Best Before : Diary of a Food Club Support Worker

My name is Simon. The following is an insight into working on a food redistribution project across Bristol in challenging and changing times. Opinions and observations are mine, and are not representative of my employer and names have been changed to protect the brilliant.

WEEK 1

Monday and Tuesday

It’s really bright today. I wonder if we will remember the brightness on the first day of lockdown. I’ll remember the strange concrete roads on the way to Lockleaze, like clip-clopping horses as you drive over them; and I’ll remember wishing I had sunglasses. The city buzz has gone, there is no background noise. No feeling that you get in cities that something is going on. No bus bass, no articulated lorry assault and no feeling that something is about to happen. Lots the things that cities need to function have faded. It makes for an interesting landscape to work in.

In my job, I move around the city, I work in different areas. I appreciate that not many people are doing this at the moment so I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve seen and done. I’m not a social media sharer normally, more of a lurker. But not a great deal is normal at the moment.

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Alice’s handiwork. Eat a Pitta salad reconditioned for Lockleaze members.

It’s 8am on Tuesday and Alice is already in the kitchen putting together hundreds of little boxes of salad and hummus that we got from Eat a Pitta yesterday. Their manufacturing base is in Brislington and like every food business they have struggled to adapt to the changes in the food retail environment. Who could have prepared for a week like that? When every day brings changes and uncertainty. You can run through a scenario and it will have changed by dinner time. Small businesses had no chance to adapt. We are grateful for the donation but 64kg of hummus and even more of gherkins needs, but it needs some serious portioning. Much of this donation has 1 or 2 days before it’s Use By date.

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Just the 32kgs of hummus

This week had begun with collection, we guessed what would happen that evening but could not imagine the effect. Fareshare are so pressured they have closed to regroup and reorganise and are unable to deliver today, so we pick up the food directly from the Fareshare warehouse in St Annes in three cars and head up the funny concrete road. The scale of the operations at Fareshare is astounding, it really is a giant operation in tiny premises with a host of volunteers and dedicated staff. There is something about logistics that everyone can understand; how to get lots of different stuff from one place to another to another as efficiently as possible. But there is another side that is completely incomprehensible to me; the complexities of multiple detailed orders, routes and quantities. Some people have that kind of brain. I respect them enormously.

I wear my lanyard with strange mix of pride and defiance. It tells other drivers that I’m not going shopping for mountains of bog roll or arsing about in a park because I’m bored. Someone is probably planning to sell fake ones on the black market. Honestly, it does provide security. I wonder how long it will be before we are carrying certificates to show to the Avon and Somerset constabulary.

An observation. Driving seems a little more dangerous than normal. Clear the roads and everyone seems to speed up. I’ve seen more crazy driving in the last two days than I would over a month normally. Maybe it’s because everyone feels they have a purpose, they are focused on what they need to do and have a sense of urgency. Maybe it’s the strange sense of lawlessness at this stage, like noone is really watching you, that you can get away with stuff you wouldn’t dare do normally. Are traffic wardens working? Is this an essential service at the moment? It would be painful to get a ticket delivering essential food across the city.

Up in Lockleaze, we had sorted, shifted, bagged and organised the previous day. The big boxes of veg were sorted by type and the refrigerated goods were ready. Chicken drumsticks (fresh but a sad byproduct of the chicken breast and thigh obsessed retailers and public), catering size chicken madras portions made for Sainsburys cafes, Pieminister pies deemed wonky by a human or machine and plant based sausages and mash. Non meat eaters do not always have a choice for the main option, although the range fo fresh produce is usually excellent. Wahaca have donated some last minute veg which is incorporated into the bags, a meet up in a seedy car park has reaped rewards. We are grateful for our donations but often they require more work to prep and ensure safety and fair distribution.

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I tape out some crosses and lines to allow people to see where they should wait to maintain distance. Push the desk against the door and get ready to dish out £10–15 worth of food for just £3.50. We hit around 40 bags. People are happy but not fully clued up on keeping their distance. Children run and cough and grab. Adults forget and have hard to break habits. We try to enforce but this is such a big change that there will be a period of adjustment. Gentle, polite reminders are the order of the day.

We sort the remainder and head to St Pauls. Distributing this surplus from surplus has become an important part of the job. We cannot create more waste. This is our newest club and it’s great, Elaine is the lifeblood, putting all her energies into helping families with young children, exactly what the Food Clubs were set up for. She has the relationships and connections and the willpower to make this club work. Fridges, crates, boxes are our lives and we take calls and arrange the club for tomorrow.

We’ve been doing this since June last year and it has always mattered. Families with young children have benefited from the food we have redistributed. People have been inspired by the unusual ingredients and recipes and enjoyed the challenge of cooking new dishes. I’ve talked kohlrabi in Southmead and celeriac in Hartcliffe. It’s been a fascinating journey and it was just about to go in a different direction, but this is uncharted territory. No-one has seen anything like this before and the situation is changing by the minute, as the different teams work behind the scenes to try and help get food to people.

