Cooking up a Storm in Covid-19

When Jill Carter’s daughter Jessie was leaving college, things got tricky. Jessie had learning disabilities, autism, epilepsy and Dyspraxia – getting a foothold into the world of work was a challenge. She wanted to work in her local pizza restaurant, but the kitchen was too small and busy to cater to her autism. She visited a hotel that offered on the job training for adults with learning disabilities, but a placement was too expensive.

Jill however was determined to create opportunities for her daughter. “We just happened to be at a festival in 2009 and saw someone on a pedal powered smoothie bike,” Jill said. “It was such a simple concept I thought, ‘we could do that’. That’s really how it started.”

Pulp Friction travelled a steady pace providing work opportunities and training to young adults with learning disabilities and/or autism who had left education and had fallen through the gaps. Jill added a pedal powered ice-cream bike to the smoothie bike, which attended events and festivals. Then, in 2015, Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Services invited Pulp Friction to an event and heard Jill’s story. The next day they contacted her and wondered if Pulp Friction might have use for a kitchen. A ladder had been extended to take Pulp Friction to another level.

After all canteens in fire stations were closed during cuts in 2011, the kitchen had sat under dust covers for four years. Jill and two other mums opened it up in January 2016 as a day service. Five young adults with learning disabilities learnt and worked in the canteen, where they planned, prepared, cooked and served meals to the fire service.

The charity Fareshare Midlands delivered surplus food to them every week. The day services grew with outside catering and a café at the National Justice Museum.  They ran an allotment to grow some of the food they cooked. In addition, they set up a choir and dance group. The core number in the day support services grew to over 30.

“When people have the right support, and the right environment and the right people around them, anyone can flourish,” Jill explained. Some members might have severe learning disabilities, but there was always a job to suit them, to make a difference.

Then Covid-19 hit and the canteen, café and groups closed. Pulp Friction’s core income stopped. The festivals and the income the smoothie bikes generated that subsidised a lot of their services, stopped.

“I thought this is it,” Jill said. “We’ve worked ten years to get where we are and we’re going to lose it all overnight. The first three weeks, I thought this is the end.”

Out of a staff of 15, six were made redundant as a direct result of Covid-19. Their small café in the local museum wasn’t big enough to socially distance members so it closed.  Always financially sustainable, Jill began to apply for grants.

Key Fund gave them a lifeline £36k grant from the Social Enterprise Support Fund, made possible thanks to The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK.

“We’ve lost some really important parts of our organisation and yes we’ve lost some staff. I think what it’s made me do is go back to the core of what we do. What we’re best at is supporting people with learning disabilities be the best they can be. With our canteens closed, we have to think about new ways in which we can make a difference.”

They offered new services – advice on benefits for users and social distanced walks – as well as launching a YouTube channel, hosting their choir and dance groups on Zoom. They held a sponsored dance and raised over £1k for the NHS charities. The Fareshare food deliveries were turned into food parcels by Pulp Friction members and delivered by neighbourhood volunteers to those known to be vulnerable. Approaching the closed local pub resulted in using their kitchens to cook hot meals for delivery.

They’ve produced and delivered over 1,000 hot meals and are still doing food packs for some local sheltered housing schemes. They got involved with the Open Kitchen Network – taking over closed restaurant kitchens – and helped distribute further meals to the local community.

“We’re deliberately not a charity as I think that comes with some connotations. We want to show people that people with learning disabilities have contributions to make, and are making contributions.”

£12k of the grant will produce a new App to deliver services 24/7 to members online, with training programmes and social activities.

Pulp Friction engaged thousands across the community during the last six months of Covid-19.

“We saw poverty where you wouldn’t expect it, and some older people who were comfortable financially in big houses but with no network or family, so completely isolated. It’s been a leveller. All of us needed help.”

Jill hopes their work has made people think differently about people with learning disabilities, who are always at the ‘bottom of the pile’ when it comes to jobs, positioning her members as community activists.

Pulp Friction launched a new takeaway business in July operating from the local police headquarters. They are now setting up a co-operative shop, which will include a café, and a place for local producers and artists to sell their wares. As a shop, it ensures it can stay open if there are future lockdowns.

“I do feel more hopeful,” Jill said.

Being a small enterprise, unlike a Local Authority, they can be fleet of foot and respond to need quickly.

“We can have an idea in the morning and test it out in the afternoon, whereas big organisations and local authorities can’t do that because there’s so many levels of bureaucracy. Working with the fire and police forces means we’re close to the community and know its needs.”

New partnerships have been forged, with new projects.

Next year, the fire and police service in Nottinghamshire are moving to one central main station, and building a brand-new canteen which will cater to 300 people a day.

“And we are going with them,” Jill said breathlessly, “which is another huge challenge, so we’ve just applied for some social investment funding to move from serving 20 people to 300 a day. It’s going to be a huge leap.

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