Feeding the thousands

How does a team of three mobilise an operation to supply 100,000 meals for vulnerable people across Edinburgh? We caught up with Scran Academy, a recipient of the University’s Community Grants Scheme, to find out.

scran acadmey volunteers
Volunteers at work at Scran Academy (credit: Hannah Bailey @NeonStash)

For youth work professional Charlie Johnson, food represents something socially important in people’s lives. But when he joined Scran Academy in north Edinburgh less than a year ago to help local young people learn cookery skills, he couldn’t have anticipated that he would be helping to facilitate an emergency food service that would be saving lives during a global pandemic.

Charlie, alongside Scran Academy founder John Loughton and University of Edinburgh graduate and youth worker Jennifer Airlie, responded quickly to facilitate a food operation that has seen more than 100,000 meals delivered throughout Edinburgh.

“Food poverty isn’t a new thing, but we could just see it coming,” says Charlie. “We had to very quickly pivot towards producing food for people and we were, as far as I know, one of the first organisations to start sending food out to communities. Our first delivery date was the 20th March. Literally, as the lockdown hit we were ready to go but it’s been hard to see people struggle and suffer purely because they are older or they have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19.”

For a small social enterprise, with little infrastructure, their ability to respond was bolstered by support from a range of community partners including Edinburgh Academy, Fettes College, Out of the Blue and Feltor Youth Club, Pilton Equality Project, YMCA Scotland, which provided facilities, delivery vehicles, and people. Financial support came from a number of sources, including the University of Edinburgh’s Community Grants Scheme, and an army of 200 volunteers came together, thanks to the reach of social media.

“It would be impossible to do what we did without the support from others. Scran Academy has been the co-ordinating force behind everything but there have been a lot of other people doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Having 200 people cooking or packaging or delivering with us, or helping with the back office, has made it all possible,” says Charlie.

While Scran Academy adjusted its operation to meet the city’s emergency food needs during Covid-19, it also maintained a service to the young people who rely on the opportunities that Scran Academy offers. Scran Academy provides a space for local young people who are struggling at school to come together twice a week to gain employability and life skills, includinglearning how to cook and share food together, modelling the sort of positive family experiences that many of these young people won’t experience, while learning culinary skills that lead to qualifications. Many of those young people faced extra challenges during the lockdown, so the team also had to grapple with maintaining contact during Covid-19.

“Young people who come from more difficult backgrounds are used to adults coming in and out of their lives, whether that’s family or friends or social workers, or even teachers, so to just stop was never an option for us. And although, the wider team were focusing on the meals we managed to re-introduce Scran Academy recently, bringing back activities, socially distanced in a big hall. We wanted them to feel special and a priority because they are,” Charlie says.

“We’ve also had young people in doing things like making lunch for the volunteers and a couple of weeks ago when we hit 90,000 meals, they made us a cake. So, we’ve been getting them involved as much as we can but respecting that their confidence doesn’t enable them to participate as much as we would like, and while still trying to make it as safe a space as possible.”

“That contact has been so important because so many of our young people have been living in chaotic homes and the influences can be negative or disruptive, so having a positive adult presence can be beneficial to them, and we’ve found we’ve built positive relationships with a lot of parents and carers through this.”

scran academy 3
credit: Scran Academy

The team at Scran Academy regularly observes a side of Edinburgh that many of the University of Edinburgh’s students and alumni rarely come into contact with. But for Charlie, Covid-19 has presented an opportunity to bring people together from different backgrounds, enhancing understanding of people’s own unique challenges and circumstances.

“I think Edinburgh is an amazing city. You look at the surface of it and it appears to be incredibly wealthy but it only takes half a mile down the road to find yourself in one of Scotland’s most deprived areas. For the people, and especially the young people, who live in these communities, there’s a feeling of worthlessness and I think that’s sometimes not helped by people who haven’t experienced that,” Charlie says.

“We’ve seen that with our own volunteers. The majority of people who volunteer with us are local but they’re not the same people we’re serving or supporting. They’ve fed back and said they’ve learnt not to judge people by doing this. So, I think there is benefit on all sides so people getting to know each other and developing a sense of shared community is never a bad thing.”

Find out more about the University of Edinburgh’s Community Grants Scheme:

Community Grants Scheme