Janet Baker ran the Lambeth Emergency Food Distribution Service at Brixton Rec. It began as soon as lockdown started to help people who were shielding and those struggling with the ongoing fallout. This is her story of the service …
Here, on what would normally be the bowling green of the Brixton Recreation centre, we are yet again making a change.
The last of our blue crates are being shipped back to save on the rental. There are no more regular deliveries of fruit and veg to sort, and, saddest of all, no streams of wonderful volunteers helping us pick, pack, wrap and deliver our food parcels to those residents of Lambeth struggling since lockdown.
Our time here has been amazing. Since the very start of lockdown Lambeth council has been working with Sue Sheehan at Healthy Living Platform to start getting fruit and veg to the first wave of people who called for help.
A very small operation initially – calls for cyclists with trailers or cargo bikes were quickly answered. A few eager people putting what we could in bags. This grew with support from Lambeth council to an operation with a cycle company, daily food deliveries, a core team and up to 40 volunteers a day.
We washed the boxes, packed them with bags of fresh fruit and veg, dairy and store cupboard items. And, when we finally got them, some loo rolls.
We shipped them out morning and afternoon, seven days a week. At our busiest, when calls to the council helpline were the highest, we were sending nearly 600 a day.
Every day brought new challenges. Keeping the whole team safe was the starting point. As the manager I spent much of my time hollering “Two metres people!” at any given opportunity.
We had temperature checks, protocols and strict routines – as well as getting used to the PPE we all wore – especially when around the food and boxes we shipped out.
My role, among many things I had to work out on the job, was to build the community hubs. Reaching out to those communities whose residents, for many varied reasons, do not ask for the help they need.
Estate tenant management organisations (TMOs), children’s centres, community centres. Some kept operating and we found a way to help.
The need was often more than we could support, but being able to give as much as we could was good.
I also was able to get some teams of volunteers helping out with the deliveries from the community centre to the door.
This became the best way to get the feedback we so needed – what the stories were behind the recipients.
These people who were the ones to fall through the net. Single parents with disabled children who weren’t on the shielded list; those with language barriers, those frightened, with severe disabling mental health issues. And all those newly out of work with no recourse to public funds or knowing how to reach out for assistance. All needing our support – and it was a pleasure to be able to hand over bags of fresh goods.
The wonderful management teams at Blenheim Gardens, Cowley and Roupell Park knew who their people in need were and together we could make the difference needed.
The children’s centres, schools and playgrounds were also ones to know their struggling families and the people there worked so hard with us.
Working together with Healthy Living Platform and Lambeth council to get healthy food to people has been enlightening, fun, heart-wrenching, challenging, hard work and wonderful.
It shows what can be achieved when the goal is the most important focus, and who gets the credit is not the issue.
It’s been supportive and collaborative. Listening to those with the most experience is more important than hearing the loudest voice. It has been a team effort.
But what now?
We no longer have a budget for a shopping list. We rely on FareSharewhich delivers every day a mix of things for free – but we can’t pick and choose. It’s sometimes good, sometimes full of sauces and crisps that may be nice as a treat but are not quite as healthy as we’d like.
We don’t have enough work for the many eager and supportive volunteers who have been the backbone of what we’ve achieved.
But now we’re trying to build more resilience within our communities. Having stocks of tins and dried goods in the centre of even the smallest community will enable those that need immediate help can get it while they look for more long-term solutions.
Because when a crisis hits, being hungry and unable to feed your family is the very real fear for some in our communities.
The current pandemic has highlighted this. It has also given us the chance to learn from the situation. I can only hope the lessons are remembered.
Janet Baker, Working with Healthy Living Platform and Lambeth council