We know it matters even more now, but as I (approximately) said to my manager Paul this week “Don’t stop, just keep going. And whatever you do, don’t talk about it. Just keep ploughing on. Like real men”. Pete is a man on a mission. He bounces from place to place, calling, emailing, sorting, cleaning, wheeling and dealing. Running the whole show. Paul has kept this whole project alive; he has experience and vision, compassion and drive, he cares a lot but most importantly he gets things done. Unfortunately he often has the appearance of a hyped up commodities dealer; lanyard on, ear glued to phone, concentrated stare, listening and thinking about the next move at the same time. Street chess hussler. Hollywood financial dramas moved to Bristol, the wolf of Small Street, “yes, I can confirm. 200 K gees, me babber”. He states precise instructions to centre managers, community development workers and CEOs. He is a true unsung hero and a stickler for the rights and needs of vulnerable families across the city.

It’s not a 14 hour shift. It’s not the NHS. It’s just something that we are doing to help a few people across the city. It matters now more than ever, and as the pressure is certain to increase over the next few weeks, we are comforted by the fact that for a change, the things that keep us awake at night really do make a difference.

So this began as a daily piece but I think it’ll be “as and when”. Being out and about means that I haven’t got cabin fever yet and get quite excited by sitting and staring at things in the evening. Some people are doing this every day, I’ve seen their posts.

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Wednesday

St Paul’s Family Hub is great. Harriet has drawn some pretty chalky circles that show people where to stand. Beth is a community face that everyone knows and she is our bouncer today. Gently reminding people of their responsibility to keep their distance, but in the nicest way possible. We have some new members (this is a newish club) and a lot of very happy people in spite of the fact that the bag is so heavy it’s tricky for many of them to carry. The blueberries are a hit and we’re giving away whole tray for jams, muffins etc… We get through a stack of chicken and are able to offer our non- meat eaters some spicy bean patties from Pieminister ( I love their silly names, but trying to explain what actually is inside Holy Chipotle patties or Funghi Chicken or Moo-lin Rounge over and over is a unnecessary complexity).

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We encounter some trays of the infamous FSM (free school meals) lunches that went viral today. They’re pretty ropey; half a loaf of bread, some cooking “spread”, cheese and stacks of crisps and biscuits. Nutritionally iffy and financially suspect as the schools are being charged £11 for the pack. Another fine example of the broken food landscape we inhabit. The atmosphere is great here, people are bewildered at the lockdown but delighted with the food offering. We leave feeling we’ve started something really important. Ok so Sarah from 91 Ways can’t cook up her amazing ingenious creations at the door, but we have started to establish strong relationships with our members and they trust us to provide good food for a very good price. As we are about to leave we hear that Fareshare will be able to cope with our proposed expansion next week. This is very good news. We can open more clubs, get more members, feed more families.

The Southmead Snake (and ladder)

The dash to Southmead is on. We head across the city to catch Jeanette, as she has been accepting the delivery on her own. We arrive to find her partner is helping out and that the delivery includes some Miller and Carter steaks, we don’t get steak often and it always goes down well. I’m guessing the retail price of the pack would be around £15. Jeanette is in control in more ways than one. She is such a warm and helpful person, she cares deeply about the families and works tirelessly to support the Food Club and most importantly she laughs at everything I say. Our Food Clubs need people like Jeanette and they also need reminding of their incredible value. We all hide from the sun, grab a coffee and sort all the veg for tomorrow. I head off for lunch at home, avoiding any unnecessary hanging about. I get the call from Lisa in the Fareshare van that the Inns Court delivery is leaving Taunton and should be with us in 1 hour. I head there a little too early and confine myself to the car. This is Knowle West and we have met many families that are really struggling here. The club here was the first not to be in a children’s centre and there is a variety of classes and activities that happen here. I chat at a distance to the Fareshare volunteers, who are the lifeblood of surplus food supply across the country. Incredible people who work for ¹¹nothing, sorting, driving, lifting, shifting tonnes of food.

Derek arrives. He is one of those infectious people who everyone knows and everyone has a story about. Derek has fantastic relationships with our families, he supports, cajoles, puts the squeeze on families who he knows, really need this food. He has worked flat out to support food clubs and he wears his heart on his sleeve and has absolutely no filter to control what comes out of his mouth. This makes for some fascinating exchanges.

We unload around 280kg of food, the bag will be great here tomorrow. There’s steak again and decent stack of pork loin joints with a good date on them. There’s also papaya, a Food Club first. It’s a bit of a squeeze but in it all goes. It’s best to sort this food in advance as we’ll have approximately 45 minutes once we get from Southmead tomorrow.

People are still struggling to come to terms with staying indoors. This is a polite way of saying they are not doing it sensibly. People are complaining about the amount of people out and being suspicious about the importance of their activity. Like sitting in a traffic jam and complaining about the traffic. I feel guilty walking out the door, fearing that people are judging me, in spite of knowing the importance of the project. You can’t blame the kids, especially the little ones. Not sure about them coughing on us though. Some people have no alternative but to bring them out but controlling them in these unusual circumstances can be difficult.

