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.
What do you do to wind down after a hard day at the “office”? I’ve taken to watching America’s funniest home videos, a selection of puerile, imbecilic clips of sometimes willing and unfortunate American humans and animals meeting their predictable demise against a wall/floor/lake/fence post. Call it schadenfreude, escapism, suitable for 14 year olds…whatever, it’s a fitting metaphor for these ridiculous times. Oh, and I like beer. Cold beer. And this of course, has it’s therapeutic/cathartic benefits.
It’s really difficult avoiding the news, you need to know what’s going on, (especially the daily briefing) but the horrific nature of the scale of the impact and the smaller scale but no less significant, devastation of individual families, can take its toll. I am reminded that I could be a carrier and inadvertently spreading it around the city or I could vulnerable to catching it from the dozens of people I interact with every week. I make a mental note to go over all the safe practices and remind all the teams to do the same.
This week is about reminders. As we slip into these strange behaviours, as if we have always done them, it’s easy to forget the hand-washing, the distancing, the nasty nature of this virus. It’s easy to get drawn into online speculation about easing of lockdown, of social gatherings of up to 10 people, of ‘getting the economy going again’. This is working, it could have been done earlier, but it seems to be working and the vast majority of us are responsible for this. Let’s keep it going.
The second week without Paul is going to be a killer. No need for post-work walks this week, there’ll be plenty of lifting, walking and moving about for sure. Paul is still manically pulling the strings; there are burst of 8 emails to various important people and organisations across the city. We have so much to do behind the scenes, he would probably hate it, but it’s good he is able to catch his breath and catch his emails.
Ping. The text is in, the new fridge is due for delivery to our brand new club at Broomhill just after 8am. This is part of our move into East Bristol, to a part of the city you wouldn’t accidentally drive through. There’s brilliant rollercoaster road that leads up to the venue, which is a church hall just down from the children’s centre. I meet Jasmine and Jo, the FSW who is supporting this club and the massive new fridge is expertly put in it’s place. The delivery comes later on and is full of fresh, quality produce.
Jo asks lots of important questions about the club, it’s clear that she is really committed to this and I am confident this club will prosper.
Over in Knowle West, the Nursery team have kindly packed away the delivery. They are used to a small delivery for the nursery, I hope they’re not too shocked by 200kgs.
Early start again, as I head to Inns Court to transfer meat free supplies to our two clubs near the centre of the city. The Redcliffe delivery is early, which helps. It’s also packed with goodies, this week’s bag should be really good.
Across to Broomhill for the grand opening of the new club, Steph and Ruth are genuinely excited about this new service. It will also be a chance for them to check in with their families. Jo is the greeter and is in her element, talking to the families and explaining how it all works. Ruth adapts to the technology with ease and Steph has the perfect balance of being a warm friendly face, along with lots of important support and information for the families. The atmosphere is so positive, the families really happy and with a bit of background music, this is a really enjoyable experience.
Any concerns about being essential workers on the front line are not apparent and there’s even the opportunity for a new member to feel relaxed enough to make a filthy appendage from an oddly shaped potato and a wrinkled parsnip. Sorry, no pictures.
Knowle West Children’s Centre is back to being busier with staff again, it might be a glimpse of the future. There’s a meeting going on in a side room and more staff around than the last few weeks. I stop and talk to a new member who is ecstatic with with the food. She was worried that the club might not be for her. Her partner who has recently lost his job as a scaffolder and she didn’t think she would need this kind of service. She is cautious and humble (she worries that she is taking someone else’s place) and is a great example of many of the members that we talk to. They think of others first, share support, food and ideas. It’s this that gives me faith in getting through this, not the actions of those in power. The natural instinct to support those in need, then think of yourself afterwards. I gently remind her not to worry, that the support workers have contacted her because they know she would benefit. As a charity we trust that professional judgement, to make that call, to decide who needs this service and who needs something different. Gillian and Emma have been brilliant at ensuring that this happens. It’s a late finish after a trip to Inns Court to hold produce in the fridge for later in the week.
I spin by Inns Court to collect the meat free mince for Redcliffe and St Pauls. Plans for Halal products are in motion, but in the meantime we improvise by offering veggie/vegan options and those giant bags of cheese are back (good for portioning and freezing at home).
At St Pauls we are meeting the mayor, Marvin Rees. He has contacted us to arrange a visit on the way to city hall. Like many people who do so much, Elaine is not keen on being in the limelight, and is happy to serve the members and catch up with some of the most vulnerable people in this inner city hub. The mayor arrives bang on time, he’s happy chatting to passers by and to us about his connections here (his mum used to work in a nursery in teh city). Beth, Deborah (the children’s centres manager) chat away with him. I chip in with a few facts and figures about the scale of the clubs and the value of the centre staff.
