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.
Around 10 days into this, I noticed a vicious mouth ulcer. Weeks 3 and 4 involved the suppression of teenage spots. Now week 6 appears to be headaches., the chronic kind that never leave in spite of you trying to boot them out with plenty of water and sensible eating times. I’ve never been a hypochondriac, but we all are now, to a degree. “Have I got it?”, “Am I getting it?”, “Do I feel OK?” are common thoughts whenever you stop and think, that’s why I try not to stop and think.
I don’t really do ‘ill’. In my longest period of employment I had one episode of illness in 9 years and that was because management wouldn’t let me come in (I’d smashed by cheekbone and broken my nose playing football, and a geography classroom in a ‘lively’ West London comprehensive was not the safest place to be). Anyway, I’m not ill, it’s just been odd how this cycle of symptoms of working in these strange conditions under pressure, manifests itself.
This week, I had a choking fit in one of the centres this week (not a good or appropriate look). It was a reaction to something going down the ‘wrong pipe’, but I ended up retching on the back steps of the unit in Redcliffe, like an alley cat with a barbed wire furball. Nice. I wiped the tears from my eyes, sanitised everything and jumped back in, feeling vaguely stupid and embarrassed. Maintaining physical distance is difficult in this job, if you get too close it’s tolerated, but dry-retching in polite company would still be frowned upon.
Freezers. Chest freezers. They’re here and they’ve come to solve our storage problems. Paul sorts the St Pauls one, I divert to Hartcliffe. It’s a 400 odd litre capacity, chest of joy. This should help to ensure we can store and redistribute more effectively. Feeding Bristol have been working with Paul to help get these financed and delivered.
Later at Broomhill, a passing mother asks what I am doing. I explain and she says some lovely things. I tell her about membership, but she refuses, explaining that her family is in a ‘privileged’ position and would rather the food went to someone who needs it more. I begin to worry that maybe some of our most needy families might think the same or might not even know about the service.
The delivery here is good and we sort the food for tomorrow. The first delivery gives us an indication of what is to follow and it appears that Tofurky smoked deli slices will be fooling meat eater across Bristol this week. Also masses of catering Hollandaise sauce. Hmmmm.
Paul is back and on good form, and we sit down and make some plans for this busiest of weeks, along with Jasmine. It’s really nice to sit down in a large safe space, it’s a glimpse of normality. Later that day I drop in on Emma at Knowle West. She is knee deep in boxes and I drop off a few essentials to top up the club tomorrow. She is a true grafter and is working really hard to make the clubs work.
Final stop is Inns Court, where I notice the lock bracket on the huge metal door is loose. Many people has seen me coming and going over the weeks and I suspect an opportunist thief has had a nibble. It’s wobbly and unsecure, so whatever the cause it needs reporting. I mean, if anyone did break in they would find themselves richly rewarded with 3,000 hazelnut wafer biscuits. You can’t even smoke them. But it does remind me that some of our clubs no longer have the security of workers eyes looking out for any dodgy characters.
Redcliffe is the happiest place to be right now. Joan, Sue and Lola enjoy their work, are dedicated to helping their families and importantly, they really know their community. It’s a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere, there is humour amongst the chronic concern. The delivery contains plenty of meat free options as requested. There has been some progress in sourcing Halal options, but at the moment the veggie/vegan ones will have to do. Also, it’s right at the start of Ramadan, so some of our members will have to collect food whilst not eating until sundown, and often with a household full. Challenging times are more challenging for some. Just before 11am, I remind the team that it is the minute silence for keyworkers that have died. I manage to open the automatic door and then lock myself outside just as it begins, so I have no choice but to stand on the street. This seems appropriate somehow and I think about those that have died and the sacrifice they have made, also how fortunate we all are in being to help others during this time. Importantly, I must also remind everyone this week about how much their work is appreciated, how selfless they are being and to keep going with the distancing, sanitising, hand washing and modelling that good and safe practice to our members.
Although we ask people to use card, there is still some cash that needs collecting and banking. I head to our nearest branch that has one of those washing machine style coin counters. You even have to close the lid before it starts. The childlike satisfaction of this task, I am sure has something to do with my holiday obsession with amusement arcades, the noise of coins and the physics of their movement.
Broomhill is freezing, the temperature has dropped by 15 degrees this week. It feels like a well established club in spite of the fact this is just it’s second week. Steph and Ruth have a great system and the members are very happy, in spite of the filthy wet rain that invades the second half of the club. I hop across to Knowle West for an encouraging Zoom meeting with council representatives, Food Bank staff and community development workers. We discuss our different operations and plans for the future. The central phone lines are sending inquiries to Covid community hubs and they in turn will make referrals to Food Clubs and Banks. We are encouraged that
there appears to be a system that will prevent a saturation of new members and that the most needy have somewhere to turn. Excess is shipped over to Inns Court, another full car, the poor little Hyundai is looking tired. Sometimes the suspension looks somewhat strained.
St Pauls is as buzzing as ever. The positive coverage from the mayor’s visit has given everyone a boost. The fridges are well stocked and the bags look great this week. I unload some rice and biscuits. Eliza from Hartcliffe has come to visit, difficult when you are distancing, but essential if we are to support our volunteers. In spite of all the complexities of family life in lockdown, she has organised to join us to see how other clubs work, with a view to continuing to improve the Hartcliffe club. Beyond the call of duty.
