Friday 12 February 2021

Placement, parcels and a pandemic: five weeks embedded in a public health team

Posted by Maisie Rowland, Research Assistant and Registered Nutritionist, Human Nutrition Research Centre (HNRC), Newcastle University

Newcastle Civic Centre
My research has taken me from primary schools in the West End of Newcastle to rural schools in the mountains of Moshi, Tanzania but I have always been curious about other job roles and what they involve. I have also been interested in how, as researchers, we can collaborate with those outside of academia to ensure that the research we do has the desired impact. So on seeing an advertisement for an embedded researcher placement in Newcastle City Council with the Public Health team, I put in an application. This felt like a great opportunity to expand my knowledge of other job sectors, while creating links outside the university and maintaining my work in the HNRC (working there one day a week). Before I knew it, I was walking to the city’s Civic Centre for the first day of my five-week placement.

I spent my first week learning about the wide variety of projects and roles the team were involved in, such as the redevelopment of Fenham library to include a drugs and alcohol recovery hub and the health education with schools and young people. I was able to sit-in on a number of interesting meetings and was able to contribute to the Wider Determinants of Health team meetings. I learned about how projects happen and was surprised at how much it differed from a university research setting, such as the different resources used for background research for projects and the differences in terms of ethical approvals. I was also given the opportunity to put forward my ideas and interests and, working alongside my colleagues Dr Annette Payne (Health Improvement Practitioner) and Lorna Smith (Speciality Registrar in Public Health), we developed an idea for a project working with food banks. As a nutritionist, I have a strong interest in this area. Through conducting online research, and visiting food banks and ‘pay as your feel’ supermarkets, we gained an insight into how these organisations and similar providers work. We also learned about the nutritional content of ‘standard’ emergency food parcels, the demographics of those who find themselves needing to use food banks, the situations these people might be in, and finally the shocking numbers of people finding themselves in need of using them. From this research, we developed a report which was presented at the Public Health Senior Management Team meeting for approval and feedback from other team members. Our project was well received, which was encouraging, and we were given the go-ahead to continue with our work.

Life Foodbank in Newcastle upon Tyne
From this background research, I learned that those who use food banks have usually been referred through care providers (such as through school or through social workers), and there is a limit on the number of times they are able to use the food bank. Help is given in the form of an emergency food parcel containing at least three days’ worth of food, and users are often offered help and advice which aims to resolve the issues that have led them there. Although there has been nutritional guidance on the food parcels, the reality is that a lot of the food comes from public donations. Therefore, as the donations vary, so will the food parcels. Within the team, we considered possible changes to the parcels that could be suggested, in order to benefit those who have to use food banks. It was quickly decided that any work we did would be with the food banks themselves, rather than those using the food bank. We devised a plan with three ‘phases’, including:
  • Phase one involved a consideration of how to suggest very small changes to the ‘food call outs’. For example, typical foods that are given in food parcels, and are regularly requested in the call outs, include breakfast cereals, soups, pasta and pasta sauces, rice, tins (beans, meat, vegetables, and fruit), tea or coffee, sugar, biscuits, snacks, jams, and fruit juice. Due to the variation in these particular food groups, and the variation in the foods that are donated to the banks, the nutrient content of the packages will also vary widely. Our suggested changes to the call outs will include requesting tinned fruit in juice rather than syrup, reduced sugar/salt baked beans and tinned pasta in sauce, tinned vegetables without added salt or sugar, and higher fibre/lower sugar breakfast cereals.
  • Phases two and three will involve creating some user-led resources for the food banks such as recipe cards, which will provide inspiration for different meals that could be made from the foods in the parcels. We also hope to include a ‘community access card’, which will provide information on nutrition, healthy weight ranges and local support available. The local support would involve signposting to free cooking classes, food banks and ‘pay as you feel’ supermarkets, community groups, and computer facilities at libraries.
Food parcel single person packing list from the Trussel Trust

As I approached the end of my placement (which felt like it was ending just as quickly as it started!), we made plans to keep in contact about the ongoing development of the resources. We planned meetings with a food poverty group and with those running the food banks, and felt that good progress was being made. However, during the last week of my placement Covid-19 put a halt to our work. The last meeting that I attended in the council was geared towards how it could help to mitigate the impacts of the inevitable poverty that the virus would induce, as schools and food banks began to close, and many people expected to lose their jobs. Current projects at the council are now on ‘pause’ and those working in Public Health are tasked with devising solutions to the increasing number of problems that are arising from the pandemic.

At a time in which increasing numbers of people may need to access food banks and services, projects in Public Health and nutrition seem particularly relevant. I hope to be able to continue the project that we started during my placement in the future, taking into account new factors that may develop through this pandemic.

Maisie has worked at Newcastle University for over five years, collaborating with colleagues and researchers in Public Health England, charities such as Coeliac UK, international nutrition research centres, and the media.


1. Bob Castle, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Common

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