“I thought I had an appetite for destruction, but all I wanted was a club sandwich.” - Matt Groening, (The Simpsons cartoonist & satirist)
The Big Lunch idea originated from the Eden Project education and visitor attraction centre in Cornwall, which houses the largest rainforest in captivity. The Eden Project’s ethos is about connecting us with each other and the living world. Reaching out beyond their centre in Cornwall is Eden Communities, an outreach of grassroots-led initiatives across the UK.
Ranging from inviting a few neighbours round for tea and cakes to a full street party, the Big Lunch can be any size and shape with people bringing food to the party to share. Since it began in 2009, The Big Lunch has grown with over 9 million people taking part in 2018. To promote the 2019 Big Lunch a 17-day series of community walks were organised across the UK supported by the National Lottery. The community walks took place in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with two walkers representing their country with a support team. The community walk was established in order to promote the Big Lunch and highlight community spirit and humanity at its best, with the walkers travelling around their country visiting various community groups, active citizens and grassroots initiatives.
I am Darren Ferguson, founder of Beyond Skin, and in 2019 the opportunity came up for me to be involved on the Big Lunch Community Walk road trip as part of the support team.
For 15 years I have managed Beyond Skin and for sure it is a challenging vocation - although surrounded by an amazing team and support from family, it can be a very lonely role being the one carrying the organisation’s operational weight daily. It is healthy to step away for a short while and the Big Lunch opportunity came at a perfect time. Even with a busy schedule I would still get a well-needed recharging break from the responsibility of a management role whilst submersed in an exciting community programme visiting inspiring people and projects each day. I myself get bored easily and I’m not very good when I’m bored so working in the community & volunteer sector, and with projects like the Big Lunch Community Walk, is perfect for me as each day is very different.
Having visited The Eden Project in Cornwall I totally got and loved their ethos, it reminded much of the WOMAD Festivals approach and spirit which I have been connected with and have much affection for. Promoting the Big Lunch idea was promoting something I truly believed in with my heart and of course it all centred around food! And I love to eat.
The team on the walk consisted of myself, the two walkers Big Lunch ambassadors Rory & Patricia, events manager Amanda and route leader John. The Eden Communities Country Manager Grainne and Network Developer Niamh also joined us on various parts of the walk, as did Ryan our PR journalist. Behind the scenes, and along with other Eden Project staff and events partner Limelight Sports, they supported the walking team in coordinating community stops, logistics and marketing.
None of our Community Walk team had met until the training weekend at The Eden Project in Cornwall, and that’s the gamble isn’t it – putting a team of people on the road together for an intense schedule that was very demanding physically and mentally. It is a social experiment itself and reality TV has amplified what can happen when you stick a group of strangers in a space together. Admittedly it did take me a number of days to find my personal place in the project - coming from a manager role and knowing when to step forward and take a role in decisions/actions or when to say ‘there are already enough cooks so I will step back’. I think as a team we all did that very well.
We humans are emotional and complex beings and community reflects that – always fluid. The best Community Workers and projects are those who can adapt and grow with fluid situations and understand the real needs of people.
Rory and Patricia were no doubt the right choice for the walk ambassadors representing Northern Ireland and Amanda and John also had a durable kind spirit that was key to the team functioning well. We all made efforts to ensure the spotlight was on Rory & Patricia whilst presenting us as a team and squeezing every ounce of opportunity to promote the Big Lunch, ensuring we represented Eden Project professionally. We got that dynamic right.
The philosopher Ram Das quoted “we are all busy becoming somebody” - a statement which sums up social media platforms enabling our desires to belong and feel we are important and needed. Social media was a big part of this project and it does test your ego when two people are the focus more than you. There were ample opportunities for social media photos/selfies for myself on the route but you have to think more deeply – ‘why do I need to post on Facebook that I was with a VIP or be in this photo/video? Is it just to raise my profile? Does it compliment Rory & Patricia’s journey and the project?’
Having said that, between us all there was so much visual content taken that I have more than enough good memories captured on camera to reflect on and share now that the promotional walk is over.
Using WhatsApp groups, our phones were struggling daily to cope with amount of content shared. That was an interesting challenge – meeting people and balancing a listening ear whilst on your phone (in ‘marketing mode’) or capturing moments or sending/receiving photographic/video moments and instructions for other team members. I think most people understood the marketing/promotional element of the visits and although it is normally very rude to be in sitting conversation with someone whilst on your phone, we were forgiven in this case. During any downtime in a café or restaurant we would all be on our phones desperately seeking wi-fi to upload content to the Eden Project’s marketing team and video editors. We all developed our photography and recording videos skills, while Rory and Patricia really fine-tuned their presenting and public speaking skills and becoming very confident - they should start a TV show.
Food and Humour
Promoting a project called The Big Lunch it became clear we wouldn’t go hungry - we started to call it ‘The Eating Project’ as everywhere we went people had laid on food for us. Sandwich and cake fatigue is a good problem to have. The hope of losing weight during a 17 day community walk project very quickly disappeared.
