About LFP, Healthy food, Tackling Poverty

Meeting local food need: A conversation with Alan Wilson, Lincoln Community Larder

The Lincolnshire Food Partnership is a growing partnership of organisations working together for a food system that is fairer, healthier and sustainable. In this series, I talk with individuals who are playing a role in the partnership about what they and their organisations are doing, and what motivates them to be involved.

Alan Wilson is a board member of the Lincolnshire Food Partnership, and the Chair of Lincoln Community Larder. In this interview, Alan talks about his passion for healthy food, and enabling self-help and self-respect in meeting local need.

Tell me about how you came to be involved with Lincoln Community Larder

I moved to Lincoln in 2016, around the same time that the chair of Lincoln Community Larder was quite ill and had retired, so they were without a chair for a while. 

My background is in regulatory compliance and since retiring I’d been involved in a sports charity in Derbyshire, where I was the Secretary and a trustee on the board there. The charity promoted health for young people, fitness, and provided sporting activities for all ages. 

The reason I came here is that my wife was appointed Dean of Lincoln, at one of the finest Cathedrals in the country. It was through this connection that I was approached. The Larder asked if I would consider helping them by joining the board as the Chair.

I had no previous involvement with food, but I did have that desire to help the local community in some way; to use my skills to help in a voluntary capacity. 

It just sort of fitted – me being new to the area, it being a good cause, they needed someone with my skill set to come and help the organisation. At that time, the Larder was operating under a trust deed, which put all the trustees in a potential liability position, so one of my first tasks was to help them convert to a CIO – a Charitable Incorporated Organisation. This enabled the Larder to re-structure and formalise the governance and administration of the charity. 

It’s a very small, independent charity. Everyone who’s involved in it is a volunteer. There are no paid staff, there’s no financial backing from a big organisation, it’s just a group of local people helping those less fortunate in our community. 

When I joined, it had been going for 27 years – long before the term Foodbank was common place! We had our 30th anniversary recently.

It’s staggering and worrying, isn’t it, that we’ve had to provide this service for over 30 years, and it’s not diminishing, if anything it’s increasing.

So, I came in as a compliance/governance professional to offer my services but the real workers are the volunteers who are out on the front line, giving their time, energy, and serving the public. I do that, but not to the extent that they do.

Our coordinator, Dawn Nightingale, is almost doing a full time job, but she’s a volunteer too.

There are many others like her, who are really dedicated – I take my hat off to them – they are at the sharp end of it, dealing with people on almost a daily basis. 

We don’t offer any service other than the food. We don’t make any judgements, or do any analysis of people, anything like that. If someone turns up with a valid voucher from a recognised agency, we give them the food that they require.

It’s something I’ve been talking to Simon Hoare, CEO at the Lincoln Foodbank about. They have the expertise to offer a wider service, so if we get someone who needs counselling or needs additional support, we try to refer them to Simon’s team or another professional agency, as our staff aren’t trained to help in this way.

We operate a very simple business model really: people turn up with a valid voucher, we give them food.

We try to give people the food they need, rather than the food we want to give them, so when they come to our outreach centres, they can normally have a choice, if they want – or don’t want – a particular thing. 

We don’t thrust lentils on people who don’t want lentils!

There’s kind of a standard parcel, but not a take-it-or leave-it parcel – it’s more of a tailored parcel.

Tell me more about what motivates you

I think that the need that we haven’t really been able to achieve yet, is the need to promote healthier eating among those who are in need of food. It’s something we’ve discussed, but is easier said than done. 

If people turn up and say they want hot dogs, what do you do? 

We’ve talked about trying to suggest menus, menu cards, that sort of thing, or even have  parcels that are designed to take away and to make a meal out of. So that needs a lot more thought and consideration.

What drives me – the first and most important thing, is to make sure that people are not hungry, especially children. 

And trying to provide a service where people don’t feel embarrassed or feel that in any way it is shameful to come to a food bank. I think that’s part of what the volunteers are about, in terms of the way that they treat people that come in, and they’re very good at it.

I’m passionate about making sure that people will come to us when they need us, and we are meeting a local demand. I’ve been involved in Rotary International, we do a number of projects that are overseas – wells, sand dams, schools in Nepal, that sort of thing – but in your own backyard you have people that are going hungry, and that’s something we mustn’t be diverted or deflected from.

In the last few years we have been promoting ourselves much more with Twitter, and Facebook, and that has been very successful in attracting financial donations, which we don’t mind taking – I know some foodbanks are uncomfortable with financial donations – but we encourage it because it gives us more flexibility in terms of the food that we can purchase and deliver.

One of the big problems with food donations is if they’re coming to their sell by date, or you get too many of one kind of thing. But if you’ve got the finances, you can supplement or even produce foodbags that are tailored to fit people’s needs, so that’s quite important. We never say no to any donations.

That’s helpful to know because there is a lot of will out there to help. We have had several people approaching the Food Partnership website because they’ve got food or produce that they want to donate, but they’re not able to deliver it because they don’t have transport or they work long hours. It’s very helpful for people to know that donating some money might be just as helpful.

