The beginning of lockdown was frightening. It was like Doctor Who. I live on a busy road in central London. It was so quiet and eerie.
Early on, I got a phone call from [catering company] Fooditude, saying they had food in their freezers and they didn’t want it to go to waste. They had cooks who were happy to go in and volunteer, but they needed somebody to distribute the meals throughout the community. I run a social enterprise helping people out of unemployment [Bermondsey Employment Skills and Training] and I’ve worked with Fooditude previously.
They had approached quite a lot of other people who hadn’t even responded to their email. That galvanised me. I thought: ‘Right, well, we can help you. You’re not going to throw that food in the bin. No way. We will find, by hook or by crook, 300 recipients by Friday.’ Which we did.
I contacted a few organisations – a couple of tenants’ and residents’ associations and a couple of sheltered housing units, who look after elderly people. In the first week we distributed to five organisations.
It really quickly snowballed from 300 meals on that first Friday, to doing 1,200 meals every Tuesday and every Friday.
Soon we were delivering to 13 organisations. They were giving the meals to a mixture of elderly people; those who are shielding; homeless people; quite a lot of families as well.
There has been a big thing about free school meals and not everybody received them, by a long shot. When I got back to my area I also did some deliveries to people on my estate.
I will never forget those couple of months. It was just so lovely – the way the world should be
We found people all along the way who were sitting at home waiting, and going hungry. Especially the more elderly members of our community. I think they’re much more compliant and that text we all got just terrified a lot of them. It said “don’t go out”… and they didn’t go out.
Some big charities just kind of evaporated at that time. It was left to little community group players. I’ve never run a food distribution hub before. And Fooditude has never done that level of community work. That was what was so lovely about it – all different people from all different walks of life pulling together to really fill that gap.
I had volunteers working with me at the Biscuit Factory [a venue in South Bermondsey that donated space]. Other volunteers have delivered meals around the SE1 area, using their own vans, petrol and time.
Co-ordinating the network and running the distribution hub was a bit daunting. There’s a lot of spreadsheet work involved. I was nervous, in case I’d got the numbers wrong. The meals come in trays of 27. By the end, everyone knew what five 27s were! We’ve been really careful with masks and gloves. You don’t want to give somebody a meal with a dose of Covid-19.
The feedback we got was so lovely. We had a comment from one elderly lady who said it was like eating in a restaurant, she said, “I never know what I’m going to get but I know it’s always going to be delicious.”
It wasn’t just about nutrition though. Imagine – you’re at home, you’re elderly and you’re scared because you received this message and about 10 letters from various agencies telling you not to go out or else. Then somebody comes to your door with a couple of beautifully prepared meals and just has a chat. People would say, “We thought we’d been forgotten, it’s so nice to know that people remember we’re still here.”
Food is just so much more than fuel. It’s comfort. It’s familiarity. Food is love.
I signed on to Universal Credit right at the beginning of lockdown. Everybody’s helped everyone, but it’s really difficult being on UC. And it’s impossible, I think, to actually live on it. It’s not about budgeting. It’s just not enough.
Still, those first couple of months, April and May, were just such a special time. You could feel the goodwill and the love and the community spirit. I was one cog in a big machinery. It was a rare moment, and we’re really lucky to have lived through that. The community in Southwark has really pulled together.
In the future, when I look back, I will tell my grandchildren that it was a real honour to be able to do it. I will never forget those couple of months. It was just so lovely – the way the world should be.
Sam was speaking to Laura Kelly