How to Cook a Community Food Project

In 2020, during the second COVID lockdown, a new food project started in the town of Wiveliscombe in Somerset.   The idea had been kicking around even before COVID; to find a way of taking surplus food from the shops and turning it into nutritious meals.  But COVID isolations and lockdowns brought a new focus.

Wiveliscombe is a small market town, nestling in the foothills of Exmoor. It has just under 3,000 residents but is well provided for with local shops and services given its large rural catchment area. The population profile leans towards the older end of the spectrum. In terms of wealth and poverty levels it is middling; some people are very comfortable while others are struggling to get by.

The food project has brought all kinds of people together, some motivated by the desire to help their neighbours, many inspired by Marcus Rashford’s work on food poverty and others arriving from climate and environmental campaign groups.  

To help communities learn from and possibly duplicate the project, we’ve set out details of the project below, in the form of a (relatively easy to follow) recipe.

Good luck – it’s a delicious feast!

Ingredients

1 x chef.  Kate is our resident chef. She trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London before becoming a food writer, caterer and teacher at Bordeaux Quay in Bristol and her own Walled Garden Cookery School in Cornwall.

1 x steering group. Three local people including Kate. Rosie B coordinates the volunteers and prepares the work rotas. Sue H does all the outreach in the community. 

1 x kitchen. We were lucky to find that our rugby club had fitted out its kitchen to a professional standard about 10 years ago. A new committee wanted the club to be more active in the community, just as the food project started looking for premises.

65kg food donation per week.  Our food comes from Fareshare in Bristol, picked up from their Taunton depot every Tuesday.  We don’t know what we’re getting until we get it.

A generous pinch of storage for food, ingredients, fridges and freezers.

1 bunch of other food donations.  People have been dropping in surplus veg from their allotments. A local farmer brought several trays of ‘small’ eggs. 

Assorted extra ingredients to taste.  There’s always something extra needed to turn the Fareshare supplies into a tasty meal. 

50 volunteers. In the first three weeks over 50 people came forward to be involved.  Some have lots of catering experience, others have none. Some will be beneficiaries of the project.  They work in teams of 6 on a monthly rotation.  About 20 have taken their Level 2 Food Hygiene certificates since we started.  Ten volunteers are drivers for food deliveries.

1 x host organisation.  Everything was setup really quickly so no time to constitute ourselves.  Wivey Cares is a local charity providing support for vulnerable residents and they kindly agreed to be our official face.

1 x community freezer.  The local church has allowed their freezer to be a community pick-up point for frozen meals. Customers simply log what they take.

Start-up funding. We had to get going at a rapid pace. Wivey Cares enabled us to get our publicity materials, the Rugby Club offered us the first month rent free and people donated generously to our weekly costs. Kate also put in her own money to get things going.

Weekly costs. The kitchen costs £50/week. Fareshare costs £25/week.  Other ingredients and supplies cost £50-100/week.

Preparation

  1. Kate was in touch with a number of Somerset food initiatives and the Council about a potential project in the area that could help address COVID hardship. Meanwhile other local people were thinking about a project to tackle food waste.
  2. Fareshare were approached but had no slots for the next few months. However, a local council officer was visiting Fareshare when a vacancy came up, and was able to promote the Wiveliscombe project as ‘oven ready’. Back in Wiveliscombe, confidence and experience had to make up for the lack of funding and a business plan but nevertheless food deliveries started the following week.
  3. Six local people quickly got together to make a plan. There was a huge rush to produce publicity, attract volunteers, get people through their Level 2 food hygiene certificates, find a kitchen, and buy equipment. 
  4. A Saturday street stall raised awareness. A test run in the kitchen provided hot soup for shoppers and brought in much needed donations.

Recipe 

(Serves 300)

  1. On Tuesday, armed with coolboxes and ice, Kate collects the Fareshare supplies from the depot 12 miles away. She takes it back to Wiveliscombe where she sorts through and logs everything, and refrigerates where necessary (she has a number of fridges in an out-building).
  2. Wednesday is spent planning recipes, buying any extra ingredients.
  3. 8am on Thursday, Kate arrives at the kitchen. A team of 8 volunteers follows – some of whom do the full day while others are replaced for the afternoon shift. It’s a COVID-safe workplace, but there’s an energetic vibe and spirits are high. The morning is spent prepping – chopping vegetables, making sauces, roasting vegetables, cooking chicken.
Tomato sauce prepped in the morning, ready for liquidising
  1. A hearty lunch is served (made during the morning) to all the volunteers.
  2. The afternoon is spent cooking the finished meals, combining the prepped ingredients from the morning and then packing into pots. Labels are attached and then they’re frozen.
  3. Cleaning up the kitchen and returning everything to the stores.
  4. Friday is distribution day with volunteers delivering meals, sometimes a full week’s worth, to those who need them.  Other meals are put in the freezer at the church where people can collect them according to their own need.  Some people want to pay – a guide price of £2/meal is given.  If 50% of people pay, that covers all the costs.
  5. Saturday. A stall outside the shops to drum up extra interest.  Hot soup is served in exchange for donations, which are sometimes very generous. 
Veggie beef stew

On the second week this is how it went.  The Fareshare supplies included:

  • 3 boxes of tofu turkey
  • 1 case of coconuts
  • 12 butternut squash
  • ½ case of sweet potatoes
  • ½ case of limes
  • Loads of potatoes
  • Pumpkins
  • Yellow peppers
  • Malformed skinless sausages
  • Wonky carrots
  • Chicken drumsticks
  • Vegan beef
  • 2 cases of soya milk
  • 30kg of dried fruit
  • Mozzarella and cheddar cheese

Extra supplies bought included soya sauce, lemon grass, olive oil, celery, foil and other small but essential items.

