By Dora Taylor
For the team at The Real Junk Food Project Birmingham (RJFPB), Covid-19 highlighted the embedded food injustice that they exist to fight. RJFPB is an organisation that “uses food that would otherwise have been discarded from supermarkets, restaurants, and other independent food suppliers to produce meals that are sold on a pay what you want basis,” explained Ann Gallagher, Co-Director of the organisation.
During the pandemic, RJFPB partnered with the Active Wellbeing Society and more than 80 other organisations across Birmingham, including the City Council, coming together to form the ‘Brum Together’ campaign, a city-wide food redistribution network. At the centre of this network was RJFPB’s main café, which they repurposed into a food distribution hub. Many new people signed up to volunteer with RJFPB, and many more chose to donate to the project with money they might usually have spent on going out to eat or going on holiday.
Ann is both uplifted by the surge of help and support they have received during this time, and saddened that projects such as hers have to exist to fill the gaps left by the government. “Ten years of austerity means that food injustice is embedded,” Ann said. “For people in poverty, it’s harder to think straight, it’s harder to do things, everything is harder when you are in poverty.”
Before Covid, RJFPB were running twelve community cafés across the city, as well as catering services. They made meals using donated surplus food and ran a sharehouse—a place stocked with groceries, where people could come and get their weekly food supplies. They also offered ‘freegan’ boxes made up of produce such as fruit, vegetables and bread, that was due to be thrown away, but was still edible. When the pandemic hit, they had to work out how to continue to help the already large numbers of people benefitting from their services, whilst also protecting people from the virus.
Ann’s first priority was to help people in her community who were shielding to access food. “We were getting calls to deliver to people who were self-isolating,” she said. “40% of people in Birmingham live below the poverty line, and a lot of people were worried about going to supermarkets.”
The crisis highlighted the extent to which volunteers provide essential services for people living in poverty, and how many older people participate in the voluntary sector. “Lots of other things shut down. Community centres, social centres. A lot of the food banks ground to a halt, because food banks often use older volunteers,” Ann said.
It was clear that an emergency response needed to be set up. The Brum Together Network came together incredibly fast, through the many community Whatsapp groups that quickly sprung up in the early days of lockdown. The Active Wellbeing Society, who work to enable underserved communities to get active together, coordinated the city-wide emergency response. RJFPB offered their main café at Ladywood to be kept open as a ‘Brum Together’ food distribution hub.
The Ladywood hub was used as a space to pack food parcels, which could be collected or delivered to community members who were shielding or self-isolating. They started to receive catering-scale food supplies, destined for now closed restaurants, and teamed up with Fair Share Midlands and Birmingham City Council, to direct as much of the city’s surplus food to the hub as possible. “We were giving out three hundred parcels a day,” Ann said.
Remarkably, Ann coordinated much of this action from her house, where she herself was shielding. “Me and my husband fell into the category of vulnerable by age. I was at home myself for many [more] weeks because I am a cancer patient,” she said. However, there was an outpouring of support from people in the city, with offers to volunteer and to donate financially. “We had people calling up, who said I’m at home, I’m not spending any money travelling or eating out, and I’d like to donate some money,” she said.
The pay as you feel system that RJFPB has always operated means that many recipients ‘pay’ with volunteer hours at their cafés, empowering people to feel involved in the solutions to the problems that they face. “All this stuff needs to be hyper-local, and allowing people to participate in their own future,” Ann said. “We also stop the waste of people and their talents.”
The Brum Together campaign has increased this sense of connection. “What was really good was the participation and the cooperation. It really has encouraged that community connection. We want people to participate, to be part of things. A healthy purpose is something to get up for. On a lot of streets, people got to know each other, they set up Whatsapp groups. They set up mini food-hubs, where they would put food on a table outside their house or in a porch, and people could come and take what they want.”
The Brum Together emergency response has now ended, with food banks and community centres back open, and the RJFPB cafés operational again. “I personally think that Birmingham [did] a not too bad job of it,” Ann mused. “We were very pleased and proud and happy to be involved in the response. We had great conversations with people throughout. People are hungry for those everyday encounters.”
Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/