Recipe for success: how hands-on volunteers battle food poverty

In the second of her articles on Britain’s unhealthy food system, Ali Ghanimi, the Operations Manager at Brighton & Hove Food Partnership, explains how community projects are helping those in food poverty gain access to nutritious meals, while also improving their life skills around food

A volunteer unloads a crate of red onions from the back of a van.
Above: a volunteer with a crate of unwanted produce. Surplus food products like this, which would otherwise go to waste, provides much-needed food stock for local charities. Picture supplied by FareShare.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit in March 2020, food banks in East Sussex experienced a colossal 168% increase in demand, and Brighton & Hove’s Emergency Food Network became the vehicle for an astonishing citywide emergency food response to the lockdown. The food partnership quickly set up a central food processing hub where wholesale purchased food, together with donated surplus food, was organised and distributed by a team of volunteers to more than 4,800 people via 50 neighbourhood food hubs.

The value of this ‘hyper-local’ support was that the volunteers delivering the food were local people, trusted by those receiving the food, which made other forms of support, such as befriending and collection of medicines, easy to arrange. 

Adur and Worthing’s Community Food Network has been meeting since the beginning of the pandemic to provide emergency food parcels for those in need. According to Sarah Davenport, the Food Partnership Development Coordinator, their connection with the local councils has helped the authorities increase their understanding of community food issues, and has prompted the creation of an interdepartmental strategic food group.

The role of the food partnerships doesn’t stop there – they are now grappling with long-term solutions to food insecurity. In Brighton and Hove, the Food Partnership works with seven new local affordable food projects supporting 323 low-income households. These membership schemes operate by charging a small fee and, in return, members get a choice of fresh locally grown produce and surplus food alongside generous donations from local businesses and residents. 

A cookery group concentrating on their tasks. In the foreground a woman pauses from chopping vegetables, and behind her two women work together, also preparing ingredients.
Volunteers help members get to grips with food preparation at Brighton and Hove’s dementia cookery group. Photo credit: Sarah Davenport

Similar schemes called community supermarkets are run by Sussex Community Development Association in Peacehaven and Newhaven on a ‘pay as you feel’ basis. As well as offering choice and dignity, a recent evaluation of Brighton’s affordable food projects found that 74% of members are eating better within their budget, feel more connected locally and 60% are eating more vegetables. 

According to one scheme member, the quality of the food is “fantastic” and they are trying things they’d never tried before: “The bread that the bakery donates is the nicest bread I’ve ever had. I would never be able to afford to buy it, and the eggs from local farms are such a treat.

Building relationships and trust

As one scheme leader puts it: “It ticks all the boxes: reduces waste, promotes a short food supply chain, healthy eating, and connects people.

Other approaches are being tested too. Worthing Food Foundation supplies food and other essentials to people in need, but without the need for referrals. This allows them to work with people over the longer term, building relationships and trust that can be used to steer people towards other forms of help and, eventually, to break their reliance on food banks. 

Similarly, Hastings is piloting Feeding Britain’s Pathways From Poverty programme, placing expert advisers into emergency food projects so that they can help people to resolve the issues that caused them to seek food aid in the first place. 

‘Our focus was on delivering emergency food, but we’re now starting to address health issues related to food’

Debby anderson, hastings

As Debby Anderson, the food partnership coordinator, explains: “During Covid our focus was on delivering emergency food but we are now starting to address health issues related to food such as tackling obesity, dealing with the root causes of food poverty and improving life skills around food. Our vision is to create a central hub in Hastings for food related activity from distributing surplus food to running cookery courses and signposting to other food projects in the community.”

Emergency food projects saw record numbers of volunteers stepping up during the lockdowns as workers were furloughed and had extra time on their hands. But while many have returned to work, the need hasn’t abated and these local charities are now struggling not only for volunteers, but also for donations of food, money and space to store and distribute food. 

Turning food waste into jobs… and soup

From food poverty to obesity, from biodiversity loss to social isolation, food is not only at the heart of some of our greatest problems, it’s a vital part of the solution too. 

Each year, the equivalent of 250m meals go uneaten, ending up in landfill or as animal feed, according to industry publication The Grocer. FareShare ensures that at least some of that unwanted food reaches those in need. Volunteers collect surplus products and deliver them to Sussex charities in refrigerated vans.

And on UK farms, an astounding five million tonnes of fresh produce goes to waste every year. Sussex Surplus is a new social enterprise which takes fresh and surplus food destined for the bin and transforms it into soup. A spin-off from the Sussex Gleaning Network, they work with local growers and food producers to add value and shelf life to their surplus produce, while simultaneously providing work opportunities for young people facing barriers to employment.

Their aim is to make a product that can support local food banks and can also be sold in local community supermarkets at cost price. A Feedback project, they are 60% funded by Interreg 2 Seas Flavour Project and Rampion Wind Farm. Phil Holtam, who leads the team, said: “All the proceeds from Sussex Surplus will enable the Sussex Gleaning Network to rescue more food from farms and create meaningful local jobs.

A smiling volunteer with potted plant in very productive looking garden, trees and red flowers in the background
Above: a volunteer ready to pass on some green-fingered tips at Brighton’s dementia gardening group. Photo credit: Caroline Whiteman

Previously a market garden, and derelict for many years, The Garden House is a beautiful walled garden sat behind houses on Warleigh Road, near Brighton’s London Road train station. It is also home to Brighton and Hove’s dementia gardening group where those with a mild to moderate dementia diagnosis can enjoy gentle, regular activity with a friendly group.

Activities include pruning or planting, looking at gardening books and reminiscing about favourite flowers. Pat, a volunteer, neatly sums up what the group provides for participants. “It is about unlocking the door, for someone who can’t remember, or doesn’t have the mental capacity to do the things that they could do before,” she says. “It’s about finding something which, for them, brings a smile to their face and a bit of happiness.

It also builds confidence. As a carer of one participant revealed: “I noticed an improvement since the beginning – she is more outgoing with other people and now initiates conversations. She’s really happy there, she loves it. It’s really helped her with socialising.” 

Food Partnerships are always looking for volunteers who can spare time to help – no matter how little. Good food – and freedom from hunger – is something we can all subscribe to.

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