It would actually – it would do as much good or better, actually! A lot of our time is spent having to sort tins and food and put out of date stuff to one side. Sometimes you get tins from 2005 or before, from the back of someone’s cupboard! 

We have to warehouse it as well – and this is one of our major costs. I know that’s something Nigel Curry (Chair of the Lincolnshire Food Partnership) is starting to look at, towards a more collective storage arrangement. That’s a benefit of being part of a partnership, I think, that we can explore ways where we can work together much more. 

We’ve had 30 years of being a small independent charity working on our own. Partnership gives scale and strength and a voice, which is important. 

We’ve got three outreach centres – we took on a fourth recently, St Mary’s in Welton. This is a key thing: having outreach centres where the demand is. There is a problem of people having to get themselves into town to get their food, and that can be a deterrent or a difficulty for some people.

Rural poverty is a big thing. How do you see the link between food poverty work and the wider food system?

I think in the wider context, it’s trying to put in the pieces that are missing in the jigsaw – you’ve got the government initiatives, things going on in schools, but there are always the bits that fall between the cracks – it’s trying to identify those and fill the gaps.

At the moment, our constitution is very narrow and doesn’t allow us to do much more than we do. It’s something our trustees decided we would review to see if we would expand our operation, which would allow us to do more things, more attuned to what the Food Partnership is doing.

In its simplest form, there is the makeup of the parcels and the food that we give. Apart from people not having sufficient food, is the problem of having the wrong food, leading to obesity problems and other health issues. We’d like to encourage people to take vegetables and fresh produce, but it creates more difficulties with storage for us, particularly as a small charity. 

One of the Larder branches is at St Giles Church, just down the road from me. I also am helping a bit at St Giles community garden. There seems to be quite a bit of interest in local growing. Do you think there is a case for linking foodbanks and community gardens or allotments, so that users of foodbanks can not only access food from nearby allotments, but can also participate in the growing of it if they want to?

I think that’s a terrific idea. I’m all for joined-up thinking – taking all our different organisations and ideas and trying to interweave them. I’m all for anything that encourages people to self help – another example is the development of a membership supermarket idea that I’m also very keen on  because it enables people to transition from one status to another, and keep their self-respect. 

I also believe that growing your own food is very good for your mental well-being, secondly it’s self help, and thirdly, in community, you get to meet people and it brings you out again, and I think that’s important. So it’s an idea I would definitely support.

That’s where the Food Partnership really helps, it’s an over-arching group that can facilitate that kind of blending that we on our own can’t do.

How can people get involved or support the Lincoln Community Larder?

In terms of how people can help – financial and food donations and offering to do driving for food pick-ups are the most useful ways to help at the moment. 

The other thing is if people feel that they need an outreach centre in their location, maybe in a rural location, we may be able to help. 

Interestingly, although our outreach centres are mainly churches, we’re not denominational in any way. At the moment we are in a good position to help set up new outreach centres if people approach us with a genuine need.

In recent months, we’ve had some very good offers of volunteers. One of the most helpful things is people who offer to do one off or little regular things like picking food up from a supermarket, or delivering food to the warehouse or outreach centres.

We’ve struggled a little bit – especially with covid – with people who want to come and work in the outreach centres. The YMCA, in Rosemary Lane, is a very small place, so social distancing can be very difficult if you’ve got more than two people in there at a time. 

Although we  currently have sufficient volunteers at the outreach centres for hours that we’re open we always encourage people to offer their services via our website, in particular if we participate in some of the wider projects, like the allotment idea. It might be nice to get volunteers specifically to do those projects.

As mentioned all of our volunteers are unpaid but we do require potential volunteers to tell us something about themselves, just so we know who we’re dealing with. 

We have had volunteers who have offered themselves as counsellors but we have steered away from that because it becomes complex from our charity’s constitutional perspective to get involved with people’s wider social problems. 

The other really good thing about working together has been the central database for vouchers, which has been a big plus. This is being further developed within the Partnership – bringing a new system in that will be properly funded and robust, and give us a lot more information.

If you would like to offer to help with deliveries, or ask about opening an outreach centre in your area, please contact email lincolncommunitylarder@hotmail.co.uk or phone 01522 569291. Messages are usually picked up by Dawn.

If you would like to make a financial donation, please donate via: justgiving.com/lincolncommunitylarder

To find your nearest outreach centre, foodbank or other organisation tackling food poverty in Lincolnshire, check out our map. It is a work in progress, as more foodbanks spring up in response to local need. If we have missed an organisation that should be on here, please get in touch with Laura: LauraStratfordgardens@gmail.com

Parliament voted this week against providing food to vulnerable children through the half term holiday, following a prominent campaign by Marcus Rashford. Many local councils and businesses have responded but offering free food to children, including Lincoln’s Mint Lane Cafe.

Anyone who needs help with providing good food for their children can request half term help from Lincoln Foodbank and Lincoln Community Larder.

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