Diary of a Food Club Support Worker
My name is Simon and I work for a national charity. 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.
This week will be our most challenging yet, we know this before we have even started it. Pressure is mounting on a variety of public services and we are about to launch THREE new Food Clubs in the middle of it all. Here begins a tale of juggling and balancing and winging it.
Monday and Tuesday
There are no clubs on Monday but we still have deliveries. Over at Knowle West we are pushing ahead with the new club and await the first delivery. There is a warm welcome here as it is the last day that the staff are working and also because they have a welcoming settee at the entrance. OK, it’s made of bricks, but I’ll take it at the moment.
This is Jasmine’s territory, she is a chef and early years specialist and a great person to learn lots of fascinating and important stuff from. She has been an unofficial mentor to me from back from the Bearritos days and working with her is a bit like working with someone of the telly. At first I was a bit star struck, then she started swearing and organising and caring and heavy lifting, so now it feels normal.
Today working with Jasmine is a joyful journey from food hygiene minutiae to successful chopping of a 90cm chicken ‘sausage’. The delivery is late but that time to prepare the club and chat with the support workers is vital; being able to answer the many and varied questions is essential. I think it also serves to quell fear, as things are beginning to get very scary.
When the delivery arrives, guess what? it contains some 90cm chicken sausages and stack of fresh veg. Mangoes always go down well and we’ve got some lovely ripe ones, missus. The mood is buoyant, we really want this club to work and people are excited to be helping others. This is a very good thing. But it will prove really hard to maintain. Gillian and Emma are in charge here and they graft hard before sneaking out for a well earned fag. Jasmine uses her fridge jenga skills and perfectly bends in the giant sausage. That must be what they teach you at chef school.
I learnt a lot about language from my Dad, Pedro. Mostly from things he used to call me… “imbecile…..puerile….village idiot” that kind of thing. Just to prove my growth and maturity to my inspirational father, I have made a tribute video to show how I’ve changed. Hope the right one uploads…
The next day the club itself runs smoothly, families are delighted with the food and I leave knowing that lots of them will be back. Hopskotch is the chosen chalk style and social distancing is working and although quiet, we are confident this will pick up. The telephone call nudge can be a powerful tool. To complicate things, Gillian and Emma have selflessly taken on some home deliveries. This is a brave move and not to be underestimated; you are out on the road, increasing your exposure to others and in turn the risk of getting or spreading infection. We talk about this all the time, not with gallows humour, just practical advice. The charity has an excellent Covid 19 business continuity plan and step by step guidance on how to operate Food Clubs at this time. Everyone loves a ticklist.
New day, new club and after a slightly nervous start to St Pauls club (lots of new staff and an understable wariness) it’s off to Redcliffe. Yesterday the delivery arrived at Prewett Street where we are based in a council unit that is part of a row of shops. This will be our first club that goes directly onto the street and this area is not without its challenges already. Joan and Sarah are brilliant. Connected and caring, they are keen to help their caseload families and there are plenty of laughs amongst the setting up. After some serious technophobia we are good to go, Jasmine is here to support and we dish out over 20 bags to brand new members. This feels important at this moment.
Magic moments are precious in this work and fortunately for me, I had one today. A mother begins talking as she is paying for her bag, she says she recognises me but she doesn’t know where from. Initially, I can’t possibly think from where. I ask her if she has ever lived in London (I recognise her accent) and the exchange goes like this…
- Yeah, but ages ago, like 7–8 years.
- Oh, ok. But, was it west London?
- Round Ealing way?
- Oh my god, you know my life!!
- Maybe Hanwell?
- Aaaaarrghgh. Now you’re freaking me out.
- Did you go to Drayton Manor High School?
- (She loses it and cannot speak)
At this point I recognise the family resemblance and take a confident guess…
- Do you have a sister called ****? GAME OVER. Hysteria.
I never taught A, but the family were notorious in the school. Usually for the right reasons, sometimes not. There were SEVEN of them that went to that school, and **** was amazing. Sociable, friendly, confident, self-depreciating and really really intelligent. She now lives in the US and her sister A lives in Redcliffe. We pose for a photo (way over 2m apart) and I know that her sister will laugh from across the Atlantic and remember being a 6th form activist in my idealistic club, that was pretentiously called Global. She was a pre-Greta Greta.
This chance meeting gives everyone a smiley boost and we load up and head towards Inns Court. Talk of the rumoured Mars delivery, has led to speculation about mountains of mass-produced chocolate to feed the masses. As it turns out it is a mountain, but of Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s, two brands that Mars own. Food conglomerates are also scary. We are grateful for the donation, as I am for not having to unload the damn thing, it’s massive.
