. But there is a weekly feeling of running behind. I hate seeing Deirdre, who is a wonderful cook, feel like she’s not performing as well as she could because of the restrictions of the space.
When I slowly got used to the customs of the lunch club and the lunch clubbers to me, I started to introduce small changes. Sometimes I played with the pattern of the table setup to tease people in different seats. I added a menu board in the space to avoid people asking all the time what was for lunch and having to tell each person separately. I like how the long tables of 8 provoke conversation. They same people might sit together, but there is still enough space for others to join in. This could be visitors, newcomers, staff members or volunteers.
The kitchen needs some looking at. We can’t promise to serve 50-60 people from that kitchen. The number of lunch clubbers has gone down recently, so a group of 30-40 might be easier to manage.
We organised our summer BBQ at the end of June. This was outside in the garden, with a long table where people could help themselves. I encouraged people to get their own food, and help others who have more trouble walking. It was great to see how everyone had the choice to choose whatever they felt like eating and didn’t have to wait before they would be served. It seemed to me to be a much more relaxing setup. People liked having the flexibility and being in control to choose when and what they would eat. This is something we have taken to Walworth living room, but it would be great to explore how we can get more of this sense of engagement and flexibility in the lunch club.
Deirdre usually comes in at 8am. In the beginning it was more towards 9am, but because of the amount of prep work that needs to be done, she started coming in earlier. The ideal cooking team is Deirde with two volunteers, like Ann and John. Deirdre likes to develop a working relationship with people so that she is sure she can work with them well and count on them to deliver. When John started to come in less regular she thought it was a real shame. She was proud of how much he had learned in the kitchen and how much more social he was becoming. Deirdre would rather count on John come in, then having to train a new volunteer. This means that it’s often just Deirdre and Ann in the kitchen.
Because there are multiple things going on in the upper hall, there is a strict timeline we need to keep in order to get lunch ready in time. While the food is being prepared, Patrick is teaching his ballet class in the upper hall. Towards the end of that class the first lunch clubbers are dripping in and sit down on the side benches to watch the ballet class. When it’s finished they’ll often get a sincere applause. Patrick will then usher as many lunch clubbers to the dance floor as he can for the dancercise class. Not until this class if finished, the tables and chairs for lunch can be set up. The volunteers drip in at different times and most of them are often not there before lunch is being served. This is hard when we’re trying to set the space up in time for lunch. There is a bit of a culture that you can come in and leave when it suits you. This leads to difficulty when you’re There are always some lunch clubbers and visitors that are happy to help out with setting up, you don’t even have to ask. I quite like it when everyone chips in, and they seem to like it as well. They care for this lunch club and want to feel part of making it work.
When people are sitting down, the hatch opens (very much like a theatre performance about to begin) and food is served. More and more often the food is not completely ready and we are already a bit behind on schedule by this point. The expectation of food coming out of the hatch when people sit down, can lead to some people getting impatient when this isn’t happening right away. Because the serving takes some time, the first tables will be ready with eating when the last ones have just received their plate. Not until the last people are served the kitchen can start preparing the serving station for dessert, so often there is a gap between lunch and dessert. As efficiency I started to do the announcements in this time, just to fill the gap, entertain and get people salivating for whatever the dessert is that day! When the lunch is done, the tables are set up for bingo. In the side hall the knitting group will start.
The expectations that things are happening in a certain way, makes it difficult to introduce changes. If people were used to waiting 10-15 minutes before the food is ready and in the meantime have a glass of apple juice and catch up with their table, then there wouldn’t be a problem. The focus feels more on having a hot meal ready at a certain time, instead of connecting with the other lunch clubbers.
Another way to give people more power over their own experience is to switch to a model of self service. In that way they can decide exactly what’s on their plate, while also decide when they eat.
