The Bags of Taste COVID anniversary blog

Margaret Cooney looks back on her first, eventful year as a first-time chair.

I became chair of the award-winning food poverty social enterprise, Bags of Taste in April 2020. In this month of anniversary reminiscences, I’ve written a ‘looking back’ blog because I believe Bags of Taste matters now even more than it did before the pandemic. I’m also using the opportunity to celebrate the remarkable achievement of the team in supporting 1200 vulnerable people during an extraordinary year.

First, I consider the issue of food poverty in the UK and why I believe Bags of Taste is so effective in tackling its underlying causes. Second, I describe how a small organisation shifted online, adapted to rapidly changing working practices and thrived in a global crisis.

UK food culture and poverty

It would be fantastic if we all agreed that everyone should be able to eat well, have easy access to nutritious, reasonably priced food and follow a healthy diet that benefits their physical and mental health.

Unfortunately, it is complicated in the UK, where our peculiar class system shapes attitudes to everything, particularly food. For decades people have been told to take ‘personal responsibility’ for their diets which hasn’t worked. It is not some mass moral failure that has seen obesity rise from just two per cent in the 1970s to almost 30 per cent today. It is how much harder it has become to make the healthy choice.

That choice is even harder when your financial circumstances, health and immediate environment aren’t good. The poorest areas of the country are more likely to be fast food hotspots. They pay a poverty premium meaning it’s more expensive to buy goods and services. Exhaustion from long working hours, stress from low and insecure pay also cause low-income people to eat processed food, use takeaways and avoid cooking at home.

Instead of trying to understand the underlying reasons for why the poorest people make unhealthy choices, they are often ‘blamed and shamed’. And there has been the growth of food banks due to austerity and low income. Nearly 2m people in this country used a food bank between 2019/20. I know they are a lifeline for many people but they aren’t a long-term solution. They only address their immediate needs.

So, when I considered volunteering on a food poverty project, I knew it had to be something that tackled the underlying causes, gave people agency and self-direction over their diets and finances, but supported them along the way.

Bags of Taste is different

At the beginning of 2020, someone sent me the brief for the Bags of Taste chair role and this statement grabbed my attention immediately.

‘People in poverty do not have worse cooking skills than the rest of the population, so the causes of their poorer diet lie elsewhere.’

Bags of Taste builds confidence and the skills to cook delicious food. It doesn’t offload bags of surplus, waste food on students, expect them to whip up incredible meals with random ingredients in a poorly equipped kitchen.

Second, its ethos is non-judgmental. If you are struggling on a low income then you are unable to shop ethically, because it costs more, particularly if access to food locally is poor.  Wouldn’t you use takeaways if they are convenient, cheap and you spent less on fuel?

The third thing, which might sound strange given that it teaches people to cook meals costing £1 a portion, is that Bags of Taste isn’t a cookery course.  It tackles the social determinants of health that cause people to lead unhealthy lifestyles.

Social determinants of health

Our courses attract people with unhealthy diets by catering to their food preferences; enabling us to tackle the wider issues that act as barriers to living healthier lives; finance, confidence, and food access. We understand that the most significant barriers to improving diet are economic, psychological and structural.

Students learn how to eat on a budget and that helps their finances. A sharp knife and knowing how to use it makes cooking easier, and they learn how to access food cheaply in their local area because we do the detailed research to get them started on a food journey that can transform their lives.

They will often be struggling with multiple challenges, but completing a Bags of Taste course and cooking a complex recipe like Singapore Noodles makes them feel like they’ve gained a superpower. They will also be eating a healthy, delicious meal for £1 a portion.

Image showing what students can cook after the course and congratulating them on their achievements

Students on the course feel like they’ve gained a new superpower when they can cook complex recipes like Singapore Noodles

Chemistry and compatibility

I met the founder of Bags of Taste, Alicia Weston before joining the board to test our ‘personal chemistry’. Little did we know how much we’d need it. Alicia didn’t grow up in the UK and her mum is Malaysian Chinese. I’m told all Malaysians are obsessed with food and cooking, and she’s no exception. She writes eloquently about where her love of food comes from on the website of the Bags of Taste sister project, Parkholme Supper Club which has raised over £120,000 for Médecins Sans Frontiers.

When she told me that Tesco’s tinned tomatoes were half the price of Iceland’s; that frozen vegetables were better for certain recipes, and frozen chicken and fish is cheap and just as nutritious, I knew she wasn’t a food snob. What mattered to her was that people made informed choices about how to shop and eat well on a budget.

This upbringing, a science degree and a subsequent successful career in finance undoubtedly shaped a highly pragmatic approach to solving problems and informed her unshakeable conviction that everyone should be able to afford and eat good food.

