Donna Borokinni, Scotland Engagement Officer, Soil Association. 

How have you been able to keep a focus on what matters to people during COVID? 

I am part of the Get Togethers team at the Soil Association. Get Togethers is  an intergenerational project that aims  to bring people together through good  food; whether that be growing, cooking and or eating. I work across Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverclyde. As the pandemic hit, we put a pause on all our activities as it was not safe to get together. We maintained contact with our stakeholders, mainly through email and over the phone.  We wanted to offer support where appropriate but didn’t want to clog up peoples email boxes as aware that for many, they were providing services to communities, individuals and families.  

We facilitated a short consultation to find out what our service users were doing, what  support we could provide. We were able to gather that ‘good food’ was at forefront;  where to get it, how to cook and store it and how to support people who were now facing  severe food poverty. We were able to respond by providing an emergency small grant,  which enabled us to support 14 organisations across Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverclyde  providing essential services.  Another focus is around people staying connected with each other, now more than ever.  We have developed a number of ways for people to get together in a safe way. We have  developed a Facebook page, which we encourage our service users to follow. This is a  space to share, learn and connect. We have had gardening tips, exercise classes and cook  along sessions as well as people sharing their local event and feel good stories.

What have you had to do differently and what made this possible? 

Had to shift to everything being online; more email, calling and video interaction. We are  in the process of developing online training around cooking and gardening. Next month  we will host our first online networking event. 

As our project was put on hold, it gave us an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve been  doing well or not so well and to make appropriate changes moving forward. One of the  biggest changes is we have now changed our focus to be more inclusive in bring people  together of all ages and backgrounds through good food. We will have more online courses and have new online resources that people can access via our website.

What have you noticed that has been better?  

Even though people have not been able to get together physically, there is a stronger  sense of community spirit with many people saying they feel more connected now.  Being healthy and eating well is at the forefront of people’s minds and we have seen a  rise in people shopping locally, eating more organic and seasonal produce.  

As a staff team, there has been less travel, which is better for the environment. It has  demonstrated there are several ways to be part of bigger discussions, meetings etc  without physically having to be there.  

There have been more virtual spaces to connect with colleagues – online coffee breaks  where we are encouraged to take a break and catch up with our colleagues. Virtual pubs  and quiz and games evenings. Perhaps for some having a better work/ life balance, with  the mental and physical well being of the staff team being seeing as important during  these unprecedented times.

How did this make you feel?  

At first, I struggled with everything going online as I am used to meeting people face to  face. I had ‘Zoom’ fatigue and had to monitor this and ensure I took regular breaks. I felt  a bit lost with my project being postponed and was unclear how to best support people.  

I found it very heartening that individuals and organisations liked to hear from us and felt  supported by me. Being able to provide some sort of financial support for organisations  doing amazing work made me feel good and as if I was helping in a very practical way. 

What have you learned through this?  

I have learned that we all need to be connected, that food is at the heart of all  communities and is a great way to bring people together.  

That perhaps we will have an end to rush hour, with more people working from home if  possible.

Anything else you want to tell us? 

For more information about the Get Togethers programme, please check our website.

Phase 2 story (Autumn 2020)

What has continued to help keep a focus on what matters for people during the  pandemic? 

Our programme Get Togethers supports organisations to provide access to good food,  green space, and eating well and all of this is still important for people. A lot of people  are applying for small grants to provide ingredients for a recipe and then support people  to cook along online. This is a great way to see people, access good food and learn new  cooking skills.  

On the other hand for people with lower incomes this time is really difficult with the  numbers facing food poverty increasing, with particular concerns about the number of  children affected. As well as affordability of good food, accessibility is still a concern for  many. A lot of people are working hard to find creative ways to support their  communities by providing free food.

Are there changes that seem to be lasting longer term and are there things that have  slid back to old ways of doing things?  

A lot of changes have continued regarding food and eating since the pandemic started, a  lot of it is connected to wanting to be healthy and also to spending time and energy on  eating well. Sales of organic food have increased and the number of people growing their  own food has increased. It seems that more people are interested in cooking.  

Like most people we are still working from home and have not been able to have any face  to face meetings for a long time now. Our offices are still closed. With most things now  online, back to back video meetings are the new normal.

What difference has this made to people? 

There has been a discussion around digital inclusion for service users. This doesn’t affect  me as such but more so the organisations we work with and can be seen as a barrier for  some. I’m not sure that it’s always understood how much time and resource is required  to adapting all services to be online.

How did this make you feel?  

I know that being online and using different platforms can have advantages to many  people, ensuring that people can stay connected, and I feel that is important. On the other hand, I find it challenging and exhausting being online all the time. Part of my job is  engagement so it’s looking at ways to deal with these barriers.

Reflecting on your experiences what have you learned? 

It’s so important to take regular breaks. Remembering to get outside for a walk or run  helps to keep me sane along with staying connected to friends and family. I also need to  remind myself that it’s ok to have a bad day. Eating online sometimes is not an enjoyable  experience for me!

What difference has it made to you to tell your story as part of this project? 

It has helped me have some perspective and to realise that there is value in what I am  trying to do.

Anything else you want to tell us?  

Thanks for the opportunity to tell me my story. It was great to hear all the great work  that other people are doing in response to the pandemic.