3 What works to engage people with services
All projects identified user engagement as a barrier to addressing food insecurity. Many projects managed to engage users who they felt would have otherwise remained outside of their services. Consequently, the measures employed by FFTF projects to successfully engage users are applicable not just to future food insecurity reduction, but to public services more broadly
From this analysis it appears that five things tried by these projects worked particularly well at increasing engagement in services:
- Finding “hooks” into the project
- Allowing people to “test the waters”
- Blurring the line between the “helpers” and the “helped”
- Providing flexible ways for people to engage with the support
- Providing “space” for participants.
Each of these are discussed in more detail in this chapter.
3.1 Finding “hooks” into the project
Several of the projects spoke of the benefits of finding “hooks” into their services – measures that raised awareness of the fun and benefits of participating in a project. Beith Community Development Trust and Castlemilk Parish Church are both projects that have successfully used one-off events to attract participants who went on to use the FFTF project regularly. Having such hooks appeared slightly more feasible in food justice projects than in transition projects - perhaps because these projects were more accustomed to running one-off or less food-related events.
“We had a fun day at Castlemilk, they asked if we would do a community meal. The fun day is in loads of places, it was everywhere, we wanted everybody to come here after it and have a meal, and it was so successful, think we fed about 180…I think out of that 180 that came through the door, it was only 30 that were regulars here, some of them also came back.”
– Staff member at Castlemilk Parish Church
As part of its broader non FFTF-related activity, Beith Trust runs an annual festival for the whole community, providing food, as well as music from local young people. When talking to staff, there was a feeling that this event was integral to the Trust’s success. Staff mentioned that community projects often overlooked the most effective ways to engage people. It was remarked that normal activities, such as eating and drinking, were sometimes the best way of people who would otherwise not be engaged, especially when part of a local festival or similar event. The festival was very popular with local residents and had encouraged participation in other Beith Trust activities. Castlemilk Parish Church also successfully used a one-off event as a hook.
The popularity of Beith Trust’s event’s shows the potential that such hooks have to engage with the wider community and to engage people effectively in support activity.
3.2 Allowing people to “test the waters”
“I would just sit in the corner and do nothing. Then I progressed…I started the wee crafts course…but I still sat in the corner…started helping out in the kitchen, doing teas and coffees... and then the healthy eating and the garden.”
– Participant and Volunteer at Kate’s Kitchen
Projects felt that many people were less likely to engage in services they were not familiar with. Therefore, providing ways for participants to gain knowledge of, and grow comfortable with, the project before participating was important. Several different projects - including Pilmeny Development Project, Kate’s Kitchen, The Barn at Bridging the Gap and Castlemilk Parish Church - increased awareness of their projects by having a range of activities running at the same time within their project. This exposed potential participants to the projects. Castlemilk Parish Church and Kate’s Kitchen ran activities such as community meals at the same time as a more traditional food bank service to encourage food bank users to engage in their FFTF project. This strategy was employed by both transition and food justice projects.
“He brought me a couple of times you know, until I got used to coming. I started off in the other room, just a face and that sort of thing, but then I got into the gardening... I’ve really enjoyed it so far.”
- Participant and Volunteer at Kate’s Kitchen
“Some might come to get food…at a time they know is a community meal time, and part of that is about testing the water…Is it safe? What goes on here? Who comes? What’s the food like?”
– Participant at Castlemilk Parish Church
Kate’s Kitchen had been very successful in counteracting participants’ initial hesitation. The majority of those interviewed had initially come believing that they would never participate fully in any activities. The project gave them the space to do things at their own pace and test out activities without being overwhelmed.
Castlemilk Parish Church adopted a similar approach. As shown in the box, a participant described how “testing the waters” enables participants to become familiar with how the project operates and who attends. This reduces the anxiety participants feel when engaging and allows them to make a more informed decision about whether they wish to participate, increasing their autonomy.
The junior youth group, part of Bridging the Gap, also had several activities occurring at once. Young people could play football, Xbox, board games or pool, get support with homework and do arts and crafts alongside taking part in the community meal.
3.3 Blurring the line between the “helpers” and the “helped”
One of the many reasons why people do not use food banks is that they feel stigma or a sense of shame associated with attending. They do not want to be seen as needing charity.
Many projects attempted to reduce the hesitancy surrounding food aid by removing the traditional dynamic of “helper” and “helped”. Projects achieved this in a number of ways, including: recognising that everyone has something of value to offer, not setting eligibility criteria, welcoming everyone upon arrival and employing volunteers with personal experience of food insecurity or adversity.
“To make it a community meal everybody needs to participate, It’s not just about thinking it’s for somebody else…some people don’t have people to have a meal with, but they do have the ability to have conversation with someone else, so they are bringing a gift with them rather than coming with what they don’t have.”