The finished meals included:

  • Three different soups (carrot & ginger, Thai vegetable and roast vegetable)
  • Veggie chicken pie with carrots and mash
  • Veggie beef and mash
  • Chicken stew with chard / carrots and mash / rice
  • Meatball casserole
  • Macaroni cheese

Number of meals cooked: 300

Volunteers also took home 2kg portions of the dried fruit to make Christmas cakes for distribution through the project.

After-dinner chat

After three weeks the project is going very well.  The number of volunteers is growing, a grant application of £5,000 has been approved (to be used for buying equipment), and all the key partners are very much on board (the rugby club even replaced a professional grade fridge which wasn’t chilling to the required temperatures).

Kate, the chef, has been key to the project working.  We are lucky to have someone with her experience of large scale catering and training.  But anyone with restaurant kitchen or catering experience will know how to prepare and produce meals at this scale.

There are questions about who is benefitting. The data (e.g. free school meals numbers in local schools) suggests that people in need are out there, but the GPs, NHS and Council will not share the information they hold.  So distribution relies upon word of mouth and local publicity.  The project is very aware of the need to protect the confidentiality of anyone receiving meals & in some situations is working through ‘gatekeepers’ who distribute the meals so the project never knows the identity of the recipients.    

In many cases people are collecting for vulnerable neighbours.  In other cases it might be people who have not eaten properly at home for years and welcome this helping hand.  Sue liaises with the schools, surgery, local parish councils, churches and village agents to build up our client base. People are encouraged to self-refer. So far, most of those using the service have been people living alone, often the elderly & families needing extra support, some living in isolated rural areas. 

Ability to pay is not always the obstacle to people eating healthy meals – so some are grateful for the meal and are very eager to pay.

There seem to be very few families using the service – it’s most people living alone.  How to reach those most in need (an estimated 200 families) and overcome their obstacles? Pride is thought to be a factor, so the project needs to present itself as empowering, not demeaning. We hope to access more families & children, working through the schools.

It is possible that some people who are not in need are taking meals.  The response to this is philosophical; a few people exploiting the system can be overlooked so long as the greater good is being served.

Not all meals are popular in this part of the country where meat still comes with two veg. Feedback on the beetroot soup from one elderly lady: “I’m not having that again – it went straight through me”. Other ingredients are alien to some customers – celeriac, what’s that?  Popular dishes include those with mashed potato.

Volunteers are learning so much from Kate who is bringing the tricks of the trade from restaurant kitchens to this community food project.  Huge amounts of preparation are essential, whether it is chopping vegetables, or preparing sauces that are then used in a number of different dishes. Efficiency in time, effort and use of ingredients are the keys to success (and knowing how to make it wonderfully tasty!).

Kate is also live broadcasting cooking lessons from the kitchen every Thursday morning – see the Facebook page for the Ready Steady Cooking Classes!

Future plans include community vegetable growing and community meals (a bit like the British Restaurants in the 1940s) although that will have to wait for post-COVID times.

Can it be sustained? The project places a big demand on Kate, but she has trained many chefs and cooks in the past so the plan is that she brings on enough volunteers to be able to run the project without her.  As a social enterprise the project could be financially viable if about half the meals made are paid for.

Links

Wivey Food Project https://www.facebook.com/wiveyfoodproject/

Wivey Cares https://wiveycares.net

National Park and AONB Review

The Government has announced a review of National Park and AONB designations and roles.  Malvern Hills AONBThe terms of reference for the review, that starts in June and will report in 2019, are:

  • the existing statutory purposes for National Parks and AONBs and how effectively they are being met
  • the alignment of these purposes with the goals set out in the 25-Year Plan for the Environment
  • the case for extension or creation of new designated areas
  • how to improve individual and collective governance of National Parks and AONBs, and how that governance interacts with other national assets
  • the financing of National Parks and AONBs
  • how to enhance the environment and biodiversity in existing designations
  • how to build on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks and to connect more people with the natural environment from all sections of society and improve health and wellbeing
  • how well National Parks and AONBs support communities

Expanding on work already underway, the review will also take advice from Natural England on the process of designating National Parks and AONBs and extending boundary areas, with a view to improving and expediting the process.

The terms of reference also state:

“In 1949, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act established these national parks, which the minister of the day described as “the most exciting Act of the post-war Parliament.” That legislation created a statutory framework for National Parks and AONBs. In brief, National Parks’ purposes are to conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; and promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of national parks. For AONBs, the primary purpose is to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the area. Now, as the oldest National Park approaches its 70th anniversary, comes a chance to renew this mission. That is the context in which this review takes place.”

