It’s five days before Christmas and – almost – business as usual at the Brixton Recreation Centre. On the ground floor, a huge space that was previously a sports court for gymnastics, fencing and indoor bowls has been turned into a surplus food redistribution hub that helps get groceries out to around 1,600 families a week across Lambeth. Run by Healthy Living Platform, the Hub is funded by Lambeth Council, who awarded HLP the contract in late 2020. Today there are mince pies and bags of organic chestnuts in amongst the usual fare, while HLP Community Programmes Manager, Helen, is cutting fabric covers for jars of spiced pear and apple chutney, cooked up as a Christmas fundraiser by the HLP team- get your jar here. But otherwise it’s a regular day, and Hub Manager Mala Naicker is busy as ever, masterminding the flow of ‘food in, food out’.
The floorspace of the Rec is covered in neat rows of pallets piled with bags of rice, noodles, tins of beans, tomatoes, soup and fish, and crates of root vegetables. Against one wall are fridges with meat, dairy and other fresh produce, and in another area are toiletries, sanitary products, baby food and nappies. The supplies are delivered each day from supermarkets, other retailers and the London-wide food redistribution charities the Felix Project and City Harvest; they are then picked, packed and sent out again to 33 local charities who distribute them to people in need in their local communities.
With a team of just three assistants and a few volunteers a week (‘we need more!’), logistics wizard Mala coordinates the whole complicated process, not only making sure that each food delivery conforms to the NHS ‘Eatwell’ recommendations – with a healthy balance of starchy carbohydrates, proteins, dairy, fats and fruit and veg – but that different cooking cultures are catered for. Today the Hub is packing up supplies for the Spanish and Portuguese communities, who love ‘meat, chilli peppers and beans’. Other days Mala needs to ensure she has plenty of plantain, yam and spinach for her African and Caribbean regulars. `’We try as much as possible to give people foods that they want,’ she says.
Teamwork, communication and respect is key to the success of the Hub, and HLP’s skills in these areas are what helped them to win the contract in the first place. From the start of the pandemic, HLP had been helping Lambeth council to distribute meals to shielding residents. When more families started to feel the pressure due to job loss and rising prices, the council realised they needed to provide more sustainable support to people struggling to afford food, and HLP were perfectly placed to help. Sue Sheehan, development manager and Founding Member of HLP, who led the bid, explains that the relationship with Lambeth has been based on mutual trust. ‘We have listened to what they wanted to achieve, and they have listened to us – we’ve collected the evidence, and told the stories of the difficulties our communities face, and they’ve taken on our advice.’
The council has been hugely supportive, Mala agrees, and now the process works like a well-oiled machine. At the Hub, Mala makes sure nothing goes to waste. If products are going out of date she lets recipients know they are safe to use and gives them ideas for how to cook them and freeze to eat later.
‘Our ethos is to get more families on low incomes to eat healthily, and give them dignity,’ Mala says. ‘We want to help them help themselves. This hub is not the long-term solution, and it’s important we don’t create a culture of giving, giving, giving and creating dependency. But we do need to get food to the people who really need it.’
One of the ways Mala spreads the word is through her volunteers, who range from the staff and clients in the Better Gym upstairs at the Rec, to a group of young refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia, who were ‘inspiring – so switched on and respectful and kind’. Today, Becca from the charity GoodGym has arrived to help Surplus Food Assistant Bruno. GoodGym members ‘get fit by doing good’, helping community organisations with physical tasks.
And the hub’s work is very physical, with workers lifting up to 750kg at a time. All staff and volunteers are given training on how to load and unload safely.
‘It is hard work,’ says Mala. ‘And I am tired. But I love working with people. And the people in our community hubs, they’re amazing, and most of them are working for free. The passion, the enthusiasm, and the empathy that they show is great – it keeps me going. We’ve worked together so well this year and we did it, we nailed it!’
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By HLP’s friend – Anna Crane -writer with a focus in food & community