And we laughed, my God did we laugh, always finding or attracting comedy moments. Humour is a great coping mechanism and having a team with the same sense of humour was comedy therapy gold. The pivotal moment was accommodation in ‘Hotel NHS’ (we named it that), which had previously been a nursing home…I say ‘previously’ loosely as renovation was basically changing the sign. Having shared a room with John for all the other stops ironically this was the only accommodation I got a room to myself - a place when you didn’t want to be alone with your thoughts drifting to wondering how many people died there. Of course on the other hand ‘Hotel NHS’ presented gags unlimited for us all and waking yourself up laughing is a great way to start the day.
Having left ‘Hotel NHS’ we travelled an hour until breakfast in an effort to bring back some serious stability back into the mix in a different environment. At a delightful café in Omagh we ordered breakfast at our table. Minutes later a waitress with a tray stacked high with cutlery, condiments and napkins approached our table. With a poker face as if it was normal she tipped the tray emptying the entire contents randomly across our table with a clatter, turned and walked off without comment. Most people I’m sure would complain but given where our heads were at this sent us over the edge with a laughter fit.
From then on in we could do no wrong, any challenge would be met with a smile and someone proposing that we eat. I wanted to share this story of the café tray as it is a great example of humans as funny fascinating unpredictable beings. We all love watching people doing crazy things or performing acts of stupidity but for the most people aren’t stupid - just quirky in their own ways - and it is these ways that make you love people. Of course there are idiots making the world a difficult place but that is another conversation for another day.
Sometimes it is the most random moment that you dwell on. One of the vehicles was a Toyota Yaris Automatic Hybrid. On one occasion, when we when in a hurry to get to the next stop, someone said ‘start the car’ to give a hint to those standing in the car park. Now one of the redeeming characteristics (there aren't many) of a hybrid Yaris is that they make less noise than a battery-powered milk float. We forgot that and pushing the ignition button whilst thinking ‘this will hurry them up’, we were greeted with silence, nothing. After another laughing fit I thought about the metaphor - it may have been quiet that little Yaris but it carried people. So many people we met were working quietly making a huge difference.
Sitting in a room at the Hands that Talk centre with a group of people who were deaf having conversations over lunch was a very moving experience; Seeing young people in Portadown, wrongly branded by the Government as a problem, making a massive heartfelt change in their community through street art. A group of ladies in Newry taking care of each other whilst keeping the art of lace making alive. It was also a joy to introduce the team to one of Beyond Skin's youth4peace ambassadors Cara Monaghan when we stopped in Cookstown - a very talented musician with a special spark destined to improve the lives of many.
One of the most powerful moments was spending time with Foyle Search & Rescue team in the City of Derry. Addressing the alarming increase in suicides you had these inspirational brave men and women volunteering their time to prevent loss of lives and in all cases returning a person home to family and friends, dead or alive. The day was a life-changing shift for me as I think it was for all of us - a combination of the physical adrenalin on the boat doing 40 knots along the Foyle with overpowering wind and rain beating on my face and the mental energy digesting the alarming heart-breaking stories and statistics and seeing how the FS&R team emotionally dealt with their job.
We met people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds on our tour and what came across so strongly was that people are amazing and the vast majority are kind and wish no harm to their neighbour, either locally or globally. When you really got down to conversations it was evident most of us have an appetite for the same things – to be safe with those we love, to feel needed and loved, to have security to provide for ourselves and others, to be healthy or have access to good healthcare and to be able to express our identity freely whilst ensuring we take care of the planet to give following generations a better quality of life.
As a team we are all individually active citizens in our daily lives - but meeting the people we met was a humbling experience and made us realise we need to do more. My faith in humanity went up tenfold on this trip.
I think most of our political leaders, and some government and funding institutions, have totally lost touch and I can only see change coming from the grassroots up which gives me a sense of hope and peace. There are so many people out there who feel lost, isolated and afraid and projects such as The Big Lunch address this need. What we all can do is very simple – an invitation to share food.
We all have our personal life challenges and I am sure most people reading this are going through struggles that some or none are aware of. It’s a difficult one for us all balancing a desire to belong and succeed in life without screwing things up and not showing vulnerability when in reality vulnerability and interdependence on each other is our greatest unifying strength. Together we are stronger, it is in our DNA, 'we are designed to work together' as a friend once told me.
The world has enough resources for everyone if shared correctly and having worked abroad in development aid work I know very well there are millions who don’t have the privilege of having enough to eat each day. The Big Lunch brings people together and that’s when change happens and activism is taken up a gear. Every time I share food with likeminded people my appetite for activism increases. Each day when I sit with my wife and daughter around a meal I look at my little girl and say to myself ‘I am going to do everything in my power to ensure the world you grow up in is more equal, fair and peaceful than it is now.’
So I invite you to organise your own lunch with neighbours and friends - those familiar and those you’ve never met. You can find out more and ask for a free Big Lunch pack at www.thebiglunch.com Also, if you are on Facebook then please join the Northern Ireland Eden Communities page. As for the rest of the year, if you aren’t already then volunteer in your community or for a charity – I promise it will be an enriching experience for you.
It has taken me almost a week to digest my time with the Big Lunch Community Walk and on reflection I do feel refreshed and in a better place mentally. Physically? I'm still an aging wreck.
So I'm off to have a club sandwich and I will leave you with a quote from the American author Michael Pollan: “Food is about pleasure, about family, about community and spirituality, about our connection to the natural world and expressing our identity. As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture that it has been about biology.”
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