The review will hear evidence from interested groups and individuals.

Quantock Hills AONBFunding of AONBs will be a key issue. Traditionally they have been the poorer relative, dependent upon support and finances from their local councils, whereas the National Parks are nationally funded.  With local government finances under increasing amounts of pressure for the last 10 years and competing demand for resources for education, social care etc, AONBs have really struggled to secure their positions. Many have had to reduce their staff teams and activities down to a basic core. At the same time an inherent conservatism amongst some residents of AONBs, many of whom will have spent significant amounts moving into a protected landscape, have made it difficult for AONBs to diversify their activities and create new economic opportunities. The government’s review is perhaps the time to put AONB funding on a more secure and sustainable footing.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/designated-landscapes-national-parks-and-aonbs-2018-review/terms-of-reference

Ten years on, the Tamar Valley trails are flourishing

Back in 2003 I started working with the Tamar Valley AONB, writing the business plan and funding applications for what would become the Tamar Valley Mining Heritage Project.

Tamar Valley Mining Heritage Project early logoIt was an audacious project, born of a dream to conserve the increasingly forgotten mining heritage of the Tamar Valley and give the public access to the adits, railways, calcifiers and beautiful landscape.

£6m investment in the Tamar Valley

The project finally started in 2007 with £6m from nine funders, seven delivery partners and agreements with multiple landowners. Along the way there were many challenges not least the withdrawal of financial support by a key partner, Devon County Council, straight after the 2009 elections which resulted in another partner, Morwellham and Tamar Valley Trust, being pushed into receivership. The loss of Morwellham Quay from the project was a bitter blow but the hard work and commitment of the AONB and other partners saw the project through and finally in 2013 we saw the official launch.

Tamar Trails are a success!

Now threee years later the project is bedded in.  The project legacy is managed by the Tamar Community Trust, a social enterprise specially setup for the purpose, while the visitor hub is run by Tamar Adventures, a local business that provides cycle hire, high ropes, canoe trips and a host of other activities.  Their video gives a great taste of what’s on offer.

And the project even extended to include a Mountain Bike Development Project and the stomach churning Gawton Gravity Hub (more successful business planning and funding applications).

Impact!

Sometimes in this line of work it’s hard to point to the difference you make.  The timescales are long, many people are involved, sometimes projects end up doing something different to the initial intent.  But with the Tamar Trails the results and the difference are there and plain to see. Take a trip there and enjoy the place!

Julian

Does this change anything?

Last Monday I was asked to facilitate a discussion between the 70 or so people who had watched Naomi Klein’s film “This Changes Everything” hosted by Wiveliscombe Action on Climate.


The film makes the link between climate change and capitalism, essentially saying that the economic system has to change if we are to have any chance of addressing climate chaos. The New York Times described Klein’s book by the same name as “the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring” so its clearly to be taken seriously.  But does it really change anything?

In leading the post-film discussion it was clear that we were amongst friends – everyone there was concerned about climate change, shocked by the impact of big industry on local communities and sympathetic to the general message that change was needed.

But one of the down-sides of getting older is that you see the same things coming round time and again. Another film, another talk, another group of people saying that something has to change. But what really changes?

In the 30 years since I first got involved in the environmental movement there has been much to celebrate.  The environment is now of mainstream concern, recycling is the norm, there is no lead in petrol, the concept of environmental justice is understood, river water quality is way better, the ozone layer is repairing itself, the car is no longer king, and so on. The voice of ordinary people has had some part to play in that.

But s*** still happens and seemingly on an ever-greater scale. Communities and environments are still being destroyed, governments back-pedal on the progress of their predecessors, climate treaties get ignored, the rich get richer and so on. And all this despite countless films, marches, letters, blogs and angst.  So what’s the point?

In the discussion I tried to get people to look at Klein’s argument from different points of view – to take a dialiectic approach.  In that way I hoped we’d come up with a more robust response to the film than just lots of nodding and hand-wringing. It drew out some interesting observations and a diversity of responses. But I still went away feeling that nothing had really changed; just a tendency to expect others to agree with us and then change what they do, but little appetite for more.

Some people (not necessarily those in the room last Monday) advocate a complete overthrow of our economic system, the ruling class and corporate power. But that sort of radical upheavel generally brings with it many unintended consequences. Other people propose nudges. One person who was present at the film talked about influencers in society – the people who will push us past the tipping point at which major change happens. People in the arts often take on that role, to greater or lesser effect, but sports people less so (although they probably have the greater reach). But still I wonder.

Are we just on the wrong trajectory? Is everything just stacked up against regard for the environment and communities as the powerful exploit all in pursuit of more wealth, more power, more consumption? Or is there something, some as yet unidentified thing, that we the little people (and little companies) can do that really would change everything.  If there is, please let me know!

And a final thought: Imagine the impact if David and Victoria Beckham traded in all their properties for a passivhaus, swapped their gas guzzlers for an electric car and went on a global pilgramage to persuade decision makers to address climate change. That might change something!