By Olivia Oldham
In a world turned upside-down by the ravages of the Coronavirus pandemic and its consequences, people across the country of all different ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities have had their lives thrown into chaos. But in black communities across the UK, the effects of the virus and the policies implemented to control its spread have been particularly harsh.
“Black people… black nurses, black doctors were being deliberately forced to go and work on Covid wards, and it was almost like they were used as a barrier to protect white people,” said Ursula Myrie, founder and managing director of Adira, a Sheffield-based, survivor-led mental health and wellbeing charity which serves black people with mental health issues. According to the Office for National Statistics, the Covid-19 death rate between March and May amongst black women was around 1.5 times the rate amongst white women, while black men died at twice the rate of white men—even after controlling for age and other demographic factors such as class and key worker status.
An indirect but major consequence of Covid has been that many low income families, particularly those in precarious employment, lost their only source of income during the lock-down. Many families faced going hungry, the threat of malnourishment looming larger and more immediate even than the virus that was prowling the streets. Ursula, who is featured on ‘Who Feeds Us?’, the new series from Farmerama Radio, saw what was happening early on. In response, she decided to set up a Food Pharmacy—a food bank by a different name—which fed over 4,000 people during the crisis.
Ursula chose the name ‘Food Pharmacy’ because of the associations between the term ‘food bank’ and a sense of shame that she has found black people (and many white people, as well) feel when they find themselves in need of food charity. When people came to her at the beginning of lock-down, worried about how they were going to feed their families, Ursula didn’t refer them to food banks, “because I knew they would not go to a food bank. One, because the people there are all white, and two, because the food is just not culturally appropriate for us,” she said.
This idea of the cultural appropriateness of food is a key element of food sovereignty, as first set out by the global peasant advocacy group, La Via Campesina, in the Declaration of Nyéléni in 2007. It reflects the fact that food cultures around the world have developed based on factors like geography, history, and traditional knowledge and practices. As Ursula puts it, “things that we eat,” are often specific to our particular cultural background
For the Food Pharmacy, which was aimed specifically at Sheffield’s black community, this meant foods like “cooked chicken, rice and peas, plantain, [and] fried fish” dominated the meals which volunteers cooked for recipients. Providing people with ‘food that they eat’ is important because it treats them with dignity. “It’s not a case of…if you’re that hungry, you’ll just eat,” Ursula said. “It just doesn’t work like that.”
Speaking of a Lithuanian family who had come to the Food Pharmacy, she said, “[t]hey took the food… and it was rice and peas and chicken. And, you know, the father called us and he said, ‘Look, thank you so much for the food, but please don’t deliver anymore here, because we just can’t eat it. My kids don’t like the texture, they don’t like the taste, they don’t like the flavours.’ And I just got so emotional because I completely understood….why he and his family struggled with Jamaican food. I think for statutory services it’s just, ‘This is what we’ve got, take it. And if you don’t then you’re not really struggling then are you?’”
As well as justice, there is a real sense of joy in the way Ursula speaks about the Food Pharmacy and the many ways in which it fed people during the lock-down. Yes, it put food on hungry peoples’ tables, but it also brought beauty to the lives of those who volunteered.
Early on, she rented a church hall to cook the meals, and many people from the congregation volunteered to cook. “We’d have volunteer drivers who would come [to pick up the meals], who were white, and they used to say coming there on a Friday was like walking into a party! Because you know, we’d have our African music playing, or our Jamaican music playing, and the young volunteers…who were all black, would be dancing. It was just absolutely amazing,” she said.
But in August, as people went back to work and plans began to be made for universities and schools to reopen at the end of summer, volunteers began to drop away.
“[W]e had to look at it and say, ‘Well, you know, listen, if we’re struggling now…what are we going to be like in September? This is just not feasible to keep going,’” she said. So although the Food Pharmacy “was just absolutely brilliant, and definitely needed for the black community,” Ursula had to make the difficult decision of closing it down. Although she referred the Food Pharmacy’s service users to other food banks, she knew that in all likelihood, they would never go.
“I knew when we closed ours, [the other food banks] weren’t going to get this sudden influx of black people, unless those food banks were suddenly going to become more culturally appropriate in terms of their food, more culturally sensitive in terms of their staff,” she said. “Because that was another big issue, when they would say ‘Well we’ve just noticed it, because you said it, that we don’t have any black volunteers!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, because racism. Because I know when I come to your food banks to drop food off…the dirty looks I get, the stares I get, the nudges, the whispers, you know, it’s very clear that I’m not wanted there, simply because I’m black and you’re all white. You know, no self-respecting black person is going to want to volunteer in an environment like that.”
Adira is still supporting its community however it can, including through food. One project it’s working on aims to support families at Christmas with 500 food hampers: a “buffer,” as Ursula calls it, against some of the difficulties they might face around the holidays—particularly if they have lost loved ones to the virus this year.
But the fate of the Food Pharmacy does raise the question: what does the future hold, when so many people must rely on charity for nourishment? What happens when the funding dries up, when the volunteers run out of time, when public attention moves on? How is it possible in this context to build a world where nobody goes hungry, and neither food banks nor Food Pharmacies are needed? Ursula takes a relatively grim view of the future in this respect.
“As long as there’s a thing called greed, we will never get there,” she said. “As long as there’s pharmaceutical companies and all these big organisations that… control the food and control the medicine and make money off of people suffering… As long as there’s mistrust being…intentionally bred in terms of the way the media portrays certain communities… And you just look at the world’s leaders, you know, they can’t even sit round the table together… and come up with a plan that everybody agrees on, because it’s just selfishness and greed and everybody at that table is just out for themselves. So…will it be solved? I honestly don’t think so, as long as greed exists.”
Certainly, it can be easy to be pessimistic about peoples’ ability to come together and resolve historic differences and heal old wounds. But, on the other hand, Who Feeds Us has brought together so many stories of hope. While we can only speculate, it might be that these stories are threads of a bigger tapestry of change, weaving a picture of a fairer, more united, resilient and abundant food future for us all.
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/