Over the last 6 weeks we have been sharing the Who Feeds Us? series. The series is a chorus of voices from people across the British Isles – people on the land and the seas; on allotments and city roofs; the stories of farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, fishers and others.
As the first COVID-19 lockdown hit the UK in early 2020, our nation suddenly looked very different. Supermarket shelves were empty and, for the first time in most people’s lives, we started to question how we were going to feed ourselves and our families. Almost overnight, localised food systems went from being niche fantasies to a vital source of sustenance for many people around the country.
One thing this pandemic has made clear is that food doesn’t come from supermarket shelves. It never did. Food comes from the soil, the sea – and the hands of people.
In the series, we hear from those people – people who stepped up back in March to feed the nation, who are still feeding us today – and who we’re all relying on to feed us in the future. This is a celebration of these key workers, a thank you and a call to action – so we don’t forget just how ‘key’ they are.
One of those key workers is Abigail Holsborough, lead miller at Brixton Windmill. Abigail’s story – and that of Brixton Windmill – encapsulates for me a lot of the key themes of ‘Who Feeds Us?’: the call for dignity in our food system, the power of community and localised production models, and the need for wholesome food that nourishes the soul as well as the body.
During the Covid lock-down, many of us turned to baking—as a way to pass the time, to reconnect with our heritage, to feel connected with a growing movement of people around the world who were discovering ‘the power of sour’ and sharing their masterpieces on social media. Flour flew off supermarket shelves, and small-scale millers suddenly found themselves inundated with orders from bakers both commercial and amateur all over the country. Some of these millers were volunteers at London’s last working windmill, a heritage building in Brixton, built in 1816.
But as some were enjoying baking whilst on furlough or working from home, a growing number of people were struggling. Demand for the services of food banks rose dramatically; in April, foodbank usage was 89-175% higher than during the same month in 2019. So, the volunteers at Brixton Windmill swung into action and worked hard to make their fresh, organic, stone-ground flour available to those in their local community who were facing hardship.
Abigail Holsborough is the lead miller at Brixton Windmill, and is one of the people featured in ‘Who Feeds Us?’, the new series from Farmerama Radio. “We have always had a relationship with the estate,” they said. “We had wanted to donate and wanted to help out in some way, but we’ve got to cover costs at the mill.”
They could never have foreseen the way people would come together during the lock-down to make sure everyone was fed.
“One of our trustees pushed for us to start a flour fund,” Abigail said, “and the response to that was amazing. Our regular supporters, but [also] people who had never visited the mill before…everyone was donating. So we raised a lot of money through that.”
Something that has come to the fore during the Covid-19 crisis has been a newfound (or, rather, remembered) solidarity amongst food citizens. A YouGov poll conducted towards the beginning of lock-down found that 40% of people felt a stronger sense of community during the lock-down, and that 1 in 10 had shared food or shopping with a neighbour for the first time ever. There have been echoes of this community resilience in communities around the country: Rosy Benson, a baker also featured in ‘Who Feeds Us?’, started Bread and Roses, a bakery providing free sourdough bread to women being supported by Bristol-based charity One25. Adira, a Sheffield-based, survivor-led mental health and wellbeing service for black people, started a Food Pharmacy, feeding people in a way that sought to avoid the stigma and shame associated with food banks. And, in Brixton, demonstrations of solidarity from supporters of the flour fund, and from Organic Arable, the Herefordshire farming collective where the Windmill sources its grain, enabled Abigail and their team to donate flour to the local community for free.
“They [Organic Arable] reached out to us. They were like ‘we’ve seen what you guys are doing and we think it’s amazing, we want to donate some grain to you’,” Abigail said. “A tonne of grain, which is mad.”
This sense of solidarity is, in part, evidence of the renewed connection many people have felt with where their food comes from over the course of the crisis. As of April, 3 million people had tried a veg box scheme or ordered food from a local farm for the very first time during the crisis. This is a trend the organisation Farms to Feed Us, founded at the beginning of lock-down, is working hard to promote, using its simple database to connect producers with eaters in more direct relationships.
In the case of the Brixton Windmill, this reconnection could be seen in the large number of new volunteers signing up to help out. And it seems that this new-found interest in local food is continuing even after the peak of the crisis has faded. “As things start to pick back up… you kind of assume in a sad way that people will stop volunteering or they’ll volunteer less,” Abigail said, “but everyone’s been really committed, and that’s made a big difference to us… We were worried we wouldn’t have enough manpower, but yeah, people have really stepped up and it’s been really great to see.”
The connection between people and their food, and peoples’ ability to control what they eat and feed to their families is crucial to the concept of food sovereignty. Food sovereignty, as expressed in the 2007 Nyeleni Declaration, is “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”
As Abigail put it, “[w]hatever the future looks like, especially in an urban context, especially in a context where people are feeling squeezed financially, and we have the political situation that we have, it is so important for people to be growing more food, to feel more in control of the stuff that they’re putting in their bodies.” In striving towards this goal, Abigail and the team at the Brixton Windmill work hard to engage with people who live nearby, although this is sometimes challenging.
“A lot of the local residents are volunteers, some of the residents are trustees. Our chair has lived in the estate just behind the mill…for like 40 years,” Abigail said. On the other hand, though, like many heritage organisations and museums, the mill’s events tend to attract people who are mostly white and middle-class, which “in an area like Brixton that is historically black… is quite strange,” they said.
Abigail also wants to see more Brixton flour used for baking traditional Caribbean food—whether that be local residents baking Trinidadian doubles and Jamaican hardo bread, or neighbourhood takeaways and bakeries using the flour in their shops.
“I think that would be a really great way for us to connect with specifically Caribbean families in the area and to be more visible as well,” they said. “Because… the mill itself is actually quite tucked away—even from the main road you can’t see it. So if we had our flour in those kinds of shops, just showing people that we exist and we want people to engage…that would help.”
As the crisis passes—or merely morphs into a new configuration—Abigail feels hopeful. The ongoing enthusiasm and commitment of the mill’s new volunteers, as well as the new connections the mill itself has made with other organisations working in community food, have given them a sense of optimism that perhaps the solidarity and connections developed during the crisis can be built upon and nourished in whatever comes next.
“Meeting more people, virtually or in person, who are running things in communities and changing things, and wanting to work with more people—it can only ever get better, and it’s going to be great.”
Who Feeds Us? is a chorus from the people who have fed us throughout the Covid crisis: people from all over the UK, of many different ages and beliefs, from different backgrounds, regions and classes; farmers, growers, community leaders, healers, chefs, beekeepers, and fishers. Who Feeds Us? is an important series about the relevance of food sovereignty to everyone in society. This means putting our food back in the hands of the people, and prioritising nature and nourishment. Tune into Who Feeds Us? by Farmerama Radio via all major podcast platforms or visit https://farmerama.co/listen/
Photograph: Brixton Windmill