Interview: Darin Halifax, Grow Share Cook

Darin is an unusual interviewee. When he told me about the Grow, Share, Cook project he used words like ‘joyous’ and ‘love’. He is passionate about people and what we can achieve by working together.

Darin’s role is Chief Service Officer for Plymouth City Council. This is an appointment linked to Cities of Service, a US-based initiative that harnesses the power of volunteers and communities in tackling the problems and priorities of a city.

Here is what he had to say:

Who is your greatest influence?

My mother was a single mother of 6 of us. She put all of us first and didn’t worry that she was skint. She provided all we needed.

In this project there is a great team. Simon Platten from Tamar Grow has been amazing. He sees opportunities that I didn’t know where there. Tami Skelton from Food is Fun and Zoe Nile and Helen Ryan of Plymouth Community Homes have been there from the start. Their attitude is “always find a way to say yes”. And the volunteers of course. That is what makes this project different for me – the impact of human contact.

What has been the best thing about the project?

Simply that we fed hungry people.

What is your best mistake?

We assumed that it was a good thing to provide food and that everyone would be pleased to receive it. We approached 100 of our ‘troubled families’ and only recruited 35 in the end. People said that food was not a problem for them. We should have gone to organisations that deal with hunger, not to troubled families.

What surprised you?

Until I visited food banks, I would not have believed that every single person who came was truly hungry. People went from ‘doing ok’ to ‘not ok’ very quickly and then found it hard to get back. They were without food from a cruel twist of fate: job loss, marital breakdown, benefits payment not come through or illness leading to lack of work. Before people resorted to food banks they had tried to sort things, often through payday loans. There is an underworld I didn’t know about until I saw for myself.

What piece of advice would you give someone who was trying something similar?

Choose the right partners. I have been very lucky that the partners were the right ones. They have given more back than we have given in funding. People believed in what we were doing, it wasn’t about the money.

Involve people from the start, don’t try to design what you will do and then ask people to do their bit of it. Many times, people said “that won’t work but here’s a way to do the same thing”.

Get support from inside your own organisation. I had great help from procurement, green infrastructure and communications colleagues. The revenue and benefits team were especially important in helping find a way to maintain benefits for our volunteers. Everyone was supportive and helped prevent the project being jeopardised.

What is your favourite quote?

It would be “don’t forget why you are doing this.” It’s easy to get bogged down in the detail and problems. You have to focus on people and the impact you are trying to achieve. This project grounded me, it reminded me why I became a public servant in the first place.

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