When I started to lead the lunch club, it was made clear that it is meant to be ‘lunch’ and ‘club’ as two elements that need their own focus. The Lunch is obviously focussed on the food that is served; the big reason that people are there. But this is only a way to get people through the door. The Club is what is delivered around that lunch. The lunch clubbers are expecting to be entertained. We are not just having lunch together; from the way the announcements are being done, to the regular performances (e.g professional theatre, James on his guitar, or a tap dancing intern), to school kids coming by to read stories, there is always something happening.
I try to plan something every couple weeks, to offer enough entertainment and also not over stimulate the group. Sometimes I get it wrong, like when the Surrey square school children came with a different group of 15 kids every week during an already busy period. Some lunch clubbers complained that they didn’t have a moment to just enjoy their food and it was too loud to either hear the kids or each other. But when the injections are timed just right, it gives them something to talk about for weeks after.
Dancersize is a weekly class run by Patrick the ballet teacher. For many this is the only exercise they’re getting that week, and Patrick creates an accepting and inclusive environment where no one feels out of their depth.
The food is the main content. The menu is decided every week with the chef depending on what City Harvest (free waste food) delivers. There is one thing that until now has almost never changed, which is that it contains meat. Some lunch clubbers have never had a meal without meat in their lives, and they would be offended if this wasn’t offered here. Most recipes are British classics, like chicken pie and gammon with bacon. We do always have a vegetarian option, which (during the time of Ismael) was mainly vegetarian sausages or something with Quorn. Deirdre had actually turned the vegetarian option into a showstopper, and more and more people go for that option over the meat. Just once we had an all vegetarian lunch club, when Deidre couldn’t make it. We ordered Cook vegetarian lasagnas which were a big hit! Only one person complained about the missing meat. With incremental changes we started introducing more plant based foods, making the vegetables the star of the plate. When you ask people they say they want their British classics and rice and pasta are out of most people’s league, but when you offer it to them, they’re much more open to try new things. I asked people to write down a favorite recipe they’d like to share with others, and I was surprised how many were pasta, fish or vegetable based. Again I think there is an expectation created about the food that should be on the table. It needs to be a hot meal, can’t divert from the British classic, and needs an extra helping of gravy with at least two vegetables on the side. O yes, and salad is not a main meal. These assumptions are challenged when I hear what people eat at home, or what we now serve at the Walworth living room.
Bingo is run by John, a lunch clubbers who has been coming for a long time and who has never missed a lunch. He knows he is needed to run bingo and loves this commitment. Lunch club without bingo is impossible, we’d never stop hearing about it if it was cancelled even once… Sefa runs the knitting group. She always comes with a new project the club can work together on. Before she took over it was just a group of people knitting their own things together, but she gave it more of a focus. This didn’t go well with everyone (too much pressure?) and like with every change, some people left and others joined.
More than anything else, the lunch club is shaped by its people. The most important connected people are the host (first me and since recently Rich), Deirdre the chef, John who calls bingo, Sefa who does knitting, some volunteers like Tom and James, and any staff members who are joining lunch that week. Mother Ellen, Mike and Ali and regular guests. But there are also many others (the regulars) who have taken up certain roles and who have an expectation of filling them. Val goes around with a pot for many and gets most people to cough up the (suggested donation of) £3. Lynn, a volunteer, has her role during bingo when certain numbers are called. During ‘Legs 11’ she says: ‘That’s me!’ and raises her legs in the air. It feels strangely quiet when she’s not there to do that. Also the table of Val, Mary and Joan plays an important role. They sing the songs during bingo and generally bring a lot of the atmosphere. It feels like lunch club is often on repeat, from one week so similar to the other. The expectation of the day is something that keeps bringing people back, but it makes it also difficult to open it to newcomers and to evolve the club through the ‘ages’.
