London Borough of Lewisham: Working with partners to address food poverty

The London Borough of Lewisham is making tackling food poverty a priority in the recovery from the pandemic.

The London Borough of Lewisham is making tackling food poverty a priority in the recovery from the pandemic. The council is already working with local groups to create social supermarkets from the food banks and networks that sprang up during the pandemic. 

It is now focussing on building on this work. A food poverty summit was held in early 2022, there is a dedicated working group on food poverty and a new service to promote awareness, support food chains and the local food economy is set to be launched.

The benefits of the social supermarket

Before the pandemic around 24 per cent of adults were living in “low or very low” food insecurity in Lewisham and 17 per cent of families with children were in the same situation.  

This included skipping meals, going to bed hungry and not knowing where food will come from. The problems have only increased since COVID-19 hit and demand on food banks is rising with it. The charity Lewisham Local, which supports local food projects, was helping around 2,500 households across the borough at the height of the pandemic.  

Other steps that were taken included the provision of free school meal vouchers when the government withdrew them and the introduction of holiday activity and food programmes at various points throughout the pandemic. 

The work during the pandemic has involved a wide variety of partners and it has already started to evolve into new and innovative projects. Six food projects in Lewisham have transitioned from food bank to the “social supermarket” model where residents can shop for their weekly basket of food for a small membership fee. It gives people choice over the food they get and has less stigma attached to them. 

The first of these social supermarkets was the Evelyn Community Store, which is used by around 70 households a week. Members sign up to the store and pay £3.50 per week for food that they collect and make huge savings that can help alleviate their financial burden. During school holidays the store – run by three local women - has made packed lunches for children and at Christmas gave out 2,000 hampers.  

The work of the store even received praise from footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford, who described it as “inspirational” and providing “vital support”. 

Councillor Chris Best, Lewisham’s Cabinet Member for Health and Adult Social Care, said he was pleased with the progress being made. “We have seen volunteers in local food supermarkets get to know the residents coming in. They provide emotional support and waive the small payment when appropriate. The most heart-breaking story for me was about a mother who came in with 5p coins from her children’s money box to buy some food.” 

‘The community has come together’

Other food banks and food projects are helping by extending the support they provide, including financial assistance and support schemes to help people move away from dependence on emergency food aid. This includes debt advice, emotional support and employment advice. 

“We know that food poverty has a detrimental impact on mental and physical health. Anxious and depressed, residents come in for support and often experience weight loss through malnutrition,” Councillor Best added. “I’m very proud of how the community in Lewisham has worked to help families experiencing food insecurity in many ways.” 

The council has supported these projects through COVID-19 Food Network, which was run by the charity Lewisham Local with the backing of the council. It has been working with 35 food projects to create more sustainable models of support through shared learning, asset sharing and access to training.  

Lewisham Local has been monitoring six larger projects. Between them they distributed more than 20,000 food parcels between September 2020 to May 2021 after seeing the number of households accessing support increased by 19 per cent during this time. It has remained at that level ever since.

Some of the support has been specifically targeted at ethnic minorities, which research shows are disproportionately affected by income inequality and a lack of access to fresh, affordable food. This has involved the sourcing of culturally appropriate foods, including fresh fruit and vegetables for food projects supporting these residents. Cultural foods are now provided to 11 groups supporting over 300 households per week. 

An emergency grant is also available to help residents facing immediate financial hardship during the pandemic to cover costs of food and fuel.

How the work is being built on

The work of the COVID-19 Food Network is now being incorporated into the Food Network and Coordination and Support Service, commissioned by public health. It launches in April and will incorporate wider responsibilities, including working to revitalise local and sustainable food chains, building awareness about food poverty more generally and supporting businesses and the wider food economy. 

To further the work on food poverty, Lewisham Council hosted a food poverty summit in February 2022. Residents, councillors, officers and local partners came together to consider opportunities to develop a new food poverty action plan for the borough and a working group is now being established to develop this plan. 

Councillor Best added: “The summit raised many issues that the working group will take on. One issue included digital exclusion being a barrier to making claims for free school meals – so we’re going to be working with schools so parents can come in at the end of the day to use their IT services to make claims. We’re also going to be promoting the help with heating government scheme in our libraries and advice centres. 

“We have a long way to go as a country to resolve food poverty, but forming this working group to create a food poverty action plan will ensure our borough continues to lead the way on this issue.” 

Contact details

Lakhvinder Matharu, Public Health Officer, Lewisham Council: [email protected]