Westminster Labour Group and Karen Buck MP are calling on Westminster Council to step up its support for foodbanks and other local organisations that are providing vital support for communities at risk and that will need to do so for many months to come. Labour are demanding that the council develops a coherent strategy to address food poverty and hunger in Westminster and ensures the resources are provided to deliver it.
At this time of crisis the response of Westminster communities to help those most in need has been inspiring. A number of Westminster Mutual Aid Groups have grown up alongside new volunteering efforts from existing groups such as the Queens Park Gardens Community Hub and Sports Hub, Paddington Development Trust, the Avenues, W9 Crew, and Maida Hill Place (Westminster Artisans).
Westminster’s amazing foodbanks have been at the heart of these efforts. The North Paddington Food Bank has scaled up its support from around 200 people to up to 1,400 per week. The Westminster Chapel Foodbank and the Ebury Food Surplus have also expanded their capacity and have been joined by the new foodbank at the Covent Garden Community Centre.
The council is playing its part too. Despite a slow start and some ongoing technical problems, the Westminster Connects service has become a hugely important tool to support local efforts to ensure residents can get food and to tackle social isolation.
Unlike a number of other councils, Westminster did not have significant previous experience of working directly with local foodbanks, with the gap being filled by the hard work of local communities and activists. (By contrast Westminster Labour has held regular collection drives to support the North Paddington Food Bank pre-crisis, and recently used all the spare cash in their 2019-20 councillor’s ward budgets to provide 20k seed funding to enable NPFB to pay for food wholesale as collections dropped and demand skyrocketed). However the Covid-19 outbreak has fostered new cooperation between council services and Westminster’s foodbanks, with Westminster Connects now referring hundreds of residents unable to pay for food to local foodbanks. In the absence of a Council Meals on Wheels service the council is referring residents to voluntary organisations to obtain help with their food needs. However at present it is only providing limited support to these organisations (support with acquiring a refrigerated container for one foodbank) to enable it to meet the responsibilities it is seeking to discharge through volunteer efforts, which included quite substantial support in the areas of health, social care and mental health support.
Given the bleak economic outlook in the short to medium term, and in the absence of direct economic support beyond the scope currently being proposed by Government, it is clear that our communities will face significantly increased levels of food poverty for many months to come. It is therefore essential that these vital lifelines are maintained and strengthened, rather than allowed to fall back due to volunteer burnout and return to work over the coming weeks and months.
The council’s currently stated plan that it will work with the foodbanks ‘to return to their normal ways of working as lockdown eases’ fails to understand the reality that increased food poverty will impact our communities for months to come. For example given the scale North Paddington Foodbank is operating at, and will continue to need to operate at for the foreseeable future, it will need a permanent distribution space(s) and office. It is also currently reliant on four vans with drivers to distribute 70 deliveries a day (in addition to packages being provided by volunteers) and these may be gone once lockdown is lifted.
Westminster Labour is calling for the council to work with partners to develop an integrated food poverty strategy for our city, with the council playing an ongoing role to support community activity and help build sustainable structures to prevent the spread of hunger in our most vulnerable communities. Labour is calling on the council to convene an urgent virtual meeting with representatives of these vital organisations alongside council officers and a cross-party group of senior councillors to help develop a cohesive strategy. The details of such a strategy should be defined by the needs of residents and local food providers, but, based on existing discussions with these groups, Westminster Labour believes that the council response must contain a number of important elements including:
- Financial support from Westminster’s core budget to support the paid staff required to manage these local services in the longer term
- A full review of who is seeking assistance, who is not, and whether particular groups or communities are under-represented
- Technical support to local groups to assist them with fundraising from philanthropic donors
- Ongoing financial support from Westminster’s Charitable Trust and from the Lord Mayor’s Charities
- Assistance with transport for food deliveries
- Support for a wider anti-poverty strategy in the employment and social security system to assist people with debt and arrears, enhancing the work being done by the Citizens Advice Bureau at Foodbanks. A Central Triage system for those in need would really help here
- Investment in an adequate network of advice and advocacy services to assist people facing debt and loss of income
- Preparation for additional support for families if the government’s free school meal vouchers are not extended over the summer holidays
- Collaboration with partners in Brent, K&C, Camden, the City of London and Lambeth around cross-border food provision.
Westminster Labour Group Leader Cllr Adam Hug said, “Food banks, Mutual Aid Groups and other voluntary groups have been doing heroic work supporting vulnerable people at this time of crisis. It is essential that they are given greater support to protect our communities over the uncertain months and years ahead. Westminster Council must play an active role in supporting them, which is why Labour is calling on the council to develop a clear strategy on how to tackle local food poverty and to provide the resources that are necessary. A piecemeal, case by case approach simply won’t cut it given the scale of the challenge.”