We go inside and he seems genuinely impressed with the amount and quality of the food on offer. There are a couple of gently staged photo opportunities but it feels pretty natural. The most powerful part of the visit is when he gets to meet Anita, one of our most active members here. With no briefing from us, she naturally gushes to him about the clubs, the support she gets, the fun with ingredients, the excitement of what can be cooked each week, the involvement of the fantastic 91 Ways. It’s a perfect end to what could have been an awkward visit, with social distancing and tension and fear in the community. Our hopes for positive coverage are confirmed with a lovely tweet/FB message later that day.
Quick aside — at one point I am convinced that he is playing on his phone while we are explaining some of the most important parts of the club. It turns out he was sending an email to connect us with the council’s excellent Period Friendly Bristol initiative. By the end of the day we have made plans to help redistribute menstrual products through the Food Clubs. It’s great when you see the power of connection, I wish we all had it.
The rest of the day is spent at Redcliffe, where a man walks in off the street and hands us a tenner. I explain that we are a funded service and he doesn’t need to do this. He insists, explaining that he is on full pay and not working at the moment and he would like us to have it. Blimey, that’s never happened before. I ask him his name to say thank you, he refuses.
And at Inns Court, where the delivery appears never ending, but is nice and early. I’ve taken to sitting in the cool confines of this centre and catching my breath. It’s a safe haven, definitely not an office, but I’m behind a door with a code on it and there’s a desk of sorts to sit and catch up on emails and messages.
Hartcliffe is the usual mix of smooth operation and excitable chaos. Derek’s filing system is unique and Rhona is on good form. There are a lot of calls to make to members, so I crack on with the repetitive but fulfilling task of sorting the boxes.
Eliza brings sanity and systems, we discuss the FB group and changing it to make things easier for her. More of a wall than a members group. This seems the best way at other clubs. We rattle out almost 30 boxes and a few deliveries. Today we are able to offer some extras, larger items that we have a few of, that we can sell as an add on to a bag of food. Cheese and bacon, coffee and Easter eggs.
On the way to Inns Court I have the pleasure of dropping by the Square Food Foundation, just 5 minutes down the road. Have a look at their website below, they have been doing some amazing stuff in the last few weeks. They have donated some home-cooked meals for our Inns Court club to test out. If it goes well, then we might be able to scale up. They look delicious and go down very well indeed, we are asking for feedback next week.
The club is as busy as ever, and there are some vital conversations with members. Stephen is our youngest volunteer and has been helping out for a few months here. He’s incredibly mature and dives in to help when he can. At a time when young people are getting stick for breaking lockdown and being referred to pejoratively as the “me generation”, it’s great to disprove the tabloid nonsense. David delivers to the older ladies in Butterworth court. He returns with an offer of protective shield masks that one of the ladies has a been collecting. He had politely refused but was checking with us. It’s an indicator of the level of fear amongst some people.
Square Food Foundation - Bristol's Cookery School & Community Kitchen.
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A late call from Paul leads to a dash north to Makro at Cribbs Causeway as they have offered some fresh veg. It’s an odd experience, as I walk around a giant empty shop with two members of staff who cherry pick the produce from the shelves that I can take. It then goes through the till and totals almost £200.
A locked staff gate starts the day, so I ‘dolly’ the haul from yesterday along the wonky path to the Hartcliffe room. This one is an old bread factory dolly and is like a 360 degree skateboard and has a mind of its own. I resist the temptation to do a brief Tony Hawks impression. There are enough of us about to have a slick system here, Jasmine is back in the fold after managing the Southmead and Oldbury Court (liqueur chocolates?!) clubs yesterday amongst other plate spinning joys.
Amanda and Rhona are dancing to the Disco Forever soundtrack and the members are delighted with the box this week. It is almost spilling over the edge with fresh fruit and veg and some nice treats. We’ve had a late Easter Egg delivery and can add one to every box. There are some quality conversations here with FSWs connecting with families and dishing out more of those amazing craft bags. The sun is blazing and the week ends on a positive note. The team head off to deliver and I join Jasmine for a debrief call to Paul, where we got through each club in turn and adjust the delivery amounts for next week and make plans for our face to face catch up next week. Paul can finally escape back onto the streets of Bristol.
I can not over stress the importance of some of the conversations I have witnessed this week. Members who appear fine are able to feel reassured by their contact with their support workers. Those who may be struggling are able to offload, get advice, friendly words and a point in the right direction. I think I underestimated the ‘club’ element of Food Clubs and how they are beginning to play a vital role in the wellbeing of many families across the city. This is a credit to the phenomenal work the Family Support Workers, their management, the nursery workers and the volunteers are doing across Bristol. I still lie awake thinking what else I could have done this week.
Week 4 ends with a Zoom call connecting Bristol with the team in Manchester. It’s good to catch up and hear how similar some of the challenges are. Next week will bring another new club, some freezer tomfoolery and the return of Paul. Now, it’s time for a big sit down.