We have stacks of blueberries and give them away by the kilo punnet. Jams and muffins are the order of the day. This is after a huge veg flinging festival where we sort around 10 boxes of mixed veg into veg types. Undoing all the packaging work but it helps to ensure everyone gets a fair share. Deborah the Central Children’s Centres manager, forces us to stop for lunch. It’s a wise move as we sit around for 15 minutes and reflect. This informal release will be increasingly important. Along with swearing, singing stupid songs whilst driving around the city and trying not to think of anything when you get home. Coping strategies one and all.

Thursday

After failing to get to a supermarket for my personal shopping (massive queues at Golden Hill) I head to Southmead. We are using the back entrance, so have to make special signs to ensure people can see which way to go. Chalk of the day is Snakes and Ladders. Perhaps a bit dark, but hopefully it will be taken in the right spirit. The club is busy but could be busier, I think that people may be concerned about coming out or may think that we are not open. One of the members worryingly states that she knows she hasn’t got ‘it’ because she just knows, and then proceeds to hug her friend’s small child. We all hold our breath and I gently remind her about social distancing as she leaves. Jeanette is fuming.

A speedy journey to Inns Court and club number 2 today. Antonia is our ‘front of house’ here. She is the perfect person for the job; incredibly warm and friendly and all of the members can feel how much she cares. A volunteer, Antonia has become essential to this club and we battle to keep her, in spite of our instincts to protect our volunteers and ask them not to come.

We start at 1, but the message hasn’t got out to everyone and I have to fast track a couple of members who have turned up early. One of the biggest challenges is ensuring the bags are fair from beginning to end. The perception is sometimes that the earlier you are, the better the bag. It’s not really true, you may have more choice of main item but really it stays the same to the end. Pre-packing bags has made this even easier to manage, although it can get a bit hairy when you get near the end of the club. We have circles in chalk and are joined by Gillian and Emma who are learning the tricks of the Food Club trade. It’s busy but not as full on as we expected. So a trip to Hartcliffe is essential to transfer food for Friday’s club.

There’s been a surge in catering surplus in the deliveries. The juggernaut that is the high street catering giants has failed to brake in time and Bella Italia have provided £1kg boxes of fresh lasagne. Definitely family size. I am reminded of the obscenity of food waste and the industrial process and scale that makes waste an output rather than something a whole lot more circular. There is an argument against this whole process that states that surplus food redistribution just perpetuates the behaviour of the supermarkets. Now is not the time to debate this, but maybe after all this gently subsides there may be some valuable reflection on this deeply flawed and unfair system.

Friday

Early start up to Inns Court to load up on yesterday’s food. I have to negotiate a massive metal door and a complex alarm system, which requires full concentration before coffee. There is a good couple of hours before the club starts but a lot to do. New Covid procedures to go through with staff and a new one way system to prevent people getting to close. To think that we could be adding to the spread is another terrifying pressure. The club is busy and training on the job goes well. Seeing all the pre prepped bags is a reminder of the scale of this. We can operate on a maximum of 50 bags per club. By the end of next week there will be 8 clubs running, with potential to support 400 families. It will take a while to get there but demand at each club is bound to increase.

We are encouraging contactless payments for obvious reasons. This is catching on, but some people only deal in cash. It is becoming a challenge to accept this and to return change without huge amounts of sanitising, but we all know that is what we have to do to stay as safe as possible. The last club of the week finishes at 1pm, we make sure Eliza gets a bag and a bit more. Eliza is our Hartcliffe volunteer par excellence. She has been with us since she walked into the club room and introduced herself with Nina the Nursery Head, way back in June. She has seen the many ups and downs of this unusual set up and stuck with us in spite of everything. Eliza is to Hartcliffe, what Jeanette is to Southmead, Antonia is to Inns Court, Alice is to Lockleaze and Elaine is to St Pauls. She has compassion and drive in bucketloads and genuinely cares about the families she is helping and the role that good food can play in supporting people in times of need. She works for free, which is incredible.

We say goodbye to Eliza and the Family Support Workers and leave Hartcliffe a little later than planned. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like the unified nature of the response through Food Clubs. Everyone we have worked with this week has shown selflessness and has been fully committed to the cause. They have understood the critical importance of the service these clubs provide and have done everything in their powers to make them work well this week. Do not underestimate how hard this has been, we do not know all the individual stories of all of the people we have worked with this week, but you can be sure that many of them will have families that have been affected by this outbreak. And then, to come to work and learn a whole new routine, put themselves at higher risk of infection by simply being out of the house and to smile, chat and engage with the families that use the clubs, is astounding. I leave feeling grateful for the phenomenal colleagues I have, and the strength and determination they have to help people less fortunate than themselves. It is this that I hope will help me sleep tonight and not the fear that a whole lot worse is still to come.

Written by

Food Club support worker and Lead Youth Worker at Bedminster Youth Club.

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