I recently ran a workshop on resilience for the School of Social Entrepreneurs Hampshire. It was the first time in over a decade that I’ve run a workshop on anything not related to food and it felt good to delve into something a bit different, especially about a topic that has been so important to me.

The importance of staying resilient is something I first properly became aware of while on the Clore Social Leadership Programme. I remember that at the time the thing that really struck me was the importance of thinking differently about failure - the fact that failure is part of the journey towards success. I remember someone suggesting that we should think of failure as a verb rather than an adjective (a passing phase rather than a permanent label).

A little while ago I read Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, a worthwhile read if you need to be persuaded of the value of thinking differently about failure - ‘Self-esteem, in short, is a vastly overvalued psychological trait. It can cause us to jeopardise learning if we think it might risk us looking anything less than perfect. What we really need is resilience: the capacity to face up to failure, and to learn from it. Ultimately, that is what growth is all about.’

As Thomas Eddison said, ‘I have not failed, I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.’

Look online and there are thousands of suggestions for what makes a person resilient and how resilience can be boosted. I’m sure everyone will have their own strategies that are personal to them too. Personally, one of mine is to give myself a short break from work every 90 minutes (as I largely work on my own I don’t have the option to chat to a colleague about life) and another is to take a swim in the local river (cold, wild water is always preferable).

One of the standout articles I found while carrying out research for the workshop was a Harvard Business Review article by Diane Coutu called How Resilience Works.

Diane talks about the three main characteristics she believes resilient people have:

  1. Optimistic realism - do I truly understand and accept the reality of my situation? This struck a chord with me - as much as it’s important to stay positive, blind optimism is unhelpful even though facing up to reality can be gruelling.

  2. A deep belief that life is meaningful - finding meaning in present day hardships to build bridges to a fuller, better constructed future. Diane explains that knowing our personal values helps us find meaning in these darker times.

  3. An uncanny ability to improvise - Diane describes this as ‘the ability to make do with whatever is at hand.’ An inventiveness that enables us to improvise a solution to a problem.

In the workshop I focused on the second characteristic, asking everyone to map out their school and work lives to date, visually showing the peaks and troughs. Mine is below (not to scale or perfectly accurate but a rough representation!):

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After the group shared these with a partner, I asked them to focus on one or two of the lower points and think about the positive meaning that emerged from them, in hindsight.

Finally, I asked them to think about challenges they are currently facing in developing their new social enterprises and to think about what meaning they can find in those situations and how this might help them in the future.

In her article Diane refers to an old Sufi tale about a man and his son who alternately and repeatedly were confronted with bad luck and good fortune. Diane tells how neighbours clustered around them each time to commiserate over the former and offer congratulations on the latter. Each time the man would retain his poise and pose the same question - ‘good thing, bad thing, who knows?’ As much as I can look back on my career and find meaning in things that felt bad at the time, I can equally think of times when I got over-excited about something that turned out not to live up to my expectations. This story reminds me of the importance of staying level-headed.

I’ve been asked back to run a similar workshop for a cohort on SSE Hampshire’s Community Business Trade Up Programme for community businesses that have started and want to grow.  It will be interesting to see if that cohort are facing different challenges now that their enterprises are up and running.

Want to find out more about resilience? Check out my interview with community leader Ian Solomon-Kawall. Also visit The Resilience Institute website.

4 Million Hours

The Independent Food Aid Network and the Trussell Trust recently announced groundbreaking research, revealing the extent of volunteer contributions to UK food banks.

The first joint study of Trussell Trust and independent food banks finds volunteers contribute more than 4 million hours in support to UK food banks every year. Calculating the value of this work, using the National Living Wage, this equates to at least £30 million a year.

I wanted to set up the Independent Food Aid Network to make sure independent food banks, and other models of food aid provision, had a national voice. I also wanted to make sure that valuable research into the extent of food aid in the UK included independent food aid providers, rather than only Trussell Trust foodbanks. This research is a perfect example of what IFAN was set up to do.

As much as we should recognise the efforts of volunteers, rather than celebrating their achievements we should use this research to highlight the massive responsibility civic society has had to take on, in place of adequate government policy.

As I heard someone say the other day, we don't need to make sure people get food, we need to make sure people have enough money to get the food of their choice.

Click here for more on the research.

UK Food Bank Mapping

The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), a charitable organisation I established last year, recently announced a food bank mapping exercise that Sabine Goodwin undertook on IFAN’s behalf. The Guardian wrote about the research in May 2017 and it was subsequently picked up by many websites, radio stations and commentators, as well as The Times and The Independent.

