Talk given by Sharon Shamir, Feed the Hill

Thank you to the Reverend Jane Elliot and to all of you here today for including me in your service.

Feed the Hill began as an offshoot of the local Telegraph Hill mutual aid group in March this year. The group had a dedicated phone line, and as supermarket shortages began to bite, we received more and more calls from people who were housebound and unable to access food. 

We quickly hit on the idea of buying goods in bulk from New Covent Garden Market and distributing them at cost. We did 20 boxes that first week, predominantly to members of Branching Out – with the support of Jessica Haener – as well as JOY and other local older people’s groups. 

Another week later and we had 40 willing customers, but by now, April, loss of free school meals and precarious employment were prevalent in the ward, particularly among those who had previously worked on so-called zero-hour contracts. 

With the help of Bold Vision and community groups including St Catherine’s, we fundraised so we could provide our boxes for free to those who would otherwise be going without. Within a month we were feeding 600 people a week. 

That’s where it all got a bit strange. We started to realise that often we didn’t need to buy in our goods at all, as we received offer after offer of so-called surplus food: 

  • 200 pints of fresh milk from Pret, redundant now that no one was buying takeaway coffee. 
  • Two tonnes of ripe pears, grown and packaged for schools and nurseries that were now closed.
  • 3,000 a week of Innocent smoothies, that the company was obliged to keep producing rather than breaching a contract with their manufacturing facility. 
  • Thousands of airline meals, part of a consignment of 50,000 that had been unearthed in a warehouse in Manchester.
  • A pallet of McDonald’s dipping sauces.

If we hadn’t rescued these things, they’d have been thrown away. Perfectly good food. In the end the milk was stashed in every fridge and freezer within this complex until we could distribute it. The pears were given out to dozens of community groups in Lewisham, and the excess turned into jam and then cider – a volunteer marched up Jerningham Road collecting jam jars, stock pots, and a furloughed chef. We included smoothies in our boxes weekly. 

Those airline meals turned out to be quite tasty – though we’re still working our way through the McDonald’s sauces!

Weekly, sometimes daily, we were confronted with the excesses and absurdities of 21st century food production. Supermarket shelves bare, but produce rotting in restaurant storerooms. Parents skipping meals so their children wouldn’t go without, but allotments heaving with ripe vegetables as plot-holders shielded. 

It was a stark lesson in how so many of us now see ourselves as merely consumers of food, and how we have lost sight of the relationship between the means of production of our food and its consumption. We no longer have to ask if there has been a good harvest.

I spoke just now about us rescuing this food, but really – and I know it may sound trite – I feel that the food rescued us volunteers. Like a lot of people, I felt powerless as coronavirus swept the world, and frightened by the uncertainty of the months ahead. I suppose to some extent I still do. But this project focused my attention on what I could offer, and how I could help. 

It forced me to recognise my privilege as somebody with time and resources to spare, and then the enormous privilege of finding myself at the helm of it. Likewise for other volunteers – artists and photographers got in touch to offer their skills and time; a software developer created a programme that routes our drivers efficiently on their rounds – I’m told we’re now faster than Amazon – writers turned their hand to grant applications; actors turned up to pack boxes and local musicians held virtual concerts to raise funds and boost awareness. 

One volunteer took it upon herself to ensure we were GDPR compliant; another wrote up safety documentation. A judge combed through lockdown legislation for us. An unemployed administrator set up a team of sewing enthusiasts to make masks. We were inundated with cardboard boxes and egg cartons (we use hundreds of both each week), and I often arrived in the morning to find fresh bay leaves, rosemary or mint from local gardens on the doorstep. Every task, no matter how small, was carried out with an abundance of love and goodwill. 

Each of us found enormous purpose in turning our attention outward and focusing on getting food to those members of our community who would otherwise go hungry.

So, here we are, just about seven months later. Today we feed about 550 people each week, sometimes up to 700 people. We work with this church of course, and the Centre, along with House of Bread and All Saints, seven local schools and nurseries, our ward councillors, refugee aid organisations, homeless shelters and safe houses for those fleeing domestic violence. 

We tap into the extraordinary reach of each of these groups to help people who would otherwise go hungry. 

After finding temporary homes at The Hill Station, Telegraph Hill Centre and House of Bread, last month Lewisham Council offered us a premises free of charge, by New Cross station, and we’re now carrying out our work from there. 

Over 40 volunteers are still active in any given week. We continue to receive almost a tonne of surplus a week, about a Ford Transit van’s worth, which would otherwise go in the bin. 

The occasion of the Harvest Festival provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on these very strange past months, and to give thanks. For the generosity of this community and the organisations we work with, for relative good fortune, and for the opportunity to share what we have. 

Thank you very much.

Categories: sermon