I was recently asked to help lead a short-term research project into the views of residents in an inner city area of Gloucester.
Gloucestershire County Council are working with Leeds Beckett University on a UK wide programme to develop practical ways for local authorities to address obesity via a ‘whole systems’ approach.
The council wanted to gather the views of residents in Podsmead about their food choices and options. Podsmead was chosen as it has few shops and poor public transport, limiting access to affordable healthy food.
Food and eating is personal and can be a sensitive subject, especially if people feel criticised or blamed for their choices. Early conversations with residents and staff at the local community café – the Melting Pot – were important in deciding what approach to take, what questions to ask and when and how to ask them.
Initial conversations with residents revealed that food should be about enjoyment and happiness and that it can offer comfort. The Manager of the Melting Pot Café Josie said she saw food as a way of bringing people together – so the idea of a free community meal to promote the recently refurbished café was born.
Corn beef anyone?
The project team designed three separate questionnaires on shopping, cooking and good food to support conversations with residents at the meal, which included delicious Caribbean fare such as corn beef and rice, sweetcorn, home-made coleslaw and mango smoothies.
A team of young volunteers completed a shorter survey with their family and friends. The questions were worded to avoid being intrusive and to enable comfortable conversations.
This ‘light touch’ approach helped deliver a successful community event.
Here’s what we learnt:
1. Language is important
‘Healthy eating’ can imply failure or judgement and may be impossible for people who are struggling.
2. People are wary of being seen as a problem to be fixed
Supporting existing community activity and strengths offers a ‘way in’ and gives something back.
3. Involve people as partners
Residents were involved as partners in designing and carrying out this research. This was important to ensure that we asked relevant, sensitive questions that made sense to local people in the context of their lives.
4. Be willing to adapt your methods
Based on early feedback, we changed the name of the project from the ‘Healthy Eating Project’ to the ‘Food & Families’ project to make it more appealing to local residents.
5. Ensure you have sufficient funds
Working with people as partners needs funding – the free meal was a good incentive but extra funding may have encouraged more residents to get involved.
6. Involve other local organisations
Communities have a great deal of charities, groups and organisations who have great contacts and insights. We worked closely with Healthwatch Gloucestershire and other local groups who had a great deal of local knowledge.
After the event, one of the volunteer researchers said: “It was a brilliant idea to bring people together and get ideas for making an even better community.
“People were quite open minded in giving their views and I think it helped that we were all getting together as residents, so they didn’t feel invaded.”
This is great to hear! It was a short-term, small scale project but residents were clear and consistent in their feedback. Our findings were supported by similar research and by local organisations, which enabled us to be confident in our recommendations to the council.