– Staff member at Castlemilk Parish Church
Many projects were implicitly using an asset-based approach to their project. An asset-based approach recognises that everyone has something to offer - skills, knowledge or experience. This approach is intended to make all participants in a service feel as if they can contribute to it. Castlemilk Parish Church consciously used an asset-based approach. The importance of this approach had been explicitly recognised, and effort was made by staff to treat everyone as a “giver”, as well as “receiver”. In practice, this meant talking to participants, identifying their personal strengths and emphasising these whether that was the ability to give a donation, chat to someone over a meal or provide entertainment.
“A lot of the youngsters now recycle, they’ve been learning [from us] that when you are sewing and knitting you don’t throw away the end bits… Nothing is set in stone, no classes as such, all informal, all sharing experiences. In a way it makes us all equal…nobody feels inferior.”
“More and more I’ve learnt things from young people. Didn’t realise how useful the internet could be!... nothing formal about it, it’s just coming together... Excellent improvement in the community.”
- Participants at Kyle of Sutherland
Several other projects were using a similar approach but had not identified this as being asset-based. This was the case across food justice and transition projects. Within such projects, giving often took the form of a focus on learning from one another. Rather than people learning through formal classes with a teacher, participants shared experience and knowledge with one other.
As part of the Kyle of Sutherland project, participants could attend an arts and crafts group. Though this had no formal structure, there was evidence of mutual learning from different groups within this group. Older members of the group taught younger members to crochet. In return, older members were able to learn about technology.
“It’s like watching your own grow up.”
“I was going through a period where it was like depression, coz I was waitin’ for an operation eh, and this worked wonders for me.”
– Volunteers at Pilmeny Development Project.
This sentiment was echoed in the Pilmeny Development Project, where younger and older generations were learning skills from one another. For many of the older participants, this project gave them the opportunity to pass on skills and share their experiences, and the chance to get out of the house several times a week. Younger and older participants were building trusting relationships with one another, which improved the confidence and wellbeing of both, and gave many of the older volunteers a sense of purpose. Some of the older users reported that these interactions gave them a new lease of life, even lifting them out of depression.
“It’s for everybody, doesn’t matter your faith, your circumstances, the welcome is the exact same for everyone...people go home to all different homes, different situations, but for those few hours, they’ve had wonderful company, a wonderful meal, a lotta laughter, and just feel, yeah I belong.”
- Participant at Castlemilk Parish Church.
In order to blur this line between donor/volunteer and recipient, projects set no eligibility criteria. As projects were usually established in areas of deprivation, it was common for their participants to be experiencing some degree of food insecurity. Woodlands Community Development Trust had originally targeted people but had found that labelling people as “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged” made the project unattractive. They felt that they were able to target people more effectively once these labels were removed. Foundational to establishing this inclusion was all participants receiving the same welcome upon arrival to the programme.
Having volunteers with experience of food insecurity, or other experiences of adversity, was an effective way of providing informal support for participants facing other issues. There was evidence of this from interviews at Pilton Community Health Project, Kate’s Kitchen, The Everlasting Foodbank and Castlemilk Parish Church, but it was most evident when speaking to volunteers at Food For Thought West Dunbartonshire and Woodlands Community Development Trust. For one participant who had recently been in jail, talking to volunteers who also had this experience had helped them to feel that their life could improve.
“Everybody who volunteers is recovering from something, d’ya know? Drugs and things.”
– Volunteer at Food for Thought West Dunbartonshire
A participant at Woodlands Community Development Trust explained that recovery from severe mental health problems was being supported by the social elements of the project. Similarly, their participation allowed others who suffered from mental health problems to feel more comfortable. This again exemplifies how volunteers and participants were made to feel equal.
3.4 Providing flexible ways for people to engage with the support
Some projects felt that for some participants formal services and authority figures may have negative connotations, resulting from school, work or social services. It was felt that this would, in turn, put some participants off projects that used formal structures or classes.
Several projects, such as Bridging The Gap, St. Paul’s Youth Forum, Castlemilk Parish Church, Beith Community Development Trust and Woodlands Community Development Trust had come up with ways to address the needs of their participants without structure or authority. Key to this was to have support on offer, but to also emphasise the optional nature of this support.
“What we did do was change our approach with our youth work. We had more or less a curriculum drawn up with sessions… what happened was that the young people stopped coming in. We had a kind of amnesty evening where we asked the guys back in, had a bit of a pizza night and asked: So why are you not coming in? They said they don’t wannae do that, don’t want the structure to the youth work.”
– Staff member at The Barn
The Barn provided flexibility by discounting their initial workshops and instead providing “really informal learning”, as described in the box. This entailed restricting cooking workshops to informal help with cooking community meals, and renaming sessions so they were not called “classes” or “workshops”. Moreover, young participants would take turns cooking each week instead of participating in a weekly class. This meant that the young people had autonomy over what they chose to cook. Incorporating learning was still of paramount importance to the staff, and lessons were being learnt by the young people – food safety and hygiene, cooking meals on a large scale – without these lessons being explicit aims of the session. Staff felt this made for a “really free flowing” session.
