From WhatsApp Mutual Aid groups to stronger bonds forming between neighbours, the pandemic has been all about local human connections like these…
Mariangela Giuliani, from Kentish Town Veg Box, tells us in her own words about the challenges of the pandemic for them as a small team, and the lessons it has taught about kindness, resilience and the strength of community spirit.
Does the beginning of lockdown seem like a distant memory to you? For us at Kentish Town Veg Box, it remains a fresh memory as the most hectic and uncertain time we have seen since we began in 2012. Long queues and empty shelves at supermarkets were the triggers for something we could have never been prepared for: a surge in membership by 68% – a massive increase for our modest cooperative, (way above other London-based veg box schemes which averaged 25% according to this report, too)
In those early days, we had to rethink our operations from the roots up to keep the scheme going and to cater to all the new and existing people signed up in the areas we cover. As a community-led scheme, we sent appeals to all our members and contacts, with the faint hope that people would take time out of their own challenging situations and help us out; whether with packing our weekly organic vegetable and fruit bags, setting up new collection points, or volunteering to deliver bags directly to members who were in strict self-isolation.
The response was immediate and overwhelming. We witnessed amazing acts of spontaneous kindness in the most difficult of times, real lessons in community solidarity that touched us and for which we’ll always be grateful. We’d love to share just a few with you:
When pubs and shops closed their doors, our first challenge was to find secure but accessible spaces for replacement and new collection points. “The veg scheme approached us asking to set up a shed in our parking space,” says Alexandra Lilley, vicar of St George’s Church in Tufnell Park. “We jumped at the opportunity as we wanted to offer a solution to the general buying panic.” The shed now is the collection point for 107 households in the neighbourhood, allowing families to pick up their vegetables closer to home every week. “When I saw the amount of bags in the shed, I thought wow! The uptake has been absolutely great.” Alexandra saw the veg scheme as a pressure valve during those early days. “It’s so important because it encourages healthy eating, especially as lockdown can result in unhealthy habits. Making seasonal and organic food accessible is key – personally and as a church representative I have a holistic view of our wellbeing and what we need to flourish in our lives. We are pleased to be able to add some form of contribution to this.”
Alex and Anita are long time members of the veg scheme who wanted to give something back, even when their day jobs kept them busy. “Kentish Town Veg Box sent an email to all members asking for any available space in the front garden or similar for a collection shed,” they say. “We thought our front yard would do. It is only small but it is away from the main road and easy for people to access. We now host a collection point for around 12 families around us. It became a chance to meet new local people and have had some nice chats with them – at a safe distance. The only one who hasn’t been happy has been Marvin the dog, he was barking from the window at people coming into our front yard, but he’s getting used to it.”
Neighbourly support has been a lovely and positive thing to come out of this situation, they say. “People have become a lot more conscious of one another, and they are open to using their time to help the community, even with small gestures. We have knocked on neighbours’ doors to ask if there was anything that they needed and there’s always someone doing some shopping for someone else. It’s important to keep in touch and check in on people, especially the elderly who have lost so much social interaction.”
The couple have a special spot in their hearts for their original local collection point, the Gypsy Queen pub: “We were very happy to host this shed in our front yard, but the truth is that we couldn’t wait for our local, Malden Road’s Gypsy Queen, to re-open, so we can go there each week to pick up our bag and stop for a pint, that’s for sure.”
Miles is the sole carer for his wife, Deepa, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. “When the lockdown started, it was hard to get hold of fresh produce,” he says. “I didn’t feel safe shopping at supermarkets, even wearing mask and gloves. My sister, who lives in Sydney, was concerned about our situation and emailed Kentish Town Veg Box to ask them to take us on even though their new member form was temporarily closed. Supermarkets do not recognise MS as a debilitating condition but Veg Box did, and we’re very appreciative for that.”
Being able to eat healthy and varied food has made the difference for them: “The veg is nicely packaged in reusable bags. Everything is from the UK and it’s been fascinating to see how the selection of vegetables has changed as the season changes. We even had some rarer things such as pak choi and we’ve been able to do lovely stir-fries, curries and salads.”
Many members were happy to deliver bags from the collection points to households in need such as Miles’ and Deepa’s. Every week, a volunteer has been dropping a bag directly at their door. “We haven’t met him properly,” Miles says “it’s just a hand wave from a distance but it would be nice to be able to say thank you one day.”
With pressure mounting on NHS practices at the beginning of lockdown, the staff at the Caversham Practice were struggling to find food – let alone the time to eat it. “We were working 14-16 hour-a-day shifts, putting staff at risk of burnout,” says Dr Jane Myar. “With the high street food shops shut, we had to quickly think of ways to feed our staff, so we started using Kentish Town Veg Box’s surplus fruit and veg. We now provide hot meals every day to both our staff and our most vulnerable patients, and we have transformed our social kitchen into a food distribution hub.”
30 staff members out of 50 came to work every day, making them one of the best practices in Camden for staff attendance. “I believe this is down to the meals we provide them and the fact that they feel looked after,” says Dr Myar.
The practice extends its meal offer to their most vulnerable patients as well. “We noticed that some mental conditions such as schizophrenia, psychosis or a multiplicity of chronic diseases are very underrepresented in the governmental shielding list, so we took the matter into our own hands,” says Dr Myar. “When reaching out to our patients we might find out that they’ve not had food for up to five days. We can immediately bike to them the food we have prepared from here. It’s a meal enriched by having been cooked by their local practice and with the support of their local community.”
We can only thank all the volunteers who stepped up to support our scheme and wider community. We’ve witnessed acts of solidarity and mutual help that reminded us of the period after the Grenfell fire disaster, as Dr Jane Myar says, “we are experiencing a portal into a different type of society. People are desperate to express their desire to be kind and share but society’s constraints make them fearful to reach out. The lockdown circumstances have given us a taste of hope and positivity.” Miles echoes her: “All these small acts of kindness – whether a phone call or shopping for essentials – have been very encouraging. Sometimes it’s the small things that make a difference, especially when people have been feeling isolated.”
“It is beautiful to see how people have responded, with kindness, love and grace,” Vicar Alexandra Lilley adds: “It’s been deeply moving.”
Every one of us at Kentish Town Veg Box has certainly been moved by all the help we received at a time when we would have struggled to support both our farmers and members. So this is a massive thank you to everyone who kept the scheme going, and growing stronger during such challenging times.
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