It is late morning at the Donnington Doorstep Family Centre in southeast Oxford, and the day is well under way. A pint-sized fairy princess wanders on site, accompanied by a superhero similarly unwilling to return to the banality of post-Halloween life. Under the watchful gaze of parents and staff, other children clamber on an indoor play structure, browse the toy library and dress-up closet, or industriously apply themselves to activities set up at the low tables set up throughout the room. There is an enclosed play area and garden containing child-sized vehicles, sand boxes, and a small easel covered with paint splatters that testify to enthusiastic use. When asked, the four-year-old Modernist at work confidently reveals a purple blob made from his own special paint blend: ‘It’s a picture of you.’ Gradually, along with the sights and sounds of children at play, Donnington Doorstep fills with something else: the spiced fragrance of the lentil daal that is on for lunch.
The midday meal has long anchored the goals of the centre, founded in 1984 as the Donnington Playgroup by a group of local families. ‘Eating together been important to our community from the beginning,’ deputy manager Heather Morton says, ‘even when it was only baked potatoes and beans served in the Portakabin that was our first home.’ Fancier cuisine was not really an option until 1996, when Trustees of the charity were finally able to raise money for the purpose-built facility in Townsend Square. These days, Donnington Doorstep serves an average of forty low-priced, nutritionally-balanced meals a day to people who come through the doors of the drop-in centre. The benefits are more than merely dietary: ‘It’s a fantastic opportunity for the young children to see a whole load of families from different ethnic, cultural, and social backgrounds come together,’ says Anna. ‘The strength of the place is that it is genuinely mixed.’
One of their main aims is to promote healthy eating, though not in a rigid way. ‘We don’t completely cut out salt, oil, and sugar like some other places do,’ Anna explains. ‘Instead, we try to gradually break down barriers by introducing people to fresh ingredients and dishes from different cultures that might not be familiar to them. We try and show them how they can incorporate these foods into what they eat at home.’ The regular donations they receive from the Botanic Gardens Project and re-plenish, the Oxford Food Bank, have further supported these goals—especially since the latter began partnering with Fresh Direct, a wholesale food distributor based in Bicester. ‘They bring us a whole range of wonderful produce that we use for our lunches as well as our food education projects. Sometimes we receive fruits or vegetables that are a bit unusual,’—Anna smiles—‘but we make that part of the educational process.’ The success of the kitchen has led Donnington Doorstep to start an external catering business recently, headed by staff member Pippa Hamwee, as a way of raising additional funds.
Though the organization’s main target group is still parents with young children, the last ten to fifteen years have seen expansions into a wider range of projects. Nowadays, they run programmes for dads and male carers, families with disabled children, young adults (a dedicated Youth Space was established on the first floor in 2008), and more. More recently, the centre has joined the HENRY (Health Exercise Nutrition for the Really Young) Programme, which seeks to reverse childhood obesity trends by educating parents and carers through an eight-week course. They have also gotten involved with the community-based Play Ranger Project, aimed at helping children to reclaim the outdoors as a space for learning and play. Cooking over fires is one of the most popular activities—‘A good complement to the fire cessation training that we offer upstairs,’ Heather jokes. Even newborns get a piece of the action at Donnington: the organization is currently working to become part of a group of centres accredited to offer support for breast-feeding through UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Initiative. ‘The health and emotional-wellbeing outcomes are so clear that it was an easy decision for us,’ Anna says, ‘especially as we now have a generation of new parents who haven’t seen it modeled at home.’ Heather sums it up succinctly: ‘Breast is best.’
The constant growth of projects and patrons means that the five full-time and nineteen part-time staff at Donnington Doorstep keep busy. ‘Oxford is an place where areas of high deprivation co-exist with the affluence of the university,’ says Anna, ‘and we try to respond to the needs of the community as much as possible.’ Though the centre has a cohort of volunteers, they can always use more help. According to Heather, who runs the volunteer programme, the charity has a particular need for people who are willing to get involved with fundraising. ‘It would be great to have some students with marketing experience,’ she says.
Soon, it is time for lunch back in the main room, and play spaces empty as tables fill. The daal is delicious, as is the side of sprouts. Not everyone appreciates the food equally, however: a small boy takes a few bites, and then, when he thinks his mother is not looking, slips away to find a friend. In other words, he feels right at home.