Her dedication is admirable and can be seen in others across the clubs. It’s a very different demographic here and I talk through the challenges of food types and member needs.
The weather is repulsive again, I really feel for the members having to trek out in this rain. Elaine is on form and supporting the families with a big smile, friendly greeting and a chance to check in and briefly offload if needed. Many people do, and the queue builds a little, but people understand. This is a whole lot more important than just handing over a box of food.
Redcliffe is in full swing. Kevin is helping Sue with the front desk with hilarious consequences as she gets to grips with the multitasking joys of greeting, serving, taking payment, accepting food choices and smiling. Not as easy as it sounds.
I nip out to Hargreave Lansdowne, who are the corporate supporters of the Period Friendly Bristol initiative. I return with a giant sack of sanitary products that we can distribute through the clubs. Another way to save our members money.
Timings are perfect today and I arrive at Inns Court at the same time as the delivery from Fareshare. It’s another good one, although we may be short of fresh meat, but there is plenty of sliced salami and 2kg One Pot Chile con carne, surplus from the Hinckley Point enormous catering operation. On returning to my car I find the remains of a wooden chair near to the boot of my car. Odd. Like the remains of a solo bar brawl. There is plenty of sorting out to do so the boxes are easy to pack, so I stay late to make it easier in the morning.
Rhona is absent from Hartcliffe, so we have Rose covering. She seems to love Food Clubs and has dived into every role with enthusiasm. Derek is Derek is Derek, trying to take the mickey out of me whilst simultaneously processing members requests and planning out the deliveries later on. It makes for a lively room and we gently fling around packages to prep the boxes. I sort the fridges and the choices for members today. Due to other deliveries, I have to cover Southmead today, so I drive the 20 minutes north (this usually takes nearer 30). It drizzles all the way and I worry about the effect this may have on turnout. It turns out fine and it’s good to check in with Jeanette and hear about the lockdown tales. Emily is the volunteer here and she has a much better memory and manner than me. She dutifully serves all the members with a smile. The drizzle is persistent and we do our best to raise spirits. Many of our members have been with us since summer last year, so they know that each week is different. I am beginning to sense a weariness amongst them, whether this is related to the amount of time in lockdown or just the rain, I’m not sure, but people are definitely looking for change. Maybe it’s because certain section of the press keep insisting on forcing the issue of an ‘exit strategy’. What a ridiculous expression, there is no such thing.
I leave before the end but the team are very well organised here and need little support. I stop off at the Square Food Foundation on the way to Inns Court. What a wonderful place this is. Neither John or Lucy are around but the warmth of the busy staff team is immediately apparent. They know they are doing something important and are happy in their work. I gratefully accept some Cajun Chicken home cooked meals, complete with rice and flatbreads. In the hurry to take a photo (of me with the bags), the handle breaks and one of the pots bounces off my foot and onto the floor. It is slightly damaged. The perils of performing for social media. It smells great, and lo and behold the meals are immediately snapped up when we offer them as one of our choices to the members.
The spirit of That’s Life is invoked as we discover a filthy carrot and a rude potato. Much mirth and immature giggling ensues. I am too mature for this and do not get involved.
Strangely the centre takes a call from a member of the public who has been receiving government food boxes. It turns out he has ticked the box saying he no longer needs them, but they just keep coming. He is looking for somewhere to take them but is isolating. I offer to pick the box up and he is delighted. I spin by on the way home and have a brief conversation. Terry is representative of so many people in these times. He wants to help, he cares about supporting others and is worried that he is not doing enough. I assure him that we appreciate his donation and hope that these sentiments will last once the situation gets better. That we remember our instincts to help others less fortunate than ourselves, maintain our good humour, support reputable causes, vote for parties that embody those things and acknowledge the similarities between us, rather than emphasise the differences.
What a morning. At Hartcliffe Rose is on fire as I encourage the team to beat the record for the week, that has been set by the brilliant team at Lockleaze. And beat it they do, with some giant beef joints to help sales they stroll to victory. It does seem odd comparing Food Clubs because of the serious nature of the service that is being provided, but there is a friendly rivalry that exists outside of the aims of the clubs. Derek ensure that nothing is too serious, with some not so gentle ribbing and gentle flatulence. Lovely.
The beef joints were really well received, one member was so happy, she wasn’t planning to have beef until Christmas. Blimey.
A sharp exit to our new club at Broomhill on it’s opening day. The new staff appear like they’ve been doing this for years and the club gets off to a really positive start. Only a brief, violent shower spoils the mood. We pack up the surplus, wish each other a happy ‘weekend’ and I head back to Inns Court to store potatoes. I portion out the remaining brie, whilst listening to drum and bass like an idiot.
Six weeks in and it seems such a long time since that first morning in lockdown in Lockleaze. The birds always sang, you just didn’t hear them that much. And I feel that’s a fitting metaphor for so many things at the moment. People are generally well intentioned, lots of organisations do amazing things and kindness and support have always been around. We’re just hearing them a lot more. It might sound naive to be talking about the positive nature of people, when so much negativity is reported, so much division and blame. When you are lucky enough to witness it every day, you steadily develop a different view, the majority of people aren’t out for themselves, they care about family, friends and strangers. This thought propels me into the weekend, plus the thought of some nice Bristol beers.