Being a host at lunch club is like being the glue that keeps everything from falling apart. You’re expected to have a presence and breathe an air of being on top of things. The host is a facilitator, an entertainer and a connector. People look at you for guidance. I often wondered what would happen if the host didn’t show. After my first couple of lunch clubs Ali took me aside and explained to me how I could show a bit more of a presence, be an entertainer. He talked about dancing and how body postures, delivery and voice are important to keep the audience present. Ali mentioned that with people who are older, you need to talk slow and clear, repeat, and use your hands to illustrate what you are saying. Ideally you have a visual prompt to make it even more clear. I remember feeling annoyed, as I’m used to being in the background as a service designer. When I do research and collaborative design, I am used to blending in with the environment and create space for others to be in the spotlight. However, I understood I was stepping in the shoes of a long tradition and was willing to become more visible. I decided to do this in my own way as a person and not simply a role. I often wish I had more time connecting, to spend time with people and listen to their stories. There doesn’t seem any time for that because of the amount of responsibilities go with this role description. Hopefully we are slowly moving towards a model where more people feel part of making the lunch club work and take over some of the responsibilities to make it a communal venture.
The lunch club is mostly volunteer led. But the way that we work with them currently means that we can’t count on a certain number turning up, which means we can’t give over many of the responsibilities. Somehow the lunch club can still run if there are hardly any volunteers, and it would be good if we could make sure this changes so that we can be less resource heavy.
Before the lunch club starts we have about 10 people taking part in the dancersize. One or two volunteers will be there to help with the setup of the tables and chairs.
The numbers of the lunch club have gone up and down a lot. This is the same for lunch clubbers as for volunteers. Over the summer the numbers have been a bit lower, which could be because of school holidays or group trips out of town. But also after Ismael left and Deirdre took over, both very different characters, many Ismael supporters have left the group. Changing chef is more than about the food they serve. Ismeal played a big hosting role, and all though you can say that Deirdre is a better chef, many miss Ismael’s food. Since this change over we have gone up and down a lot in numbers, and overall it has seem to be going down. Part of the group have chosen the Walworth living room over the lunch club, and maybe less people are being referred here since the other place opened. I do think that a smaller group would cater better for the small kitchen!
It would be good to draw learning from the last few years and see how to continue to make this a place people get value from and want to go to. The club will always have different tides, but the core doesn’t seemed to have changed over the years. Many people have such an affinity towards this place, that they wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else.
The aim of the lunch club (as in, the role it wants to fill) has never been very clear to me. It does different things for different people. The more this is clear, the easier it is to decide what the content is to be.
All I can say is what people have told me and what I’ve seen around me. The people who go here to catch up with their friends and neighbours. The people who take a tupperware with them so they can take leftovers home when they don’t like cooking or are unable to do so. The volunteers who feel more and more confident to interact with others and who feel a sense of purpose and contribution to the neighbourhood. It’s a way into other activities and support; the staff who support the lunch clubbers by listening to their stories and help them further if necessary. Karen, a volunteer with learning disabilities, has visually changed in front of our eyes. She wouldn’t talk to anyone in the beginning and unsure what to do. Now she hugs everyone and often tells me how much she loves this place. When Karen is not there (which is not often) everyone is asking about her. Tom, a volunteer who has been coming for a long time (all though less now because he’s getting into employment) thanks the lunch club for helping him deal with his severe anxiety. He went from a person didn’t come out of the house, let alone speak to anyone, to being the reason that many lunch clubbers are here. He is the man who makes newcomers feel welcome and who gives you an extra portion for a smile. Mary, a lunch clubber, to me that she wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for Pembroke House and the lunch club.
When I asked our committee what the lunch club meant to them, these were some of the things they told me: “It’s the highlight of my week.” “It means seconds!” “Wonderful to get to know other people.” “It’s value for money - nowhere else can you get a warm meal for £3!” “It really helps with loneliness, which is a big problem for many older people.”
By having a clearer aim of what we’re trying to do and be, we could probably have a bigger impact. But for now, this place makes people feel connected, nourished and supported and to be able to be part of that is pretty great.