The successful Free School Meals campaign, spearheaded by the brilliant Marcus Rashford, put a spotlight on the extent to which food poverty is a significant issue in 2020 Britain. While it has certainly been exacerbated by the pandemic, this is an issue that has been steadily growing for years. A decade of government austerity, cutting back benefits and vital support, an explosion of low-paid and insecure work, and a failure to grapple with rising housing costs, has contributed to nearly 2 million people using foodbanks through 2019/20.

Barking and Dagenham may be the most deprived borough in London, but we have transformed the way we provide our services, necessitated by savage government cuts. These days we support our residents with intervention at the earliest opportunity, and the aim of preventing issues spiralling beyond their control.

Key to this was bringing together 18 council services under to form Community Solutions. Now, when one of our residents needs support, we consider everything going on in their life. This could be debt and housing advice through our Homes and Money Hubs, support from the council Job Shop, or referral for care and support.

We’ve worked with over 1,800 households since April of this year, helping to realise around £500k of income maximisation for the families who need it most. We have also targeted work in increasing Free School Meals, with more than 11,000 children accessing these in our borough. This rate has risen by 22% during the pandemic, and by 82% in the last two years.

Since Covid-19 struck, we also set up a council funded hardship fund. This is for families who cannot pay critical bills and/or require temporary support whilst waiting for welfare benefits. So far this year we have supported nearly 400 families with over £300k of essential support.

Before the pandemic, the council was already working with community partners throughout the borough to strengthen our ‘food economy’ offer. Community Food Clubs now operate in five community settings, where a resident can access £20 of shopping a week for a £10 a month or £3.50 per visit. Over 2000 visits were made in the year 2019/20, saving residents over £30,000. This year there have already been over 3000 visits, passing on £55,000 of savings. When accessing the Food Club, there is also the opportunity to discuss debt and housing matters, mental health and wellbeing, and to be referred to employment and skills services.

The work with our community partners is crucial, and our response to the pandemic in Barking and Dagenham had confirmed this. More than 80 voluntary groups joined us and were ready to respond to the call for action to come to the aid of the most vulnerable, as soon as the Prime Minister called for a national lockdown.

This ushered in the BD CAN, or Citizens’ Alliance Network. Through local hubs in the borough, over 9,000 volunteers were brought together to provide food parcels, prescription collections and regular phone calls to over 2,000 residents. In total an offer of help was extended to 30,000 people.

The close co-operation with community partners is a coronavirus legacy we will not allow to fade away, as we hope the virus does. Crucially this has resulted in closer working between the borough’s foodbanks forming our first Food Network, which has been coordinating support in the latest national lockdown. While it is in its infancy this is an incredible and valuable leap forward which we will strengthen as we move forwards.

We will be embarking on a Community Hubs programme with the voluntary and social sector, and statutory partners, which will eventually see a Community Hub in each of the borough’s 17 wards. While these will be of varying size, they will each have a core offer to support people with debt and welfare advice, employment and skills support, and care referrals topped up with specific services tailored to local need. Using data insight there will be targeted programmes to address food poverty and provide healthy lifestyle support in those wards where this is a more significant issue.

Fundamentally we need central government to step up and provide the funding councils need, alongside a plan to address poverty pay, and reversing the hollowing out of the welfare safety net. That said, the borough-wide offer in Barking and Dagenham – from the council and community partners, supplemented by an additional targeted offer through Community Hubs – will mean we can be confident we will better support those who need food, as well as support in addressing the underlying issues that created their need.