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Word from the frontline: Lambeth Food Partnership

“In a crisis situation, there isn’t time to work out a perfect system – you have to launch into action straight away.”

Written by Caroline Wood, in conjunction with Lambeth Food Partnership

When Britain went into lockdown, councils faced the daunting challenge of providing for a whole new cohort of people who now had difficulty accessing food – including newly furloughed workers, those with pre-existing medical conditions and elderly people without friends or families nearby. But difficult circumstances present opportunities for innovation. For Lambeth Council, it was clear that they did not have the resources or experience to build a food distribution service from scratch, so they called in the experts. The result – the Lambeth Emergency Food Distribution Service – is a testimony to the effectiveness of pairing council funds with community-led initiatives that work on the front line.

“The Council showed unusual foresight in deciding not to try and take ownership of the project themselves. Instead, their priority was to get things done” says Sue Sheehan, Director of Healthy Living Platform, a charity which works to make it easier for communities to lead healthier lives. Healthy Living Platform is part of the Lambeth Food Partnership, which was approached to run the service. With the situation so urgent, the council set up a simple self-referral telephone system which bypassed the need for referrals and vouchers. Anyone who rang the helpline received a parcel the next day, delivered by bicycle courier to ensure that even those unable to leave their home were provided for. “The Council adopted a very broad definition of vulnerability to make sure that everyone who needed help could get it” Sue says. “Besides promoting the helpline across their channels, the Council were also proactive in ringing people who had been advised to self-isolate.” Throughout the full lockdown, the service delivered between 300-400 of these parcels each day. But the speed of delivery did not compromise on the nutritional value: as well as tinned and dried foods, the parcels also contained fresh fruit and vegetables, besides dairy products. “Some Councils would be reluctant to deal with fresh food, but from the start Lambeth Council shared our vision to provide really healthy food” says Janet Baker, who is working for the service as part of a secondment from the charity The Woodfield Project. “Giving people nutritious food makes them feel more secure and cared for. If you don’t look after people healthily, it is virtually not worth doing.” Thanks to a partnership between New Covent Garden and Healthy Living Platform, the Council were able to purchase fruit and vegetables at wholesale prices.

Strong relationships are the bedrock of any successful food project, Sue says. “You have to partner with those who really know their communities in order to reach the most vulnerable”. She is all too aware that even using a telephone helpline may be difficult for some, due to language barriers or unsettled legal status. “This is why you need networks of partners who can distribute food on a community level” she says. Over the years, she has developed a wealth of contacts, from food suppliers, to community centres and other food-related projects. Consequently, restaurants and other businesses with surplus food already knew they could approach the team with donations. “Surplus food has to be redistributed very quickly to be effective” says Sue. “We were able to accept any donation, because we could redistribute anything we couldn’t use for other projects”.

Nevertheless, this responsive action initially caused some friction with the more methodological approach typical of public services. “At first, the Council wanted a paper trail for everything – often it is simply impossible to trace the end user” says Janet. But overall, she and Sue were impressed by the extent to which they were allowed to “get on with the job”. In the future, Sue would like to see food placed at the heart of local strategies and greater synergy between council services and community-led projects. “We need to stop looking at issues such as housing, education and health in isolation and see them as an integrated strategy where food plays a central part” she says. She points to those working in council services, from headteachers to council estate workers, who are uniquely placed to know who the most vulnerable are. “During the crisis, we heard many stories of schools going to great lengths to make sure their pupils were fed” she says. “For the future, it would be wonderful if we could access under-utilised assets – such as communal kitchens on housing estates – and help more people cook and eat healthier food together”.

As the lockdown eases, Sue hopes the project will continue in one form or another. “From our understanding, the service won’t be shut down quickly as there is a real understanding now that there is a need for healthy and accessible food across the Borough” she says. “I hope there will be a long-term legacy but what that will look like is still up for discussion”.

For more information, contact Sue Sheehan at healthylivingplatform@gmail.com.

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