Since the pandemic started, Loaf has been baking for food banks and primary schools, helping people who’ve fallen into food poverty. Some, such as the Trussell Trust food bank network, have been operating throughout the age of austerity. Others have sprung up to address a newly urgent need.
Prior to the pandemic The Active Wellbeing Society (TAWS) had little to do with food banks. They’re a co-operative funded by Sport England and Birmingham City Council, working in areas of high deprivation to tackle inequality and promote community wellbeing. With many of their programmes shut down or limited to phone and internet services, they revisited their values to see what they could best do.
As often happens in an emergency, there was a strong desire to help. At Loaf we briefly considered establishing a Stirchley food bank before realising we were better positioned to supply those who actually knew how to run one. We also fielded countless offers of help from individuals keen to give their newfound free time and maybe salve the sense of helplessness that was rampant last spring.
TAWS’ immediate response was to set up a WhatsApp group of their peers and make everyone an admin so they could add more people. With the support of a city council stretched to its limits and fuelled by a sense of “if not us, who?”, a plan started to emerge.
Under the banner BrumTogether, a food distribution hub was established at Ladywood Community Centre which it rapidly outgrew, moving to and filling the cavernous Aston University Students Union building. Meals were prepared at the Aston Villa ground kitchens with ingredients sourced from supermarket surpluses. Food parcels were collected in bulk by small-scale community organisations which knew where they needed and these were then distributed by a vast army of volunteers.
Alongside the immediate need for food, other important services were provided. TAWS set up a befriending service for those experiencing isolation and loneliness, and used their contacts with GPs to identify people in need of help.
The skills and resources were out there. All that was needed was co-ordination, which TAWS were able to supply. The BrumTogether network looked like a top-down, blanket approach – it was anything but. By responding directly to needs and empowering people rather than leading, the network remained agile in an ever-changing emergency, catching people who fell through the gaps of the broad-strokes national strategies.
As you might imagine, the experience of being part of BrumTogether has been transformative for TAWS, but they feel they’ve never lost sight of their mission. The means of delivery might have changed, but the core aim didn’t: meeting communities where they are and working with them to design the solutions they need.
BrumTogether is now the Birmingham Food Justice Network. Supported by TAWS with 70 active member organisations and many more waiting in the wings, it seeks to learn lessons from the pandemic to build a better future. Food parcels are a temporary approach to an emergency. They should not be normalised. What’s needed is long-term sustainability and systemic change to ensure no one in this city goes hungry. National campaigns and initiatives are good, but lasting change needs to be built from the ground up.
The network is made up of many different organisations with many different structures, but the whole thing feels like a co-operative with no one group taking control. The way TAWS have co-ordinated the network means the co-op values and principles infuse the network. Or maybe they just make sense. It’ll be interesting to see if and how they filter through to the member organisations.
TAWS are up for Inspiring Co-op of the Year which feels very apt. They used the toolkit of the co-operative movement to build a dizzyingly vast democratic network with no leaders which was able to respond to needs at a micro-local level. If that’s not inspiring, we don’t know what is.
Thanks to Beccy from TAWS for her time answering our questions. You can find out more about their work at theaws.co.uk.