Unbelievably, prior to this research we haven’t known how many food banks operate in the UK, outside of the Trussell Trust network. However, it has been clear to anyone involved in food aid in the UK that the number has been rising over the last few years.

Although this is an ongoing piece of work we discovered that there are many more food banks in operation than previously estimated, with the number of independent food banks numbering 672 on top of the 1,373 food banks and distribution centres supported by the Trussell Trust.

It is a depressing thought that there are over 2,000 food banks providing food to people in the UK in the 21st century. But this is the tip of the iceberg when It comes to the level of food poverty that exists in our country.

For a start there are many other types of groups that provide food aid, from community kitchens to holiday hunger programmes. Our next step will be to map these to add them to the food banks in operation and we fully expect them to number a lot more than the number of independent food banks.

However, the number of services providing food doesn’t paint the whole picture of household food insecurity, as we know that many people use other strategies of getting food when their unable to afford to purchase it themselves – borrowing from friends and family or simply going without are two such strategies.

To really understand the level of household food insecurity we need to carry out national monitoring just like the Canadians do. In Canada they know that food insecurity is about much more than the number of people that visit food banks as they know that at least 4 million people are food insecure (there are particular sections of society that aren’t counted so the number is thought to be higher in reality), alongside the 800,000+ who visit a food bank each year.

The current British government (at time of writing this is the Conservatives…just) refuses to recognise food poverty as an issue so national monitoring is not something they acknowledge there being a need for.

If we don’t know how many people are affected and who they are it makes it very difficult to develop policies that effectively tackle food poverty?

In 2016 a number of organisations produced a report about the need for national monitoring called Time to Count the Hungry. The Food Foundation is one of the organisations leading on this work and the latest information can be viewed on their website.

At IFAN we will continue to work towards building a true picture of the extent of food aid in the UK but while doing so we will be sure to add our voice to the call for national monitoring of house food security.


An interview with Dee Woods

As well as BBC Cook of the Year 2016, Slow Food Ambassador 2016 and founder of Granville Community Kitchen, Dee Woods has recently been appointed on to the London Food Board.

I talk to Dee about what motivates her to do the work she does, how she is helping develop a people's food policy for the UK, and why it's critical to put people at the heart of a sustainable food system.

Links to check out, as mentioned by Dee:

Using ‘Tech for Good’ to reduce food bank use

I’m in the process of developing a concept that builds financial resilience among people in marginal to moderate* food insecurity, reducing the need to access food aid should a financial shock occur.

Last year Oxfam GB asked me to take the lead for them on CAST’s Fuse accelerator programme. Fuse is ‘a nonprofit technology accelerator...working with established nonprofits to build scalable, user-centred, digital services’.

The aim was to develop a digital service to support people who are food insecure to find the most appropriate and useful services and to use the information collected to help towards building a complete national picture of food poverty, thus informing policy and action at national and local levels.

Nice and simple then!

Through the fast-paced three month accelerator, we tested, co-designed and developed a concept by working with service delivery organisations, working families in food insecurity and food bank users. The feedback and co-design helped shape the concept in a way that means people will want to use it. The ultimate goal was to end up with a minimum viable product (MVP).

Initial desktop research and user interviews helped us make two key decisions:

  • We needed to focus on financial resilience rather than food. After all, food poverty simply means that people don’t have enough money to buy food.
  • The concept we develop should be targeted at families on low incomes in marginal food insecurity (since then the government has spoken of a similar focus on ‘just about managing’ households and this Resolution Foundation report describes the issues faced by these households).

In many cases families on low incomes live with a certain level of precarity with little financial resilience to deal with a financial shock occurring. During the development phase of Fuse we called this stage the ‘cusp’.

Research tells us that there is a strong likelihood that a financial shock will occur, whether this is predictable (school holidays, birthdays or Christmas) or unpredictable (white goods breaking down or a parking ticket). This financial shock often creates the need for families to access short-term ‘solutions’, including high interest emergency debt, and/or fall further into food insecurity, resulting in the need to visit their local food bank. We called this stage the ‘crisis’.

We knew we couldn’t prevent the crisis from happening, although during user interviews it was apparent that a lot of the crises had been caused by simple human error, leading to benefit delays or sanctions, through no fault of their own.

Instead, as a result of the interviews we carried out, we decided to see how we could help families build financial resilience so that a financial shock doesn’t need to lead to a food bank referral. Reasons for this include the associated stigma and stress of visiting a food bank (this often means that people referred to a food bank don’t go).

Following lots of user research and an initial test we have designed a concept with a working title of QuidsIn. The next development stage of QuidsIn will enable us to get further insight which may result in changes to the mechanics of the product. However, as it stands QuidsIn can be described as the first digital payment card scheme for people on low incomes that incorporates an emergency savings fund.  

