24 March 2021

A Year at the Lewisham Foodbank: A First-Hand Account

By Claus Murmann 

Early in 2020, as we were heading for the first lockdown, I answered a call for volunteer delivery drivers for Lewisham Foodbank — little did I know what I’d started. Naturally, as a keen cyclist, I asked if it was possible to deliver by bike. “Of course, we have a bike team too,” came the response from Caro, the foodbank’s volunteer coordinator and comms manager. My boss was happy for me to do one or two lunchtime sessions a week, so off I went. It’s fairly ad-hoc, informal and fun, riding around with a very diverse team of cyclists. We’ve been all over Lewisham and discovered new parts of town. It’s quite an adventure.

The serious side of this is that we see a lot of very needy people first-hand; doorstep delivery is the client-facing role. Often we’re going to very run-down housing estates;  doorbells are broken, people can’t answer phone calls as they’re out of credit, and homes are damp and mouldy. It’s really depressing to see the state of housing and meet people who struggle to look after themselves. Many clients seem to have found themselves suddenly homeless and in temporary accommodation due to the Covid pandemic, dazed and confused, stuck in limbo between jobs and before support kicks in — a common circumstance where the Foodbank gets involved. Probably the most crushing thing is that this evident poverty crisis is so hidden from everyday life; I’ve cycled past so many of these places on a main road without knowing what’s just around the corner. I hate to say it, but it does make me appreciate what I have, and on the other hand it makes me want to do more to help. That’s what kick-started me volunteering more and more of my time. During mid-year the foodbank was expanding its services so rapidly to cope with an increase in demand that it meant building a new warehouse for storage. Over a few afternoons we moved piles of canned peaches, tomato sauce and pasta and generally very heavy crates of non-perishable food. We built shelves, we stacked mountains of cornflakes and we piled toilet paper up high.

If you’re thinking of volunteering, drivers are often needed to make individual deliveries but also to move crates of pre-packed food parcels from the Forest Hill base at the Hope Centre on Malham Road to Deptford, Lewisham, Catford and Downham, in a hub-and-spoke model. Recently we’ve managed to work with the Cross River Partnership and Ecofleet cycle couriers to set up some Lewisham-funded green trial deliveries — fewer cars means less congestion and less pollution! Volunteers are also required to do regular restocking work as well as the huge logistical operation of putting together food parcels, which are packed and labelled with the correct dietary requirements.

Perhaps the hardest thing I’ve done is work the phones, which involves calling people to check addresses and dietary requirements, and whether they need nappies, period products, etc; and to ensure they would be home to receive their delivery. This can mean making 50-plus phone calls in 2 or 3 hours, and it’s emotionally draining. Many people are really grateful for the foodbank’s support and express it. Some are struggling and some want to tell you a story because they clearly haven’t spoken to anyone for a while. It’s difficult to keep moving through the referrals, as everyone deserves our time and help. People can even get downright rude because they didn’t get their preferred brand of Cornflakes (but that’s rare).

I asked Caro how many food parcels Lewisham Foodbank gives month by month. She told me that in January 2021 alone they fed over 2,200 adults and children. This is a massive increase compared to 2019 and 2020. It must also be noted that Lewisham Foodbank isn’t the only food project in the borough.

So yes, please keep donating to the Lewisham Foodbank; money is great as specific bulk items can be ordered that are always needed. Donations can be brought to Hope Centre from Mondays to Fridays, or dropped in local supermarket boxes. The other thing you can give is time; volunteering has been a hugely rewarding experience and I’ve met the nicest people along the way. The foodbank will need more help as some of its existing volunteer team members head back to work after lockdown. You never know — you might find yourself sorting carrots with a cast member from The Crown or Poirot, doing logistics planning with a member of the Eastenders family or packing laundry capsules with a star from Death in Paradise. You could find yourself on a team with an award-winning BAFTA actor, recognise a voice from The Archers or even a bit of hoovering with a comedian often seen on QI.

To donate money or food please visit lewisham.foodbank.org.uk

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