I round off the day responding to the last minute Fareshare whatsapp group that has been set up for Food Clubs, Food banks and other emergency provision to grab any stock that they need to shift at short notice. I had no idea what 300 packs of Hot Cross Buns looks like. I do now.
I miss a call at 7.45am, it was Paul and he leaves a message saying that a delivery driver is waiting at Inns Court, Jane has the keys and we’ll meet her there. We all race to get there and are greeted by a deeply sarcastic man from Burton upon Trent. He makes me laugh by rudely slagging off Paul for being grumpy in the morning. He then makes a possibly/probably offensive joke (none of us had heard of the term he uses and I won’t repeat it and won’t google it) and it all gets a bit awkward. Anyway, we unload three massive pallets of lovely Lovells wafers. Like the neon pink ones, but full of a dry nutella ish paste (I should work in marketing). Nicer than that sounds. There are apparently 10,000 packets of wafers. Blimey and Thank you.
Jane is astonishing. She is utterly selfless and volunteers to do everything for everybody. Her ‘get stuck in’ attitude, led to her being to first volunteer at this club and she has that natural instinct to look out for others, that you need in this environment. I make it my mission to look after Jane a bit, and make sure she gets a bag of food tomorrow. All our volunteers receive a bag of food for their time. Many initially refuse to take it because they think it should go to the families, but it is really important that they get something for their work, the Food Clubs would be nothing without them. Jane is so busy doing things in this community, and is renowned for her baking. We love her cakes, and her attitude.
Sometimes we get random larger items, so we can sell them for a small price or give them away. This week it’s Wallace and Gromit pasta. Just what we need.
Off to Hartcliffe for the launch of new club number 3. The first doubling-up of Food club, the infrastructure, people and demand is there so why not have an extra club? The atmosphere is good, the team are well briefed and Kevin is on good form as the club “bouncer”, greeting all the members and getting them to sign up for next week. It’s quieter than the Friday club but it is new and there are a few deliveries to round off. Paul is over in Southmead and it has been at capacity. Later on, Inns Court is a challenge for the new social distancing rules as 3 new members pile in to the reception area, all within 1 metre of each other. We go back outside and sign them up in the fresh air and at distance. It all runs smoothly as everyone has clear roles and a renewed focus as we are reminded of how important this service is.
We love Hartcliffe on a Friday, it’s a chance to reflect on the week just gone by and to spend time with the brilliant team down there. I usually grab 30 minutes with Paul to make plans for the next week.
Today we have some remarkable activity bags that have been put together by the Scrapstore and are going out to every Food Club member. They are MASSIVE and contain an intimidating amount of arts and crafts material. There are plans to make some little videos to support the families who understandably, may not have a clue as to what to do with all this wondrous stuff.
We hit almost 50 bags and round off the week with home deliveries, telephone payments and I deliver a last bag to a family that have moved to BS3 and will no longer be using the service.
The “new normal” is a fashionable phrase that particularly winds me up. This is new but it is not normal, it isn’t the way things are going to be, it is the way things are. It will be the way things stay if we do nothing, if we carry on as normal.
For many people that we work with, their “normal” is challenging enough, so the changes and stresses that we have seen in the last couple of weeks are particularly difficult for them to bear. If you have a nice big garden, access to great wifi, money in the bank to buy things, a functioning social support network, a big park nearby, the energy to bounce around like Tigger every JoeWicksing morning, the patience to make every JamieOlivering Keepcookingandcarryon meal, the strength of mind not to be worried, scared, terrified of the future for yourself and your family, then that’s a great privilege that you probably need reminding of once in a while.
I’ve read some great things this week about tolerance, understanding and patience as we adjust to all these changes. How slagging off those that have not adjusted properly yet, makes it easier for the those in power to avoid scrutiny. From what I’ve seen, there is a lot of value in this. The nature of social media takes some blame here, but the actions of individuals to divide, and criticise are personal choices that are destructive and distracting. Look at the facts, look at what over 10 years of austerity has done to some communities and how those are the people, the families, that have been most acutely affected by this.
The Children’s Centre staff are magnificent. They remain upbeat. They have dug in for years, without proper funding. They do everything they can to help the most vulnerable families in this city, and they tell me over and over again about the impacts of the cuts over the last years. Their managers have vision, compassion and drive to support as many families as they can. They tell me how they are trying to support families in the most deprived parts of the city with falling budgets and resources. And now this happens.
So, we have a responsibility not to turn on each other, not to rant about BBQs and sound systems and joggers and cyclists, but to use that energy to think about people who are worst affected, those that have lost loved ones, those that are really struggling and may never be normal again.
Next week I might have to tackle my increasing disgust at war analogies, just you wait.