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 is never going to feel normal. I get an important fear /adrenaline burst every time I close the front door. Get cracking, this is helping people, don’t be scared, you’re not going to get it, ‘essential’ is the word of the week not ‘normal’, please don’t let this feel normal. I’ve not been sleeping that well, and I think it’s beginning to show.

A reminder that at my age I need something to kickstart the day and it’s too early for coffee. However I’m boosted by the news that we were featured in the Times on Saturday as one of two charities as their focus on coronavirus response. Unfortunately there is no mention of Bristol, the bittersweet nature of this fact seems very appropriate at the moment. Paul is gutted, I’m trying to be more philosophical but still feel a bit disappointed.

It’s behind a paywall, a metaphor for today. Well who is buying actual newspapers at the moment? The PPE debate is important for us, but it seems like the conversation is either health and social care workers or the general public. We have no directive, we have a box of 50 masks for 10 Food Clubs at the moment. How on earth should we ration, use and distribute these?

This week is a combination of pleasant surprises and increasing pressure. The surplus from mainstream catering will start to filter through, but how long will it last?

At Knowle West there is great satisfaction to be had in working with a well balanced team. Gillian and Emma have complementary skills and I catch snatches of heartbreaking telephone conversations, where compassionate and selfless staff try their very best to negotiate the complex logistics of getting food to people in difficult and tense circumstances. Their patience and perseverance pays off and is something I have seen across the city; people with the concern for others at the centre of everything they do. No-one wants to wear a mask here. I offer and refusal does not offend. They feel at a safe distance, they say and want their families to see their faces. Their smiles are genuine, heartfelt and priceless at the moment.

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Steady hand?

I snatch a moment to grab some lunch at 4pm and get 15 minutes of contemplation in a deserted nursery playground. The relaxing sounds are birdsong and swearing, as there appears to be a football match going on across the way. Strolling around this artificial surface, it feels like time has stood still and simply all the life and small children have been removed. It feels strange and worrying and peaceful. It’s not normal that’s for sure, or relaxing so I head back into helping the club. We’ve got Easter bunnies to give out and the smiles they produce are also priceless.

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Redcliffe is such an island. It’s a little pocket of strangeness between posh flats, Asda, Temple Meads and the city. I like it, and it is certainly very real. The fridges are stacked and Joan has been plugging away at attracting the families to the new club. I help Jasmine shift about 40kg of refrigerated chips to the children’s centre fridges in a nursery trolley, right down the middle of the road. This seems like a perfectly normal thing to do. It isn’t is it?

After the joy of meeting the sister of a former pupil here last week, today the atmosphere is very different. Paul is accosted by a man begging for food, as he is carrying a crate of ready meals. He politely explains why he can’t give him food and is met with “Thanks very much, I suppose I’ll have to eat some fucking grass then!”.

Then Joan tells us of a young father who came to Food Club last week but told her on the phone today that he won’t be coming again as he had to throw all of the food out. When asked why, he explained that he has not long since left prison, has kids to look after all day and he had no idea what to do with all the ingredients so he just put them in the bin. Silence and floor gazing amongst the team, as we contemplate the many desperate challenges of living in poverty, of money, of experience, of time, creativity and support. I think of what we could have done with a 10 minute speed tutorial, and then I think of the wasted calories for those children, through no real fault of the father, just not knowing where to turn to for help. I won’t be watching any smug banana bread videos tonight.

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Fridges are packed at Redcliffe.

This reminds everyone of pre-lockdown when we could talk recipes, offer freshly cooked samples and invite people in for a chat. There is so much more to our work than handouts, but it doesn’t feel like that at the moment.

The club runs well and the food is good. We are still struggling for Halal or Vegan options but this is the nature of the surplus food industry, you get what you’re given and it’s not often vegan burgers and even more rarely is it Halal (Once in the last 6 months). I’m satisfied that the rest of the box we are offering is full of decent items and offers a very good deal. It might not be suitable for everyone, but it works for most.

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This week’s £3.50 box at St Pauls.

There has been some pressure / expectation that food should be free at the moment. It is a complicated issue. There are food banks, there is emergency funding available across the city.

Food clubs were never designed to be Food Banks, there are some critical differences. The new Covid community hubs will be acting as a central point for people to get help. Hopefully they can help to refer the right people to the right places. I also hope that that father and other families we encounter have the support to access those resources. Food clubs were always set up to be much more than emergency provision, allowing families with eligible 2 year olds to access affordable quality food for an entire year. Add to this the positive environmental impact of saving surplus food from landfill and cookery demos and recipes and you’ve got a sustainable replicable formula. Obviously the focus has changed in the last few weeks, but we are optimistic about the ability to maintain as many of these new clubs when the landscape changes again.

Wednesday at St Pauls and the day starts positively. The box is brimming and it’s also the day to give out the activity bags from the Scrapstore, so families are getting over £30 worth of food and £16 of craft activities for £3.50. The will to help means that there are plenty of staff here from the nursery along with Deborah the head of the centres in this area, all hands on deck. Elaine continues to amaze through her positivity, management the club and awareness of her families. She has an apparent photographic memory, recalling names, events and interests in all of the families she interacts with. We need to train as many different people at the moment, to ensure if anyone is off ill, we can cover. However, Elaine is irreplaceable.

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Investo in some pesto

Hartcliffe has all the ingredients for an Asda Extra Special BBQ; burgers, sausages and a decent amount of chicken. The sun is out and I put the little speaker behind Derek, with a “Summer BBQ” playlist to make him dance and the families smile. Music has become really important; singing along whilst we’re packing boxes, distracting us from reality maybe. I’ve found myself driving and howling my eyes out to some horrific tunes on Radio 2 this week. It’s odd how these things affect you, normally I’d baulk at such cheesiness, but it sort of feels ok. Just don’t tell the lads at football.

We also have masses of Hello Fresh! sachets. How the other half live. Many of our families would spend their monthly food budget on 1 week of Hello Fresh!, but we’re happy to use their surplus to provide pesto and Thai curry sauce. There is also a ludicrous amount of Rebel Whoppers from Burger King. I am on a mission to turn South Bristol vegan. I’d love to just give them out and not say anything, but that’s not really allowed. They are massive and are made by the very reputable Dutch company, the Vegetarian Butcher (insert joke). Inns Court is smooth, it runs itself now, which is the best way. Family Support Workers reconnecting with their families and checking in face to face. Ish.

News from the new club at Oldbury Court is good. All the logistics and planning have worked out and around 20 families have collected food bags, there is a strong team and a definite demand. The nature of this job means it is unlikely I will get to visit for a while, but Paul and Jasmine have it all covered.

Early evening is spent collecting a generous donation from Fox and West on the Bath Road, and what a lovely place that is. Laura is delighted to hand us some top quality produce which has been funded by their delivery charges. What a fantastic thing to do. There are fresh herbs and beetroot, celeriac and some remarkable pots from the remarkably named Fanny Tingle. I can’t wait to give these out tomorrow! Let’s spread veganism and smut across the city.

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The week ends with Friday at Hartcliffe. A joyous last push to a killer week. Paul has been in his element, putting together all the important background elements to make this work and to smoothly expand into new areas.

We clean, sanitise and debrief. I recall Emily Maitlis’s passionate and scathing words about how this doesn’t affect everybody in the same way, that you can’t just be strong and get through this. Especially if you are short of PPE, in poverty, experiencing domestic abuse or live in a tiny flat. It’s patently obvious to most people, just not some politicians and much of the press.

Written by

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

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