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.
I don’t believe in karma. I’ve seen a lot of horrible things happen to lovely people and some right clowns inherit the earth. You need positive action to make things a tiny bit fairer, to make things happen. The joys of this job revolve around knowing that you are doing your bit to try, no matter how naively, to redress the imbalance. The sorrows come from knowing it will never be enough, the odds are stacked against us, the cards are marked, the powerful machines will crush all in their tracks.
Having said all that, it’s funny how good news is often tempered by something a bit rubbish. We make the Bristol Post, the much maligned local publication that treads the line between clickbait and gaslighting with predictable regularity. I have history, but that’s another (long but fascinating) story.
Bristol's 'astounding' effort to feed people in need during lockdown
Selfless food bank staff and volunteers have united to ensure Bristol communities do not go hungry during the…
The unfortunate nature of anonymity is that the charity doesn’t get a mention, but they have used my words nicely, although it all sounds like one organisation. We always promote the charity, Fareshare, Feeding Bristol and BCC Early Years as evenly as possible. It is the partnership, cooperation and collaboration that has made this happen. In a way it doesn’t matter who we work for.
Anyway, the sorrow arrives. Paul is out of action for 2 weeks, Covid symptoms in his household and there’s no alternative. This will not be a normal week regardless, now it has taken on even more significance. We need to open new clubs and Paul has been instrumental in all of those dealings. The good news is that he feels fine and will be able to beaver away and work from home. It may actually work in our favour. Optimism might just have to be the order of the week.
So, not many pics this week, not too much navel gazing and a whistlestop guide to week 4 in lockdown.
I drive up to Lockleaze to drop off some masks. I have a 90 second chat with Alice. All is well, although I detect the usual mild fear that you can see in some people’s eyes. We all want these clubs to have maximum effect, it’s really hard to feel satisfied, that you’ve done enough. What keeps me awake at night, is not the things that I need to do, it’s the things I think I could’ve done the days before.
Knowle West is steadily growing as membership increases. Anna is the manager of all centres in the south and she has been so supportive of this growth. She combines a vision for expansion with compassion and commitment to improving the lives of as many families as possible. She has been involved with Food Clubs from the beginning. She saw what was happening in Manchester and knew Bristol could build on it. Anna also had the foresight to involve as many of her staff as possible, to get them involved and to support the families. PPE is available, but apart from gloves and lashings of gel, the masks remain unused.
At Redcliffe we have new fridges, borrowed from Compass Point with help from the dedicated Janice. I get 45 minutes with Jasmine to sit down and plan how to operate without Paul over the next 2 weeks. The big boss calls, he wonders if we need to postpone the new openings, I almost insensitively mutter “over my dead body”, but moderate this to a “no way, we can manage”. Jasmine has a calmness and focus that is most helpful, we fill the gaps in the week, decide responsibilities and make a vow to check in with each other when we can. It is testament to her dedication that she is only paid to work 3 days per week but often continues onto extra days and hours in the evening. Whatever it takes.
Cheese is in abundance this week, but not much else. Our members who only eat Halal meat will walk away with 1 or 2kgs of Mozzarella/cheddar mix as their “main course”. Not ideal but useful for sandwiches and toppings maybe. We are looking at sourcing Halal meat from an alternative provider.
The piles of catering food is no longer flowing through and we receive a warning from Fareshare that deliveries may be down this week. It seems that the general increase in supermarket buying has led to a decrease in surplus. Last week there appeared to be an excess of everything, this week not so much.
Kevin is supporting this week and has been brilliant in moving between centres in the South and plugging all the gaps. Kevin might be running the till, inputting data or talking to customers in the queue, whatever the task it is done with a smile and energy. An agitated man arrives at the end of the club, he wants food, he is upset, angry and a little bit shouty. Kevin placates him, talks calmly, offers sensible advice and is met with defiance. It’s a tense exchange, but it resolves itself. It’s important to appreciate that some people are not ready to accept help, no matter what you say or how you say it.
St Pauls is busy, there is some great food and another excellent plan of action in place. We have some ready cooked poached eggs, which are odd but people seem to like them. I bomb between here and Redcliffe and Paul’s house as we need an iPad for the Southmead. It’s sunny but very cold and the streets are clear. More than ever, I notice that “Covid 19 — Essential travel only” dot matrix sign on the inner ring road. This still feels essential. We have extended opening until 12 to squeeze in as many members as possible. One dad is a key worker and drops his child off at nursery so always comes early to pick up his bag. In work poverty was always evident in the early days of Food Clubs, it seems very stark now.