Users have a prepayment card that is used for everyday shopping. By using the card they save small amounts as they shop and this saving is match-funded by external agencies.

Members can redeem their savings when they experience financial shock. This may be done by visiting a local service agency, facilitating links with other forms of support, or it may be done online. This is just one of the elements of the concept that we will be testing during the second stage of development.

We believe QuidsIn will reduce the need for families to visit food banks. A manager of a food bank told us that if QuidsIn was on offer it would reduce the number of people using their service by at least a third.

Service agencies acting as referrers to food banks told us that they often hand out a food bank voucher knowing that an emergency food parcel isn’t the most appropriate offer for that person. However, they hand them out in the absence of a suitable alternative. We believe QuidsIn can be a truly effective alternative.

We are now beginning the second stage of testing thanks to a grant from Comic Relief, via their Tech for Good funding stream.

I’ll be leading a pilot of QuidsIn, on behalf of Oxfam, between April and July this year, in partnership with Super Being Labs, our product partner, and ongoing support from CAST.

We’ll be working with a number of service agencies across the UK, getting their support to recruit participants who will take part in a number of short test sprints. The insights we gain from these sprints, including participant feedback during and after each sprint, will enable us to design a robust, effective version of QuidsIn, and a road map for further development that will eventually lead to a full nationwide launch.

For information on all the projects awarded support through the Comic Relief Tech for Good programme click here.

For further information about the agile design process we are using click here.

*PROOF Canada categorises food insecurity as follows:

  1. Households experiencing marginal food insecurity reported one food-insecure condition.
  2. Households experiencing moderate food insecurity reported compromise in quality and/or quantity food consumed among adults and/or children.
  3. Households experiencing severe food insecurity reported reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns among adults and/or children.


The issue of food waste has been hot news for a while now and it isn't going away anytime soon.

Whereas some talk about diverting food waste for charitable purposes as being an answer to food poverty, others balk at the idea, citing the fact that focusing on surplus food to feed the hungry lets the government off the hook (see these two recent articles from the UK and Canada as examples for arguments against).

I agree with the argument that diverting surplus food shouldn't be seen as the answer to food poverty (see here for my arguments against focusing on downstream solutions to upstream problems) but there are many people doing great work to highlight all the reasons why the amount of food we waste as a society is a scandal (Tristram Stuart explains all here). UK organisations include Feedback, The Real Junk Food Project and Super Kitchen.

An example menu from FirstBite's community cafe

An example menu from FirstBite's community cafe

I wholeheartedly support projects that take surplus food and do something positive with it, especially if it involves bringing the community together around a healthy, freshly cooked meal.

A few months ago I met Debbie and Mary who were about to set up a community food project called FirstBite in Winchester, Hampshire.

Their first project, a weekly community cafe using only surplus food, was launched in November. I went along before Christmas and it was wonderful to see a whole room of people eating together, making new friends and enjoying delicious, freshly cooked meals.

I'm all too aware that when starting a social enterprise things can get really tough and there are many challenges to overcome. So I met up with Mary and Debbie to find out more about FirstBite and hear what they've learned in the process of starting their enterprise.  

Take a look below at the recording of our chat.


How it all started

Recently I was talking to someone about the various projects I’ve been involved in over the last decade and when describing my first project, Food Up Front, I realised that, although I mention this project on my website, there isn’t a proper description of what this project was.

This blog article is my attempt to explain more.

The first weekend of the permaculture design course. No idea what I was doing!

The first weekend of the permaculture design course. No idea what I was doing!

In late 2006 I attended a permaculture design course  held over a number of weekends in north London by Naturewise.

On the final weekend we had to present a design using the permaculture principles and ethics. I had come up with a design for supporting people to grow food in their unused outdoor space. 

Inspired by the permaculture course, I designed some leaflets and recruited a few friends to hand out some leaflets where I lived in South-West London.

Receiving advice on Food Up Front leaflet design.

Receiving advice on Food Up Front leaflet design.

The name of the enterprise was Food Up Front and very simply the idea was that we would support people to grow some food in containers. I had wanted to start container growing on my balcony but with little knowledge was scared of getting started (I hadn't grown anything before). I figured that other people would be in the same situation (a little like a personal trainer for people who want to start exercising).

Our target was to sign up 10 local households in the area and work with them throughout the 2007 growing season. We recruited 10 on the first day of handing out leaflets.

I put an ad out on Freecycle for equipment and cycled around south London filling pannier bags and plastic bags  with unwanted garden pots and riding them precariously back home.

Sowing seeds with one of the first members.