We get results

She had also listened carefully to people who live in food poverty to understand the barriers they faced to eating healthily. These insights helped to create a unique and innovative approach to overcoming unhealthy lifestyles, and it gets results. Here are some:

  • Worked with 6000 students;
  • 50% have mental health conditions, 55% have disabilities and long-term health conditions;
  • 70% cooked recipes again and shopped for ingredients. Behaviour sustained 12 months on;
  • 85% drop in takeaway consumption;
  • £1350 savings on food bills p/a, reducing debt-related stress;

Terrible timing

By the time I was offered the role, our face-to-face service delivery was no longer possible – not great timing – but imagine being the founder of an organisation that had built a highly, effective intervention, or the branch heads who delivered the courses to the people who needed them. They stood to lose their jobs.

The situation facing Bags of Taste at the start of April 2020 wasn’t unique. Plenty of other social sector organisations were in the same situation, but for a moment it felt terrifying.

The digital shift

Bags of Taste was lucky to have a CEO with foresight. A pilot home learning version of the programme had been developed. The experienced Hackney branch head Caroline agreed to trial the new approach. Vulnerable people got a free Bag of Taste delivered to their home with ingredients to cook the recipes we provided, but were remotely mentored to cook the recipes. WhatsApp was the best channel to do this, but if students didn’t own a smartphone, we used landlines, as digital exclusion was an issue for some.

Results from the first run were encouraging. I was a ‘secret shopper’ on the second attempt and knew it would work.  The mentors were excellent and the peer group support was strong. As ever, a huge amount of detailed planning and effort went into the set-up; policies were revised, bagging up and delivery made COVID safe, job roles changed and we limited the recipe repertoire so that it was easy for students to access any perishable ingredients.

Image of Fresh ingredients and Bags of Taste recipes

The Mentored Home Cooking Course, designed to give students greater confidence in the kitchen, cook meals from scratch, to engage with the Bags of Taste community and reduce social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, really took off. (photo credit George Ong)

Like almost everyone else in the UK at this point, many of our team and the 350 or so fantastic volunteers who support them, were struggling with the difficult effects of lockdown. We had a lot of turnover but the way the team responded to the crisis was incredible.

The mentored home ccooking course, designed to give students greater confidence in the kitchen, cook meals from scratch, to engage with the Bags of Taste community and reduce social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, really took off. We’ve now supported 1200 vulnerable individuals.

We also have a thriving 1000 strong ex-participant group on Facebook and 250 people on a WhatsApp group where students can ask questions, download recipes, watch our cooking videos, our basic kitchen techniques, receive encouragement and post pictures of what they cooked themselves.

Small but significant

During the last year, it became evident that diet-related illness is one of the top three risk factors for dying of COVID-19, giving new urgency to the slow-motion disaster of the British diet.

Bags of Taste is small, which makes its achievements over the last year all the more impressive. I’m very proud of what the team has achieved. We’ve doubled our geographical reach, successfully fundraised and formed new partnerships with public health commissioners and NACRO.

We may only be one small piece of the jigsaw of organisations working to fix food insecurity in the UK, but our contribution is significant and I hope our influence will continue to grow.

Powerful stories

There are many powerful stories about the transformative effect we’ve had on people and a future goal is to make better use of these to highlight our impact. I’ve been able to use my background in communications to advise on improving messaging and our online presence.

To borrow a campaign hashtag doing the rounds in civil society circles lately, Bags of Taste was #never more needed. Don’t take my word for it, here’s just a snapshot of what our students said:

B: Newham, living with chronic pain due to fibromyalgia and ME and finds cooking by herself challenging.

“This was an awesome journey. I really enjoyed the course, the meals and seeing everyone’s meals. This was the most fun I’ve had in a long time and best of all it was for me.”

K: NACRO referral, NE England

“I always bought microwave stuff until now. I’d spend £4 on 2 microwave burgers and they wouldn’t fill me up. I can now cook better and more filling recipes for myself and I’m going to cook some for my mates”

L: Thanet, lives alone and on a low income

“Really tasty food…I wouldn’t have cooked this type of food before or used herbs. It was really helpful and supportive. It was also nice to talk to someone as I live on my own and have felt lonely during covid. It really helped me break up the day.”

K: Haringey, single Mum of 2 autistic teenagers and an undergraduate daughter living at home

“Go for it. The general techniques taught are very useful and the videos are so easy to follow… Very useful tips about what you can freeze. Great if you are on a tight budget and don’t want to waste anything. And it was nice to be part of a little group and cheer everyone on”.

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