Lewes, the county town of East Sussex, does not fit the stereotype of communities where food poverty is on the rise, the genteel streets of its centre radiating an air of comfortable affluence. But beneath the surface there is very real deprivation.
Lockdown and coronavirus, and subsequent job losses, have tipped those who have faced 10 years of austerity and changes in benefit rules over the edge. Many families have been forced to use food banks for the first time in their lives. In 2008/09 just under 26,000 people used food banks in Britain. In 2019/20 this had risen to 1.9 million, with numbers climbing rapidly over the last few months.
The school meals campaigner Marcus Rashford has highlighted the shocking levels of food poverty in Britain. And while the Manchester United striker failed to persuade the government this time to extend provision of free school meals over the holidays, he inspired thousands of communities and small businesses to step forward and fill the hunger gap.
Rashford’s campaign has given valuable added impetus to the Lewes All Day Three Supermarket Foodbank Collection. (“Wordy”, says organiser Mark Perryman, “but it does express what we do”). Perryman, a member of the local Labour Party, pioneered the collection scheme for the three Lewes foodbanks – Landport Community Café, Malling and Fitzjohn’s – with a themed launch event on Easter Saturday 2020 outside Waitrose, supported by a number of Lewes community groups.
Perryman is a strong believer in the experience being both fulfilling and fun for volunteers – “demanding too much of activists is counter-productive”. Themed events are run every six to eight weeks outside the town’s three major supermarkets – Waitrose, Aldi and Tesco, and each volunteer shift lasts for just one hour, creating an enormous logistical challenge for his small team of organisers. But Perryman has got the management of a highly complex project down to a fine art, and the “Lewes Model” as he calls it, is attracting interest from as far afield as Germany.
On a wet and stormy Halloween Sussex Bylines visited Lewes to see the food bank collection in action. Billed as “Nightmare on Every Street” (a clever pun on the horror movie “Nightmare on Elm Street”) the event was supported by a colourful cast of volunteers dressed as witches, ghouls and vampires outside Waitrose, Tesco and Aldi. Perryman had assembled a huge team of volunteers for the day drawn from seven sports clubs, six Lewes bonfire societies, four Lewes churches, three political parties, a Yoga class, the Depot cinema and a book group, as well as individuals and families. Music was provided by a number of choirs and bands, helping to create a carnival atmosphere in defiance of the weather, cheering volunteers and shoppers alike.
We caught up with Perryman outside Waitrose as he bounded between supermarkets clutching an ever soggier clipboard and dodging the increasingly heavy downpours. He was co-ordinating teams from the bonfire societies who in previous years would have been out selling programmes for their big day on November 5.
With Bonfire cancelled they offered their services. Mick Symes, vice-chair of Lewes Borough Bonfire Society, said that years of experience of organising Lewes Bonfire night had proved useful in helping with the logistics of food collection. And he stressed the long involvement of bonfire societies with community and charitable giving: “There’s far more to us than just walking around with a fiery torch on Bonfire night.”
Some of the local businesses taking part have a long history of involvement with charitable giving. We spotted Mitch, the landlord of the Royal Oak in Station Street, collecting outside Waitrose with his two sons, and he told us about the 45 free burger and cheese meals he had provided over half term. He also regularly donates to the Landport community café.
Many others we spoke to were first-time volunteers. Outside Waitrose were Sian and Richard Hill and Rachel Sargent from Commercial Square Bonfire Society. They had been motivated to help by Marcus Rashford’s campaign. Rachel also had personal experience of having to use a food bank after a major crisis in her life. “It doesn’t take much to donate an item from your food cupboard or from your shopping basket,” she said. “It makes so much difference to someone’s life.”
This was a happy, generous, loving day, a community uniting together against poverty and inequality in joyful defiance of inept governance, a surging pandemic and winter darkness. It was summed up in the words of Mick Symes: “Lewes is full of people with a diverse range of ability. When somebody appeals for that to come to the fore, it really does.”
The day was a huge success: the total number of items donated came to a record 6,000 – an increase of 1,500 on the previous event in September. An amazing tribute to the generosity of the people of Lewes. If you would like more information about the Lewes Model or want to volunteer to support the next event on Saturday December 12, email Mark Perryman at [email protected]