Cherwell Collective: "My anxiety made it possible", says founder….

The dreaded prospect of food shortages hitting family and friends in the wake of the pandemic was what first drove Emily Connally to start Cherwell Collective. It turned out that a lot more people would need her help, as she explains in this interview.

"If I can be 100% honest, my anxiety made this possible," Ms Connally reveals candidly. "My community was facing a global pandemic on top of our self-inflicted Brexit wound. I kept having nightmares that my children might have to watch their friends starve and then people would be breaking down the gate to get to my parsnips (we had expanded our home vegetable garden to prepare for Brexit shortages)."

The first thing she did was to set up a Google form to see whether there were families in the area who might appreciate having some extra cooking done for them. "Twelve people signed up on Friday. By Monday hundreds of families had signed up, from all over the UK," Ms Connally recalls. "It was clear that my nightmare was going to come true if I didn't do something to prevent it."

Rather than letting her anxiety get the better of her, she found a way round it: "As is the case for many people with anxiety, I become hyper-focused on working through the pain and fear so that it didn't overwhelm me," the Collective founder acknowledges. "In the end I had too many, so I just gave people my parsnips anyway, and also helped others grow their own."

The project did experience some growing pains. "In the first few weeks it was rocky," concedes Ms Connally, "but thanks to the perseverance of a few people, especially those who needed the services, now we have literally had hundreds of people wanting to help build this into a long-term, sustainable local resource."

And the results are there for all to see. The following are testimonials from people who are part of Cherwell Collective; they include several beneficiaries but also a number of volunteers.

"I am hugely impressed by these initiatives and the ethos that drives them. The Cherwell Larder [one of the Collective's initiatives] seems to triumph in breaking down the stigma of food banks and creating a sense of community."

"Being part of the Larder, helping others and having a contact outside of my home environment has given me meaning again."

"There has never been any judgement and no having to prove your need, which can be quite embarrassing... I have only experienced kindness and respect from everyone involved."

"My mental health and the health of my autistic son were greatly affected by COVID-19 and the Larder meant I didn't have to put us at risk [by going] shopping and being too near people. They have been a godsend."

"I had an accident at work. I'm a nurse who worked through the first lockdown on a COVID ward. I broke my foot at work in September and I would have honestly been lost without the Larder, it has kept food on the table for me and my boys."

"You have been amazing! I worked in the event sector, which completely shut down due to COVID. Until I found out about the Larder there were days I didn't eat so I could make sure my mum, who has COPD and a few other illnesses, and my then-pregnant sister could eat a decent meal, but with the help of the Cherwell Larder I can have at least one meal every day, which I will be forever truly grateful for to you and your team."

"When the lock down hit, my husband was furloughed, which may not have been too bad but as we already relied on overtime to top up wages and get by, it hit us hard... Add onto that having young children and being pregnant, having to isolate and not being able to get shopping delivered. Anyway it was a difficult time, and very worrying. The Larder helped obviously with food but also hope and faith in the human race, they were so thoughtful and kind, sending additional items for the baby and generally just being a total sweetheart. I am forever grateful and think this is such a wonderful service to help people in such need. I also want to say that every volunteer who has delivered has been so kind, polite and non-judgemental. So thank you to everyone involved, you are all angels."

The EESC's prize money of 10 000 EUR will help the Cherwell Collective scale up their project.

"We have created another Google form to ask the community what they want us to use the money for," explains Ms Connally, "and everyone seems to agree the number one priority for the prize is setting the foundations to sustain these resources in the long term."

Sustainability will be at the core of the Cherwell Collective's future expansion: "We are already working on a new project: Greenspace Gardens. These are large, immersive growing projects to expand [our initiative] Harvest @ Home and grow food in local playgrounds, community gardens, and anywhere people will allow us to grow food for the community."

Greenspace Gardens include native species, demonstration gardens for different methods of gardening, "and, of course, pollinator places to welcome and protect the animals that help us grow food," Ms Connally explains. "We are experimenting with growing rice and ancient grains in the local floodplains as well."

Always keen to see the prize reward multiple engagement, EESC info asked Cherwell Collective's founder what her advice would be to people who are deciding whether to embark on a similar project.

"Harden yourself to people saying no, especially in the beginning," she said. "Many people will tell you your vision is not the way, but to achieve results is to continue to push for the change you want to see in the world. Enthusiasm and solidarity are contagious and people will join you, as long as you show them it's possible."

Her golden rule? "If you think your community needs help, you're right. If you think someone else will do it, you're wrong."