Cooking up a storm

Hands up who makes too much at every meal time? Do you put it in a tub or freeze it full of good intentions or does it go straight in the bin or the dog’s bowl? Does it lie at the back of the freezer unlabelled for so long that you forget what it is then throw it out?

I’ve done all of those to various degrees. One day at work I opened up what I thought was tomato soup to be faced with pasta sauce but even that didn’t make me label tubs.

What I didn’t think about was plating up that extra portion and taking it two doors down my elderly neighbour or across the road to my young neighbour in those first chaotic days when she had her baby.

Once upon a time that’s what used to happen but now with freezers in every house and hectic lifestyles we’ve become more self-centred and inward looking.

Step in to the rescue the Casserole Club.

The Casserole Club is a FutureGov initiative and its aim is simple – to help people share extra portions of home cooked food with others in their area who might not always be able to cook for themselves.

You can sign up as a cook or a diner and be matched up with someone in your area. You can either use the whizz bang pair-up function on the website or do it by phone or email.

So far the scheme is up and running in Reigate and Banstead and all of the diners are aged over 80 but the hope is that Casserole Clubs will spring up around the country and that there will be a mix of diners, from recently widowed people to young mums, to people whose partners have a spell in hospital. Cooks may become diners and diners may become cooks, depending on changing circumstances. As relationships build young people may even start as diners, learn to cook then go on to cook for others.

Last week there was a meeting of minds at Casserole Club HQ to start discussions and gather requirements for a Casserole Self-Starter DIY Kit. Although the three FutureGov resource workers are doing a sterling job there aren’t enough of them to go around to grow the project as far as they’d like it to grow. Looking at similar business models community projects like this work better if the community takes ownership, hence the meeting to work out what would be needed for Casserole Clubs to be self-sustaining up and down the country.

So far the project’s funding had come from the Design Council and the Technology Strategy Board, with possible future funding coming from Nesta. The next step is to set up a Casserole Club in a central London location with 50 pair-ups in the first few months, along with the development of a web app which will include user to user communication, SMS integration, a group admin user role, and local business networking.

So up for discussion was what would actually be in the starter kit and who should get them, a network of contacts and a bank of FAQs. There was also a lot of discussion around health and safety and this seems to be a bugbear of the project and a barrier to getting buy-in from local authorities.

Personally, I never think about the potential food poisoning when I go to dinner at a friend’s house or think twice about eating the cupcake my neighbour’s children hand in every now and again and that’s the spirit of Casserole Club.

It’s not about a sterile environment creating a sterile meal. It’s about a meal made with love for family being shared with someone who needs a little home-cooked love in their life.

It’s also not about replacing meals on wheels or whatever other meal delivery service social services provide. It’s about adding value to that service, popping round to a neighbour, handing in some food, making sure they’re OK. It’s about building community capacity building.

The one thing the Casserole Club has learned is that everyone wants to cook but finding diners can be difficult. I’ve joined as a cook but there are no diners in my area. The key to finding them lies with local authorities, hospitals and charities, the people surrounded by red tape who can’t get past the health and safety.

They are the ones who can match up cooks with young families, people who have recently been widowed, people who are just out of hospital, new young mums, carers needing respite, young adults coming out of foster care, the list is endless. If they’re that sticky they are the ones who can put cooks through their food hygiene course, possibly at a reduced rate. They are the ones who can put Casserole Club leaflets in information packs and newsletters.

The red tape is imaginary and community Casserole Clubs will spring up without official help – it might just take a bit more time to find diners.

So let’s cut through the red tape, get a casserole on the go and break bread together.


In memory of Hillsborough

This week I wasn’t sure what to blog about but when I heard about the Hillsborough Disaster report memories came flooding back.

I can’t actually remember that fateful day 23 years ago. I was 21, in college and didn’t like football so at the time I probably didn’t take that much notice.

By the next year I was a trainee journalist and it was a class on subbing and page layout that this morning’s radio report brought back to memory so vividly.

I remember standing next to the editor bending over a back copy of the paper dated April 16, 1989. The two of us were studying the photographs and he was explaining how the pictures came in, how the words came in, all over the wire and how under pressure to make printing deadlines, how the page sub and the editor made the decisions about which photos to use.

The Hillsborough Disaster memorial, taken by Ben Sutherland and produced here under Creative Commons Licence

He then asked me how squeamish I was and I said I could take whatever he was about to throw at me.

He pulled out a brown envelope and scattered the photos that had been rejected over the table.

The images were heart-rending. There were faces pressed hard against the wire, quite obviously in distress but one photograph in particular has stuck in my memory. In between two older taller men, there was a younger boy and to me it looked like he was dying. His eyes were vacant and his mouth was open – I had to turn away because I thought I was going to cry.