I am happy to hole up at Inns Court in the afternoon, my little sanctuary. I unlock the giant metal door, deactivate the alarm and sit still. It’s cool and even quieter here. The delivery comes via Taunton so we always some notice. I make adjustments to the payment screen and sort out the fridges, while I wait. Gillian arrives just after the delivery drop off and we put away the crates. There appears to be salami in every club this week, it’s about a foot long and has a decent date on it. We’l have to push it as a pizza topping or for sandwiches or pasta. Innocent have ditched 100s of kiwi and cucumber smoothies, there’s hummus and olives. Earlier at Hartcliffe we had to remove the olives and offer them as an option as they are not always to everyone’s liking. A member has taken to posting on FB anything that they do not want, I always assume it’s done in good faith but it can cause more work for covid response groups and other professionals. I try to get people to return things they will not use or give them to family members. Alternatively, we would rather the food go back to our members who use the clubs. It’s a tricky one. Rhona has been a superstar here and she makes a good team with Derek. Good cop bad cop. Maybe. She is very well connected across early years and community development in the city and seems to know everyone. She is also accidentally and deliberately very very funny. We quote the words to “What’s your name Mary Jane?” to each other. What’s your number cucumber? Address? Watercress? Eliza is way too young to remember this and laughs at us like we’ve talking about an old band or something. Never a dull moment with Rhona, she pushes herself to do the till in spite of hating working with numbers, but her manner is so friendly and welcoming that it would be daft no to put her on the ‘front of house’.
Back at Inns Court a member is unhappy with the food, complaining that is was out of date last week (not true) and that they don’t like much of it this week. I gently explain how the system works and how we don’t know what we are getting until the day before. How it is important to be willing to try new things and that if it is not suitable, it is perfectly OK to say “this is not for me”. A compromise is reached and we all crack on .
The day ends with a pleasant visit to our potential new site in Speedwell. Jasmine has done some high level wheeling and dealing and has secured us some new fridges and I get a guided tour of the lovely children’s centre. It’s like a fantasy world of nooks and crannies that any toddler would love to explore. I want to explore it. In bright sunlight we walk across the little park, past the buzzing bee hotels and the buzzing kids playground where the local youth are smoking jazz cigarettes. There’s definitely a disturbing connection between smoking of the reefer and the location of nursery schools. With some statistical research we could make that a correlation. A giant wooden spider rules the park, which must frighten the life out of you after dark. We mooch about the Meadow Vale community association building; it’s perfect for a Food Club, connecting to the nursery but open to the community. This will eventually be the last club of the week, and I dream of finishing a boiling hot, jam packed week of clubs and sitting down with a freezing cold beer on the grass. That’ll be on a hold for while. Jasmine reports that Southmead was unexpectedly quiet and Oldbury Court is going well in spite of some internet issues.
Friday ends with Hartcliffe and the flinging out of around 36 boxes. It’s a little quieter than usual as we have split the members between the two days. We sell on a few extras, as we have some Cathedral City cheddar, dairy free Easter eggs, coffee and shaving foam which can’t really be split. Eliza is unwell and we miss her drive, organisation and positivity. Supportive messages are sent, and hopefully we’ll see her next week. She has been chatting away to Rhona, and the relationship they’ve built up in a short amount of time, is another example of the power of working with volunteers and keeping Food Clubs open to all supportive staff. Jasmine ensures that the small amount of surplus (it was hard convincing people to take the incredible prusciutto we had been given!) is stored or shared evenly and Derek heads off on deliveries. I have an afternoon Zoom meeting to look forward to, and head home.
The week ends with a much needed catch up with Manchester and curtain twitchers joy of glimpsing the inside of three of my colleagues houses. Always choose a neutral background. And keep the wine out of sight. We plan and discuss the coming weeks and are reminded of all the stuff we should have done before this madness broke out. Paul later tells me I looked rough. Thanks. I feel it. Not in that way. I brace myself for next week, and dream of at least 48 hours without thinking of new openings.