Sowing seeds with one of the first members.

We started visiting the households once a week, helping them to plant seeds and generally encouraging them to give it a go.

I managed to secure some funding from UnLtd and by September 50 households were signed up (tip - learn how to say no otherwise it’s easy to end up taking too much on!). We obviously couldn’t support each household individually like we did with 10 members so we developed starter kits.

The starter kits consisted of the plastic council recycling boxes (the local authority had changed to bags so had a lot of boxes sitting unused in a warehouse), compost donated by the local authority that was made from household green waste, a choice of two varieties of simple salad/herb seeds and a very simple ‘how to’ guide.

Pulling a demo Food Up Front starter kit.

Pulling a demo Food Up Front starter kit.

We used some funding to buy a bike trailer and I cycled around south London delivering starter kits to each new member, giving them a short tutorial at the same time.

Starter kits helped but it was equally unsustainable for me to be cycling around delivering starter kits to everyone (the trailer took no more than two starter kits at once). So in the second year we started to recruit street reps.

Street reps were local people who we recruited to act as the local point of support for members in their vicinity.

We held recruitment events in the spring of 2008 and ended up with 65 street reps supporting nearly 400 households in Wandsworth and Lambeth in South London.

To facilitate face-to-face communication between street reps and members and make our life easier we arranged to deliver the required number of starter kits to each street rep and asked new members to collect a starter kit from their assigned street rep. This meant we could deliver to far fewer locations but still support lots of members.

Very soon we saw hubs grow around each street rep, many of whom organised meet ups for their assigned members, including planting sessions or just a chat over a drink. We also organised various workshops for our members on a range of relevant topics throughout the year.

Lots of great things happened as a result of Food Up Front. People started using their previously dead outdoor spaces in a productive way.

One member worked in the city and explained that he would never have dreamed of growing anything for himself as he thought he didn’t have the time. Now he was growing salad in a box on his front doorstep and was able to pick a few leaves for his lunchtime sandwich or evening salad.

Another member went a lot further and ended up filling her front garden with green recycling boxes, realising that her front garden suited food growing a lot better than her back garden. She ended up installing compost bins and water butts as well.

As successful as Food Up Front was at motivating people to get together and grow food, it relied heavily on me and my colleague Kate. We were getting burnt out and although we managed to secure some funding to pay ourselves a part-time wage for a few months, most of the time we had to rely on other work to generate an income. We charged a nominal amount to new members which covered the costs of setting them up with their starter kits, but we were reluctant to charge more as we didn’t want to price anyone out.

Despite a number of attempts to work out how to make the project more financially sustainable we couldn’t see past needing to rely on external funding.

Food Up Front ran for a third and final year in 2009. I'll always have a slight regret that we didn't take the enterprise further.

However, apart from being replicated by groups elsewhere and spreading the word about the values of growing food (like in these articles in Time Out  and The Independent), two more positive things came out of the project. 

Firstly, I was asked by Sustain to coordinate the launch of Capital Growth in 2008, as a result of my work in developing Food Up Front. This was a role I continued until 2013 and to have the opportunity to help build one of the largest urban food networks in the world was an opportunity not to be missed. 

Turning used coffee cups into edible plant pots.

Turning used coffee cups into edible plant pots.

Secondly, I devised One Pot Pledge, as an extension of Food Up Front and a way of inspiring more people to give food growing a go without the need for the people power that Food Up Front required.

Very simply, the idea was to get people to pledge to grow a pot of something edible and in doing so, receive some support and encouragement.

Kate and I presented the idea to our friends at Garden Organic and they managed to find funding to run it as as a national campaign with Kate and I involved on a consultancy basis.

For our part in the campaign we linked up with Pret a Manger and set up at the entrance to a number of outlets in central London to help people plant seeds in their used disposable coffee cups. Here's a short video of our time at the London Bridge outlet.

So Food Up Front was great while it lasted, albeit that it took up all our energy in the process. 

I learnt a lot about the importance of resilience in leading a community enterprise (see my interview with Ian Solomon-Kawall where we touch more on resilience) and why it's important to keep the passion and enthusiasm under control in order to keep things sustainable.

Mostly though, I saw for the first time how powerful food can be at bringing people together; something that has stuck with me ever since and has been the reason why I'm still involved in building good food communities 10 years on.


There is lots of support to grow your own food in small spaces these days. Companies that offer starter kits through the post include Seed Pantry and Allotinabox. You can also get great advice from Vertical Veg.

Want to start your own community food growing enterprise or get involved in one? Capital Growth is a great place to start. Also check out the Federation of City Farms & Community GardensSustainable Food Cities network and CSA network for opportunities in your area.