Despite the informal nature of the learning, the administration of the project was formal – much time and work was put into ensuring that the learning was there. Regular staff meetings and development sessions meant that everyone understood what they were trying to achieve. The informal approach allowed for staff outcomes to be met and lessons to be learnt by participants. Maintaining participant interest was, however, more complicated.
Castlemilk Parish Church recognised that formal talks by services would detract from the feeling that its community meals were a social event, instead giving the impression that they were providing a charitable service. To avoid this, the project invited frontline staff from various services to join the community meals.
Similarly, Woodlands Community Development Trust invited welfare advisors to the café who were able to give advice informally. One participant mentioned that this was a great way of accessing other services as participants did not need to make an appointment.
“You can just relax here, you don’t have teachers shouting at you and all that, they don’t shout here…here they will push you, but they’ll make it seem as if they’re not pushing you.”
– Participant at St. Paul’s Youth Forum
St. Paul’s Youth Forum were balancing respect and boundaries, without the negative connotations of other authority figures.
3.5 Providing “space” for participants
Most projects allowed participants to choose how much they engaged in the activities. At Kate’s Kitchen and Pilton Community Health Project, volunteering was not regimented. Participants appreciated this as they were not expected to volunteer if they did not feel able to. This was particularly important for those with physical and learning disabilities, mental health issues or uncertain situations.
At Pilmeny Development Project, activities changed from one week to the next and there were usually several occurring simultaneously. Some would be more interactive than others. This enabled participants to engage as much or as little as they wanted. Activities, to date, have included computer games relating to food, many different arts and crafts sessions, blind food tasting, cooking, nature walks and trips out. There was always a community meal at the end of the session.
3.6 Common challenges and lessons learned
3.6.1 Sustaining momentum
The projects involved in the study were enthusiastic for change but felt constrained by funding. If projects were stretched then food provision, including food parcels, would be more limited. This led to participants feeling less freedom and choice within the service. While there are many paid staff across the FFTF projects, it appeared to be regular practice for staff to work much longer than contracted. This was alluded to in interviews with project staff.
“Half the battle is doing all the work… [There’s] not enough funding to do proper data analysis, we can’t employ people to do evaluations when we have targets and outcomes, so this is extra stuff on top of what I am actually paid for.”
“The biggest challenge I have is funding really. I work 35 hours a week, well I get paid for 35 hours a week…I’m here from half past 8 till stupid o’clock Monday to Friday and I’m here on a Sunday…I can get called out at 2 o’clock in the morning, we get referrals from the police, so if for instance a family had moved into temporary accommodation because of domestic violence, they’d phone me. I do way more hours than reasonable.”
Several projects mentioned that while they wished to develop new ways of delivering services and to embrace the dignity principles, staff were concerned that they may not be able to sustain their projects beyond the FFTF funding. This appeared to act as a deterrent to change, with some projects feeling that it was hard to invest wholeheartedly in innovation and change given that the project may not be continued.
Some projects mentioned that they were worried about being overwhelmed by referrals from partners, including statutory agencies, and concerned that they would not be able to keep up with demand. Successful projects are valued by statutory services as part of the network of services available in their community. This success, however, meant increasing demands from these referring services without a financial contribution from them.
“I think if we got more than 60… financially, it wouldnae work. Scottish Government give us 35 pound per session, to feed between 6 and 10, we’re now feeding 40.”
Food For Thought West Dunbartonshire found that increasing demand restricted the quantity of food it could provide, and reported that donations from Marks and Spencer’s were going some way to addressing this increased demand. Castlemilk Parish Church had to review their portion sizes in response to the popularity of their community meal.
For smaller or new organisations and services, building reputation was mentioned as a barrier to delivery. Projects felt that they needed time to build awareness and trust within their community in order to encourage participation. They found that word of mouth from those attending was a vital, but slow moving, part of bringing new participants into the service. Larger and more well-established services and organisations appeared to benefit from their existing reputation in attracting new participants into their projects.
3.6.3 Access to space and facilities
Transition projects in particular often felt constrained by the facilities available. Often the space they used was set up for the purpose of a food bank and finding ways to operate community activities within this could be difficult. Taking further steps into services that build communities around food requires upfront capital costs that are not realistically affordable for all projects in the near term.
In addition, participants in a number of services were interested in starting spin-off groups or additional services. However, they found it difficult to gain access to spaces suitable for these – for example, kitchens in schools for cooking classes. This reflects a difficulty found by many community-run services, where spaces are owned by a range of organisations, such as local authorities, churches or private owners. Consequently, enthusiastic participants who wish to set up other groups and services are faced with the often prohibitively difficult task of assessing spaces. In turn, this reduced the FFTF projects ability to empower communities.
Email: Catriona Rooke
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