Cocoa Fowler has been running Food for Nought since 2017
The Big Issue is celebrating the top 100 Changemakers of 2021 – the innovators, creators and radical thinkers who achieved remarkable things during the pandemic to make the world a better place, and those who will help keep others afloat in another difficult year.
This first instalment shines a light on the battle to end poverty. The Covid-19 pandemic caused UK poverty to skyrocket as thousands were made redundant, placed on the furlough scheme and had their incomes cut. It meant households across the country were plunged into an already accelerating deprivation crisis.
But determined people and groups dedicated their energy to putting poverty on the news agenda, making sure no one in their community went hungry, and providing support for already vulnerable populations who found themselves locked out of services under coronavirus restrictions. They will be key in the fight to end poverty in 2021.
1. Marcus Rashford
The Manchester United star turned child food poverty campaigner fought tirelessly to stop kids going hungry during school holidays amid widespread pandemic redundancies, and has been open about his own experience of food poverty in childhood. After Rashford penned an open letter to the UK government, which put child food poverty firmly on the news agenda, Boris Johnson made a U-turn and promised food vouchers for around 1.3 million children in low-income families to cover the summer.
Rashford went on to set up the Child Food Poverty Task Force, a coalition of major supermarkets, charities and food companies. His petition to end child food poverty amassed more than a million signatures in a matter of days and saw the government once again bow to public pressure and agree to continue the holiday and food programme into the Christmas and Easter breaks. The 23-year-old recently gave an exclusive interview to The Big Issue, setting out his plans to continue standing up for hungry youngsters in 2021.
2. Monica Lennon MSP
The Labour MSP has spent three years fighting to end period poverty and this year, after a historic vote in Holyrood, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products available free for all. The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill means it will be mandatory for schools, colleges, universities and public buildings like libraries and courts to offer them.
Some MSPs previously opposed the bill, arguing instead that period products should be free only for people on low incomes and those with conditions like endometriosis, but Lennon said products must be available universally to help tackle stigma around poverty and periods. In its third and final vote, MSPs backed the bill unanimously – meaning it will be written into legislation.
3/4. Mark and Paul Watson
As the pandemic drove a rise in child poverty, Christmas was a worry for parents on low incomes across the UK. But comedian Mark Watson and his brother Paul, a journalist, campaigned to make it a special one for disadvantaged children – with the gift of a Christmas football kit.
Through their Kitmas drive, pre-loved kits were donated to grassroots community groups and kids who might not otherwise get a Christmas present. And through cash fundraising – their crowdfunder hit its £3,000 target in a matter of days and more than doubled it within a month – new kits were bought too.
Donating football kits to deprived areas was not a new venture for Paul, who discovered the power of football in bringing communities together when he worked as a coach on a remote Pacific island (he wrote about his experience in his book Up Pohnpei). Since then, he has worked with refugee organisations to send kit everywhere from Zanzibar to Somalia and Tibet.
Hundreds of shirts were sent to Paul and donated to children in places including London, Stroud, Gloucester, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds, Glamorgan and Glasgow. While the pair were focused on getting gifts to children in time for Christmas, they hope to continue the drive through this year.
Dr Clare Vaughn and Rebecca Jackson
5. East End Women
East End Women is a project set up by Dr Clare Vaughan and Rebecca Jackson (pictured) in Newcastle. They set up an emergency foodbank in April, providing a range of support and safety services for women, as well as employability training.
The Big Issue: Why did you decide to open a foodbank? Clare Vaughan: When we had to stop delivering our face-to-face activities we said, “How can we make the best use of our time?” We saw there was quite a lot of food activity going on and we had the staff capacity to do it and the physical space. We never intended it to be a long-term project. I don’t think any of us anticipated how long it would be but we just came here for women that we already supported. We were totally new to it.
What was the biggest challenge to start it up from scratch? Between the first week of us starting up and a month, demand increased by about 400 per cent and now we support around 450 people a week, about 280 of them are children and the landscape has changed so much, a lot of the services that were available this summer are now no longer running as we “get back to normal”.
There’s been a large spike in domestic abuse rates since the start of the pandemic, how have you been able to accommodate that? There’s been a big increase in referrals to our Freedom programme which is the domestic abuse recovery course. One of my concerns is that with the reduction of face-to-face delivery [programmes] there is the reduction of opportunities to disclose their situation. We’re trying to reach out to as many people as possible, and the foodbanks have been a really good way of doing that.
