Making it as a Community Food Project
We’ve been in conversation with Clare & Karolina, two amazing women who used their love of dumplings to help migrant women improve their English skills. The result was the creation of a truly unique community food project – Heart & Parcel.
We hope you might feel inspired by this conversation to do the same!
Could you introduce what you do at Heart & Parcel, how long you’ve been running the community food project for, and what motivated you to start?
We started Heart & Parcel in November 2015 with the idea to develop English language skills for migrant women through the making of dumplings (or the folding of parcels).
The motivation really stemmed from both love and frustration. We loved dumplings and parcels from around the world. Karolina is from Poland and I grew up in Hong Kong, and dumplings are our absolute favourite food. We realised that there are all sorts of different dumplings from around the world and we wanted to explore that further.
The frustration came from when we both worked in the third sector. Karolina worked as a translator and social worker in the community and I worked as an ESOL (English as a second language) tutor, and we both became frustrated at the lack of free English classes for women from migrant communities.
There was a lack of funding in general for these classes and the use of authentic and meaningful language was not really taught. We felt it was too target driven and pressurised.
As a result, we brought these two things together to create sessions where women would prepare dumplings, chat and build confidence.
How did you go about starting your first project?
It was nerve-wracking. But the wonderful beauty of community projects is that there is a lot of support out there. So we tried to connect to other people and see what was already there to make sure we weren’t replicating anything. We went to talk to different experts in the area and sought help from our existing work.
We then pulled it together to develop our first funding bid to GMCVO and received £500 through the Unltd award, plus mentoring and support. This helped us to plan and structure our idea and make it a reality.
What kind of learning came out from that initial first project?
We had a pilot project in Cheetham Hill at the Wai Yin Welcome Centre. They had ESOL classes running, so we did an extra session on the side of this to see if it would work.
We took photos and did feedback sessions, and we received lots of comments to help with our next project. So we’ve developed a really organic process of responding and reacting to the needs of our learners.
Did you start off with a legal structure in mind?
Our motto is that we give the women what they genuinely need, not what we think that they need. And that sometimes doesn’t fit into a formal structure. So we very much have to see what happens.
We are just sole traders at the moment and we are still trying to get our legal structure in place. It’s not important to incorporate at first for a community project. But what you do need is to have plans, small goals throughout the year and regularly review them. Plus having other people around us and getting feedback for the next stage of the project is important.
How have you managed to maintain a balance between working on Heart & Parcel and having to work at your main job?
It can be a double-edged sword having a full-time job alongside starting a project like this. We are really lucky in that our main work really informs the work that we do with Heart & Parcel. We are always thinking about how to professionally develop Heart & Parcel and inject it with the knowledge it needs to take it forward.
Not going to lie, work-life balance is hard! But I think the most important thing we’ve both realised is that you must must must work with someone else to share the burden and manage the workload.
We also make sure we are really organised and structured with what we do. We also received funding over the last three years to hire staff. Initially, we thought we could do everything ourselves, but we realised that in order to make it successful, we would need to enlist volunteers and two members of staff to make it work.
What were the roles of the staff members?
Heart & Parcel is very project based and we hired two members of staff for the ‘Cook Eat Write’ project as volunteer co-ordinators. They trained and managed the volunteers and made sure the sessions ran smoothly.
Naomi and Holly were actually previous volunteers with us, and we were blown away by their personalities and dedication. So offering that development helped us and them to move forward.
Not only do you do English language and cookery sessions, and you also do supper clubs. Could you tell us more about that?
A stipulation of our funding was that we also needed to start selling something. So we thought that selling the dumplings either on a market stall or at a supper clubs would be a good way to generate income.
We started doing supper clubs in my house. These were really small and infrequent, just to trial them, with maybe about 5 to 6 people at each one.
When then expanded to doing the supper clubs at restaurants. And from there, we’ve managed to showcase the ideas of the women we work with. We’ve done Bangladeshi, Syrian and Egyptian supper clubs as a result.
There’s a great balance with Heart & Parcel between being commercially minded and socially minded. What’s the journey of being a social entrepreneur been like?
2010 was the real start of the idea behind using food for social change generally. But we really didn’t know anything about social enterprises until we started doing it! That journey has been quite interesting for us.
Our biggest challenge has been to balance our primary aim to give women a voice but also not pushing women into doing work that they don’t want to do or making food that they don’t want to make. That balance can be quite difficult.
How are you thinking about becoming more sustainable for the future?
Being completely self-sufficient is what many social enterprises strive for! We are planning a cookbook launch, which will generate some profit to be used for our projects.
All community projects run the risk of being too reliant on funding and then shoe-horning their aims to fit the funding. Or becoming too focused on monetising and then doing paid work that doesn’t fit with our aims. We have made mistakes when we’ve done work that didn’t quite fit with our aims, but we’ve recognised this.
Are there any mistakes that come to mind?
So many! A lot of people get very excited about the project and want to get involved. And sometimes people will have a proposal for us to cook for them, and sometimes we take it on without really thinking. But then we realise that we didn’t really get much out of it and it didn’t benefit the women.
If I’d give a piece of advice – don’t be afraid of making these mistakes and feeling stupid. Don’t have fear about just trying it out. That is the most important thing about starting a community project.
What would you say has been the biggest achievement of Heart & Parcel?
The biggest achievement for us has been having the platform of the supper clubs for women to showcase their work. To formalise the work from our classes and bring it all together for a community event has been great. I remember Layla from Syria making a four-course meal for 50 people and I’ll never forget the look on her face afterward.
Her sense of achievement and happiness is something we wanted to bottle up and measure in terms of our outcomes of satisfaction, wellbeing and confidence.
Measuring happiness is so difficult and people express it in different ways. It’s priceless and you can’t really put a measure on that.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of starting a community food project?
Do your research. Try not to replicate what is already there. Talk to people doing similar things to you. Listen to the people you are trying to help.
Be brave. If we had known how supportive people in the third sector were going to be, we would have started way earlier!