Communities are often full of capable, skilled and valuable people who can make a difference, but finding, engaging with and supporting them to make the most of their skills can be challenging.
With budgets squeezed, building community capacity through local residents is critical to a thriving local community.
In Fairfield, the foodies group was set up in partnership between Shift, High Peak Borough Council and Fairfield Junior School to enable parents to cook new, healthy recipes. Participants were all provided with a slow cooker and new recipes were followed in the group each week.
But it soon became clear cooking wasn’t the focus. Friendships were formed, support was offered, confidence grew, jobs were gained and the group flourished into an incredible asset who were embedded and volunteering their time for the benefit of the community.
Here’s how different elements of the group worked to create the spark that boosted the capacity of this community.
Emma Mellor has been working with families in Fairfield for the past 16 years, previously at the Surestart centre before joining the school six years ago. As a result she’s built a trust with people locally which has been instrumental in the success of the group. It’s also played a part in boosting the Ofsted rating of the school from requires improvement to good where the foodies group was given a specific mention in relation to building relationships between home and school.
Emma said: “I know most of the children from birth to teenagers which is lovely and I also work at a children’s home as well so there aren’t many kids I don’t know. This sort of work is in my blood, it’s what I love doing.
“I pretty much know all the parents, I know what they’re up to, how to engage them and that shone in the actual Ofsted report that we do things that are well attended. What we put on is what the parents are asking for.”
What’s also been important in building trust is an ability to talk to people on their level. Something both Emmas have been particularly mindful of during conversations with the group.
Emma Mellor said: “My families are a very different breed. They don’t want to sit down and listen to us having a nice house. You’ve got to get down on their level and I think we’re very good at that. They trust us and they want to be there every week. Sometimes if the women couldn’t make it they’d send their husbands. We’d got drug user parents who’d come to the group and they were the really disengaged families. So to see them coming in with their slow cooker and making tea was amazing.”
Emma Beswick said: “I was speaking to one of the PCSOs and he was saying, I can’t believe you’ve managed to engage with that family because no one can and the fact you can have conversations with them week in week out is an absolute credit to you.”
Emma Mellor said: “Cooking is a smoke screen because I’m not telling them how to parent, I’m not telling them what to do. They’re just relaxed.”
Recognising and building on existing skills
Previous experience of seeing how cooking classes were delivered meant the group decided to lead it between them, rather than pay for external help. This boosted the confidence of the parents and gave them extra skills which enabled some of them to enhance their CVs and find work.
Dave Longborn at High Peak Borough Council explained:
“I tried to do some sessions on cooking two years previously. The first week it was booked up then weeks two and three dwindled straight away. It was the way it was being delivered. It was patronising. Half of them hadn’t even heard of some of the vegetables.
“This time around we looked at what was being sold in One Stop and the limited supply in Iceland where a lot of people shop. We wanted to make it dead easy and a lot more informal.”
Emma Mellor said: “In the beginning we got some funding and we paid for a teacher. It was quite a chunk. Then we spoke to the group and they were quite happy to try and think of recipes. A lady called Vanessa led it one week, came up with the recipe and led the whole group. I think that made it more fun because we basically just printed a recipe with ingredients we quite liked and we just got on with it.
“Then we realised the skills of the group and they got more confident and wanted to get involved in it all. We’ve had 25 participants. Ten people have done a food hygiene course and seven of them are now working in the school. Some of them said the food hygiene was the only thing they had to put on their CV but it got them an interview.”
The foodies group took place in the school, a location the parents were comfortable and familiar with, creating a relaxed atmosphere that allowed for conversation and connection.
Emma Beswick is the Community Builder at Shift. She said:
“The right conditions are so important to encourage conversation. When you’re in a comfy space conversation flows. Everyone loved the room we were in. There was a big window and when the kids were playing outside they would come up to the window to say hello. When we had to go online during Covid that disappeared.”
Emma Mellor is a Family Liaison Officer at Fairfield Junior School. She said:
“The children have loved having their parents in school. A lot of kids don’t get a homecooked meal and don’t try different things. But because we were doing it in school and Emma and Emma were telling them they’d got to try it, the parents were coming to the group the following week saying, they’ve eaten a carrot, they’ve eaten this, they’ve eaten that.”
For a lot of the families involved in the group, making friends and building a support group played a large part in building their confidence.
Emma Mellor said: “These are not families that have lots of friends, they tend to stay in their own unit. As a parent, if you don’t know many people it’s quite isolating at the school gate.”
Emma Beswick said: “One of the mums said, I’ve seen these people for three years at the school gates and I’ve smiled but I’ve never said anything to them. Now they all have that thing in common. It has always been about the peer support of one another.
“I don’t think we realised until they spoke how much it meant to them and how great it had been. They were saying having this two hours a week just for them and talking to other people was the highlight of the week for all of them. It gave them that time out from whatever was going on it their lives. You could see people visibly change in front of your eyes.”
Helen is one of the mums from the group. She said: “The best thing for me was meeting people, speaking to people and getting to know them. It was a mental health thing. The cooking side of it has been really good as well, trying different foods, making things together and being able to chat about things as well. You’d see people the next day and you’d be like, how was your food?
“When they were talking about getting funding for a new group but had to be new people they were all laughing and joking about how they could get back in there with various roles.”
Increased capacity in the community
All of these elements together has made a huge difference to how the families engage in the community. They’re now supporting each other – especially through the pandemic – and are willing to help out at other events, meaning less need to pay for external services.
Emma Mellor said: “It’s absolutely amazing, we can’t talk any more highly of things which have happened in the group we’d never planned for. They’re all supporting each other now. They’re saving broccoli for each other, they’re leaving things on people’s doorsteps, offering to support the community and sticking together through covid is amazing.
“I know out of all the 25 on that list, if I rang them up and said I’ve got an event on in school tomorrow, they’d come along and help out if they could which is lovely. Some I’ve recruited as dinner ladies and now they’re giving up their time with the year 3s. It’s boosted their confidence and benefitted the children as well.”
Emma Beswick said: “They all really helped me on the work we’ve done on the green spaces and the work I’ve done on the park. They all came and helped out at the bug hunt. They soon become your team.”
Dave said: “Suddenly they began to get voices. Some of them were saying it’s changed their lives. Now they’re actively seeking work and they’ve started exercising themselves outside the group. They’ve become role models for other people.
“They took the lead on some health days we did, cooking meals for everyone to go home with. They made healthy pizzas, they did healthy pick and mix. All those things we’d normally have had services in for, they were doing. It’s been a piece of work that started off really small and just went huge.”