The Love You Make
Back in May, Local Greens chatted with Elizabeth Maytom, Project Lead at the Norwood and Brixton Food Bank. It was a time of unknown and uncertainty for most of us, and the food bank was no exception. Six months on, we catch up with Jon Taylor, Media Manager for the food banks, and harbinger of some rays of light in the ongoing pandemic gloom.
With incredible dexterity and skill, the food bank operations were able to switch to a full delivery model in the past six months. This means their physical branches are shut, but people are very much still being reached. At first, the operation attempted to hand out food from their branches, but the queues proved too long, making social distancing quite difficult. What we know as the Norwood and Brixton Food Bank is one branch from a mighty tree in South London that has other venues in Waterloo, Vauxhall and Clapham Park. These branches successfully came together, pooled resourced and physically moved under one roof, to run one cohesive service for all of Lambeth. From their new central warehouse in St. Margaret’s Church in Streatham, the team is able to send out parcels to many families in need across our neighbourhoods.
Stepping into the transept of St. Margaret’s is witnessing the tangible manifestation of generosity and love from around the community. Shelves and crates abound with food, with boxes of cereal, tins and jars fastidiously arranged all around. There are literal beams of sunshine gleaming through the stained glass windows and illuminating the donations. It is a joyous and moving sight to know so much has been given freely to this organization. And yet, as full as this massive space may seem, it is a never-ending battle to be enough for the many hungry families out there. Jon shared that they often get through two tonnes of food in a day (that is the weight of 2.5 cows worth of food; half a hippopotamus worth of food; four grand pianos worth of food; 20 kegs of beer worth of food). That’s a lot of food and it makes up parcels for about 70 families.
From April to September, the food bank saw a 130% increase in use from the same period in 2019. Up to September, they’ve fed over 16,000 people, of which 6,000 were children, with the help of over 300 volunteers, using about 170 tonnes of food. For comparison, they would normally feed 10,000 people in the entirety of an average year. Jon is proud of the work the food banks have done to make this all happen. “It used to be delivering a parcel to one sick person who couldn’t come in was really difficult,” he shares, “Now, we’ll be finishing the year with about 20,000 people delivered to.” He credits the communal spirit brought by each food bank branch. Each had its own expertise to share, or technology to make the rapid shift manageable.
While food is the heart of their mission, compassion is at the soul of the food bank’s work. Advice, a cup of tea and social contact were once ingrained in each face-to-face interaction, but with delivery service, this can fall by the wayside. Jon offers, “People are grateful not to sort out transport to come to the food bank, or deal with no transport, carrying home a heavy bag, but a key part of what we do has been taken out because we can’t meet face to face.” To counter this, the food bank staff is setting a goal to call and speak with every client they serve. They check in to ask how they are coping or if they are lonely. “The phone calls are brilliant,” Jon continues, “it makes such a difference. People are low, and a call gives a lot of hope.” Thankfully, this most recent lockdown was short and did not make much of an impact on their services. There are also many uplifting stories of the small acts of kindness Jon witnesses each day. “I spoke to one woman,” he says, “she’d been furloughed, ended up losing her job, and got more and more depressed. Yesterday, she was desperate to top up her electricity, but couldn’t get a voucher she had to work. I asked for a volunteer to help her, and we happened to have a journalist visiting and the journalist just went and bought her electricity for her.” He tells an anecdote of another woman whose husband didn’t qualify for furlough, and she was not working. They went weeks without buying any food, and only learned about the food bank through their child’s school. She had a food parcel delivery scheduled when one day a British Gas van turned up in her driveway. Instead of a box of tools, the driver pulled a crate of food out of the van. It turns out British Gas had loaned out their furloughed workers to the food bank as delivery drivers. She was moved to tears and left with her mouth open in awe because she couldn’t believe how much food was delivered all for her family.
Fresh food makes a significant difference to each parcel the food bank can send out. In addition to schemes such as Local Greens sending donations, people contribute their home or allotment grown produce. “We never used to get much fresh fruit and veg, and now it is like a feast,” Jon states. “It’s healthy, and good quality. People don’t expect the parcels to be so fresh. Sometimes people are blown away in shock and bewilderment, but it’s wonderful,” he continues, “Sometimes we put recipes with the veg too. I have to pinch myself when I see the bags, the quantities are so big.”
During the Christmas season, the food bank would plan to give out 500 bumper parcels, with loads of extras, turkeys, even little Christmas trees and presents. The holiday collection would come with a festive atmosphere with music and treats, but that will go out the window this year. The need this year will be greater, especially when schools are shut, and with delivery only service, they are asking agencies to refer people in real need. The special extra this year will be a star decoration in everyone’s bag. If you’re a crafty, they’re looking for high quality, hand made stars, or a £5 donation will cover one. There is also a text to donate service where texting 'dinner 5' or 'dinner 10' to 70085 will send a £5 or £10 contribution directly to the food bank from your phone. If you’d like to donate food or needed items, there’s always a list of needed items on their website, and a reverse advent calendar of popular items. The one thing they unfortunately cannot accept is alcohol.
The food bank is a story of community, generosity, support and love – more of which are all needed in the world. The food bank staff and everyone at Local Greens thanks you for continuing to help and contribute to your neighbours in need, who may in turn be able to do the same for you, should you ever need them. We leave you with the words of gratitude from a recent client: “Hi there, I believe I was recently a recipient of one of your food parcels, after being referred by Thames Reach. I just wanted to thank you personally for your kindness and generosity, and to let you know how touched I was to receive the urgently needed help and support. You really did help me out of a dire situation and I cannot thank you enough for you and the work you do for myself and others.”