The editor had made his point. It’s a tricky job trying to choose the right photo to illustrate that kind of disaster scene and not show disrespect to the suffering. I silently hoped that I’d never have to be the one to make those decisions.

Skip forward 23 years and where are we now?

Heaven forbid it should happen again but imagine for a minute how the news would have panned out with social media.

There would be photos on Twitter streams, all over Facebook and uploaded to Flickr within minutes. There would be videos on Vimeo and YouTube almost instantaneously. There would be firsthand accounts all over blogs, walls and streams.

Would there be any respect for those suffering and in distress? I doubt it because now it’s all about getting it up for all to see, counting retweets, shares and hits.

Don’t get me wrong, you and I love social media.

You and I think traditional journalism has left it too late to wake up to itself.

You and I know it’s been a while since editors were the gatekeepers to the news.

You and I know that the genie is out of the bottle and isn’t for going back in.

Not that long ago I cried at my desk, tears streaming while I watched Collateral Murder. I don’t think I’ve ever cried watching the news. Maybe we’d get angrier at injustice if we saw the real thing instead of the edited highlights. Maybe The Sun wouldn’t have blamed the fans if they’d had access to films on YouTube and on the spot citizen journalism. Maybe we’d engage more with politics at home and abroad if we saw a truer version of the truth, rather than what journalists and editors perceive to be the truth.

I don’t really know where this post was going – I think I just needed to get it off my chest but please tell me what you think, then maybe I’ll understand why just by writing this I’m getting a bit angry again and a bit teary. Maybe it’s just my age.


When emergency comms and life collide

Last week my personal life, my social media and my emergency planning collided spectacularly and it was all a little too close for comfort. On the other hand it’s a gift of a blog and an example to use in presentations and training – there’s always a silver lining.

On Friday I got a cryptic text from my parents who had arrived in Spain the day before for their hols. It read ‘I think there was a fire somewhere near here but we’re OK, don’t worry’.

I immediately Googled Spanish fire and holy canoli the results brought up Spanish wildfires along the Marbella coastline. I chose the BBC from the results and was shocked to read that 4000 people had been evacuated, one person was dead and the fires were still raging.

I didn’t even know the name of the town they were staying in but I knew my parents had no TV and no internet access where they were so I texted back to ask exactly where they were. Turned out to be Estepona, about 20km from Marbella but there was nothing up-to-date on the BBC.

I turned to my trusty emergency friend Twitter, changed my trends centre to Spain and discovered the hashtag #TodosConMálaga which was updating constantly. Unfortunately it was all in Spanish and Google Translate wasn’t really coping with the vernacular very well – the English it spat out was as undecipherable as the Spanish!

I kept watching the hashtag in the hope of finding something in English when up popped a tweet from @Sophie_SophSoph. Sophie Howson turned out to be my guardian angel. Not only is she an ex-pat working in real estate, she also lives in Estepona. She could tell me exactly what was happening in the town and told me to check the website because the Spanish emergency services were using it to provide regular updates. These were in Spanish but Google Translate coped with them because the language was more formal.

I also used Icerocket to find some local blogs which also kept me in the loop.

Now I had all the information I needed so I could keep my parents up-to-date with the news. Like Sophie they had woken at 4am with the house full of smoke but went back to bed when they couldn’t find any sign of fire. Like Sophie they had woken next morning to a fine film of ash in the house and heaps of ash in the garden.

It was all very scary but by midnight on Friday there was only one fire left burning but under control, thanks to the spectacular effort of 400 firemen and 17 fire planes.

I can’t thank Sophie enough for all her help and reassurance and here’s the thing I love about social media. Once it had all died down (literally) I checked out her profile and noticed a link to her music on Soundcloud. Turns out that when she’s not selling real estate, Sophie is making pretty damn hot dance music. If you’re partial to a bit of deep house I suggest you give it a whirl and if you know any DJs pass on the link.

I love the serendipity you get with Twitter more than any other social media channel. But what this episode of my life did more than anything was prove the worth of social media in an emergency far more than any of the academic papers or books I’ve read during my research in the last three years.

The BBC online news was fine as far as it went, the fires got a tiny slot towards the end of the TV news and they didn’t get a mention in The Guardian.

Just after publishing this I came across Emergency Journalism, a toolkit for better and accurate reporting which would be good for emergency comms people as well as journalists. The site is is an initiative by the European Journalism Centre and focuses on tools that use up-to-date digital technology, including content curation tools to multi-layered live maps, and support media coverage of emergencies such as natural disasters and political conflicts. Hopefully resources like this will change the way journalists work.

In the meantime go Twitter, go citizen journalists and go Sophie!