6. Tricky Period
This group of activists in London took an innovative approach to helping people in need access period products – by creating a unique partnership with libraries.
Tricky Period put free supplies in libraries where people low on funds can get what they need under a strict ‘no questions asked’ policy. Anyone who wanted to use the service could tick off the items they needed on a form and hand it over to a librarian, who would retrieve the necessary supplies just as though they were going to get a book.
Tricky Period was launched shortly before lockdown when homelessness volunteers were hearing increasing reports of people forced to shoplift for period products and being caught short when living on the streets. When libraries closed, they provided deliveries and set up temporary hubs in family centres. Now they have expanded to give products away through foodbanks and women’s centres, mother and baby units and sex workers’ breakfasts in the city.
7. Kelly-Marie Hearsum
Tillicoultry shop worker Kelly-Marie spent months gathering food and toiletries to give to vulnerable people across Clackmannanshire. She planned hampers for Scottish Autism, Trust Housing, Women’s Aid, local care homes and foodbanks and got help from her employer, B&M, to put them together.
The Big Issue: Why did you decide to do something for your community? Kelly-Marie Hearsum: The aim of these hampers wasn’t just to help people with food, but also to let them know they’re not alone in these tough times. Just something little to put a smile on someone’s face.
What did you learn from putting together the hampers? This year I’ve learned that nothing is set in stone. I’ve started making the most of every day now as anything can happen at any moment and Covid-19 has proved it. I really wanted to help people quicker but back in April I was ill with pneumonia and have been left with long-term issues from it. But I wanted to push myself to do the project this year.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do some good in their own communities in 2021? Make a time limit and stick by it. Do some research about what you’re fundraising for – then look at the resources out there, talk to organisations with expertise.
8/9. Jo Jones and Sali Hughes, Beauty Banks
“We believe that everyone has the right to be clean,” say Beauty Bank founders Jo Jones and Sali Hughes, who are on a mission to eradicate hygiene poverty. Hygiene and beauty products are often overlooked in donations to foodbanks, but are essential to physical and mental wellbeing. Launching their ‘The Kids Are Not Alright’ campaign in September, they appealed for products for schoolchildren who might experience bullying over hygiene poverty.
10. Peter Krykant
Peter Krykant, a 43-year-old from Maddiston near Falkirk, has been putting himself at risk to save lives amid Britain’s most severe HIV epidemic in three decades. The activist runs a mobile safer drug consumption van in Glasgow, working with heroin and cocaine-injecting drug users to curb drug deaths and stem the spread of HIV and hepatitis after the city recorded the highest drugs death rate in Europe.
Krykant was charged by police for operating the illegal facility under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf backed the initiative and called for a change in the law to allow vans like Krykant’s to save lives.
11. Jimmy Wilson, FARE Scotland
FARE Scotland is a charity based in Easterhouse, Glasgow. Led by CEO Jimmy Wilson, the organisation provides everything from youth clubs to employment support. But during the first lockdown, as pandemic redundancies and income cuts drove already struggling communities into hardship, the charity saw demand for emergency food parcels soar.
Raising nearly £20,000, collecting donations and working with supermarkets, they delivered food to households in need, giving away tens of thousands of meals as well as providing help with toiletries and fuel bills.
Decades of working on the front line mean the charity has a unique relationship with locals and could help other organisations, like housing associations, get supplies to vulnerable people who were self-isolating.
12. Castle Douglas Development Forum
In Dumfries and Galloway, a team of locals – shopkeepers, a printer, a cafe owner, a smallholder, baker, a poet and retired people – have been pulling off remarkable feats to support their community. Castle Douglas Development Forum was asked early in the pandemic if the town with a population of around 4,000 people could host a foodbank after the food aid network lost its distribution venues in the area – libraries closed by restrictions. Within 48 hours they turned their tourist information centre into a foodbank, which grew into a major resilience team to keep locals afloat through the crisis.
After realising the extent of often-hidden rural poverty, they set up the Stepping Stones project and have now leased premises in the town centre to keep the foodbank going. The front of the unit is a pop-up shop available for small businesses and charities to rent.
The Big Issue: What changes have you witnessed surrounding the demand for hygiene products throughout the pandemic? Lizzy Hall: The demand has been remarkable. Before Covid-19 over 14 million people in the UK were living in poverty, a third of whom were going without hygiene products, or purchased them with less frequency because they were unable to afford to keep clean. Unfortunately, we know the numbers of individuals experiencing poverty will increase due to the knock-on effects of the crisis.
