10 years of the Rochdale Soup Kitchen

Date published: 09 February 2024

It was a cold December night in 2013, when two women armed with a pan of soup began a venture that would go on to help hundreds of less fortunate people each week.

Dishing up pea and ham soup from the boot of a car on Rochdale town hall car park, Marilyn Jones and Vida Slater didn’t dream just how big their venture would grow in the space of a decade.

“We thought all the world would eat pea and ham soup,” Marilyn said. “That first night we had two visitors, and one of them was a vegetarian. We’ve made veg-based soups ever since.”

That night – the date long forgotten – was the birth of the Soup Kitchen Rochdale, a service which has grown from Vida and Marilyn serving soup on a car park one night a week to now having an army of committed volunteers helping run the organisation from its own premises three days a week.

“It was two weeks before Christmas, but we didn’t make a mental note of the date – we didn’t realise we’d still be here 10 years later,” Marilyn said. “We knew there was a need, but we didn’t think it would still be going.”

In the early days, the Soup Kitchen ran every Tuesday night for three months. The two women knew there was an alternative provision on a Monday night, and so opted to provide a second hot meal for Rochdale’s hungry people in need. Before long, demand was such that they began to provide meals on Wednesdays, before adding Fridays and then Saturday lunchtimes, providing a two-course cooked meal from a local hostel.

After three years, they were offered space at the Parish Church of St Chad, a stone’s throw away from the town hall car park, providing shelter from the elements.


One of the volunteers at Rochdale Soup Kitchen
Volunteer Carol bagging up hot pasties for people


Marilyn continued: “We were out in the wind, the rain, the snow, the sun, whatever weather was being thrown at us. The vicar of St Chad’s came to see what we were doing and asked if we fancied using the church as a shelter, so people could come inside and eat.”

The Soup Kitchen remained at St Chad’s for a year before finding premises behind Champness Hall in the former High Level building.

“It seemed to be exactly what was needed: seven rooms on three floors. What we wanted to do was offer doctors and nurses space when it was open so people could seek medical advice, have their bandages changed, etc. We wanted to include a shower, a washer and dryer and a computer room so people could apply for jobs and benefits: that was the dream,” Marilyn explained.

The venue was slowly renovated and “all was doing well” with the Soup Kitchen Rochdale open each evening from Tuesday - Friday from 6pm to 7pm, as well as Saturday lunchtime.

Marilyn added: “We had a proper dining room with a good kitchen. We were feeding an average of 50 people per night with hot pasties, sandwiches, cake, soup, and whatever else we could find.”

She sighed: “Then Covid happened.

“We started working with other agencies like the Sanctuary Trust to get parcels of food delivered in lockdown. At the height of it, we were sending 230 bags three times a week. Each bag had enough supplies to last a couple of days such as bread donated from the supermarkets and a microwaveable meal.

“After the first lockdown, we opened again but couldn’t reopen the dining room [due to guidelines at the time]. We reopened with a table at the front and a Perspex screen and handed out bags at the door.”


A client collecting from the Soup Kitchen


It’s a model which has survived post-lockdown for the Soup Kitchen – a result of the number of people attending on a drop-in basis, with over one hundred bags of food being given out each time it opens its doors.

“We can’t reopen the dining room because we have too many people. It has a maximum capacity of about 50 but we are thinking of ways to reopen this,” Marilyn explained.

The Soup Kitchen also changed its hours, instead opening in the middle of the day every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, giving out one of two bags. One bag, earmarked for rough sleepers and homeless people, typically features items that require no preparation, whilst other bags for people struggling who are not homeless, will typically feature a hot meal which they can microwave. Other items can include sandwiches, hot pasties, bread, cake, biscuits – although there is some scope for fresh produce.

“If possible, we give people another bag with fresh fruit and vegetables, yoghurts, whatever the supermarkets donate to us,” Marilyn explained, before adding how donations are shared with their other non-profit operation, the foodbank-esque Whitworth Lighthouse Community Foodshare.


Supplies are donated by local supermarkets
Supplies are donated by local supermarkets


The Lighthouse was set up in September 2020, an idea which stemmed from the first lockdown where Marilyn, Vida and Steve Gough realised - due to redundancies and furlough - there was going to be a need for a foodsharing facility in Whitworth.

Based at 551-552 Market Street, The Lighthouse runs on an appointment basis on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays with Steve as front of house. The service operates out of the old methodist church premises, and is run in partnership with Thrum Hall Methodist Church.

If you think you would benefit from the Whitworth Lighthouse Community Foodshare, you can refer yourself by calling 07922 951 096 or email lighthousefoodshare@gmail.com.

You can also be referred through your local doctors’ surgery, school, social services, dentists, council offices and councillors.

Marilyn continued: “Whatever food we are given goes to whichever venue is open, then anything left over is taken to the other. If there’s still anything remaining then, we donate it to hostels. Most supermarkets in Rochdale give us donations and nothing goes in the bin.

“If anything is too far gone for human consumption, it goes to a man in Bacup for his animals.”

In 2022, the Soup Kitchen Rochdale’s volunteers were recognised by the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, and Marilyn says their zero-waste approach “struck the assessor.”

“We pride ourselves on nothing going in the bin. We have a magic army of volunteers who pick up donations from the supermarkets and they don’t ask for any expenses.

“We are always looking for more volunteers for both ventures. We need drivers and volunteers for bag packing and service at the Soup Kitchen, as well as people to help out at the Lighthouse.”

Interested in becoming a volunteer at the Soup Kitchen or Lighthouse?

The Soup Kitchen (Champness Hall, Great George Street, Rochdale OL16 1PQ) is a drop-in service and is open every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 12.30pm to 2pm.

The Whitworth Lighthouse Community Foodshare (551-553 Market Street, Whitworth, OL12 8QW) is open every Tuesday and Thursday from 10am to 4pm, and every Saturday between 10am and 3pm.

If you want to get involved as a volunteer at either organisation, you can contact Marilyn on 07817 150327.

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