Why is it so important that foodbanks can provide hygiene and beauty products as well as food? We know long before people go to a foodbank they stop buying toiletries. Adding essential personal and household hygiene products to food parcels is a great way to combine efforts to ensure those who would otherwise go without have enough food to eat and hygiene products to keep clean.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to help their community in 2021? Don’t overthink it, just take the first step. I didn’t set out to start The Hygiene Bank but through the process I found a way to support my community and help others do the same by setting up a project in their area. We give local and help local and think that’s one of the best ways to make an impact in your community.
14. Jeely Piece Club
In 1975, The Jeely Piece Club set out to make Castlemilk in Glasgow a safer place for kids and it hasn’t looked back. The charity, which provides play and learning opportunities in one of the most deprived areas of Scotland, has been providing food and clothing parcels to families during the crisis. We spoke to head of play services, Grace Lamont.
The Big Issue: How has the community changed since the Jeely Piece Club started?
Grace Lamont: Sadly, some of the same issues still are here. We’re in the top 10 per cent of the deprivation index. So, sadly, it’s kind of historic. We work with families that we started in 1975 with, and now we’re working with their children or their grandchildren. But still the same issues arise for many, many of these families.
Do you think the charity has helped the community band together? Absolutely. I know families see ‘the Jeely’ as a lifeline. It’s not just about play, or childcare for us, we work really closely with families, we build trust and relationships. We then find out about what the issues are in their lives and we’re able to support them in whatever fashion that is.
How has the pandemic changed the work you do? When lockdown came in March, all our services were put on hold because we weren’t allowed to work directly with children. We were able to look for funding. So we were able to do food bags and deliver them to families in Castlemilk. As well as that, we delivered play packs, arts and crafts packs and some outdoor equipment.
We could have shut our doors probably, but I think it went against our whole philosophy. We knew there would be many more families in need, as well as the ones that we support throughout the year. And it wasn’t an option for us to close.
15. Peter Paduh
SocialBox.Biz is an organisation that distributes unwanted laptops from businesses to people who need them. Founder Peter Paduh came to the UK in 1993 as a Bosnian refugee, starting his career in tech with equipment that he received from charity. Keen to give back, SocialBox.Biz was launched to lend a hand to those facing digital exclusion in the UK. Since its beginning, he’s helped hundreds of people access vital digital services that he hopes will act “as a springboard into their mission”.
16. Felicity Jones, Eat Out to Really Help Out
Jones decided to make a real difference in August when the Eat Out To Help Out scheme was launched. The Lancaster fundraiser started the grassroots campaign Eat Out To Really Help Out, which encouraged people to donate their 50 per cent discount to those who could not afford to put food on their tables.
Jones, who is the founder of Thinking Philanthropy and Empowering Charities, was inspired by Age UK campaigns encouraging wealthy pensioners to donate their winter heating allowance to those in need.
17. Cocoa Fowler
After volunteering with the tsunami relief effort in Sri Lanka in 2005, Cocoa Fowler returned to the UK and became homeless. The turning point for him came when he received charity help and decided to set up Food for Nought, which turns overspill food from supermarkets and farmers into parcels delivered to those who need them most. Cocoa was hospitalised in May with Covid and pneumonia, saying it left him weakened but still determined to support the hungry.
After a swathe of job losses this year, demand on the charity has tripled, leaving the team under pressure and in ever more need of donations. Since its formation in 2017, Cocoa and the team have delivered more than 1,200 tonnes of food to the people of Peterborough. Cocoa says that now the Christmas rush is over, the charity will still depend on people’s generosity and support throughout 2021.
The Covid-19 crisis put extra pressure on everyone, and it hit vulnerable mums particularly hard. It meant that when lockdown made it more difficult for charities to operate with volunteers, PramDepot founder Karen Whiteread and her daughter had to go it alone to make sure women in need were supported.
The small charity takes pre-loved baby equipment and clothes and gives them directly to mothers across London. In lockdown it focused on donating emergency baby boxes including nappies, wipes, cream, soap, maternity pads, muslins, a mattress, sheets and blankets, a breast pump, steriliser and toiletries.
The small team went above and beyond to identify mothers who needed help, cut off from support networks as a result of restrictions and a lack of internet access, but worked tirelessly to make sure women and their babies didn’t go without.