“Do you know some kind person came into the Phoenix Centre today, bringing whole trays of homemade sandwiches – we’re really very lucky,” Unite Community member and anti-hunger campaigner Brian Green told me last week when I spoke to him about what he and the team of Unite Norwich volunteers were up to.
If his name sounds familiar that’s because Brian and the team have been relentless in their struggle to feed hungry families – which we have reported on for some years now.
Working out of the Phoenix Centre, the team have been feeding whoever turns up – first during the school holidays, then over the Christmas season. Unite Community and local community volunteers have pulled together to make the Phoenix the helping and welcoming place for families it has become.
“The local community, mainly four outstanding Phoenix volunteers, has now taken the lead on this project,” Brian explains. “That was our intention – it should come from everyone, not just Unite Community. It’s about solidarity – not charity,” he adds.
This year with the challenges of the first and now the second Covid lockdown the team and their workload has grown exponentially. “Everyone wants to help,” says Brian, “support for us has ballooned since the pandemic.”
The work of Unite Community members and local volunteers is so highly thought of that this band of food champions are now recognised by local foodbanks who supply some food – as well as social services – who now help fund the Phoenix team for enough ingredients to make up five days’ worth of packed lunches and one weekly hamper. Even the area’s well respected local paper, the Eastern Daily Press is fully behind the scheme – and a supporting letter was sent from the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, no less!
Over the last two weeks of the summer holiday when parents had used up their school lunch vouchers, they turned to us in larger numbers. “It was manic,” says Brian. “The uptake for the service was up 50 per cent on last summer. As ever we try to supply balanced meals with a hamper of fresh fruit and veg.”
Brian Green in the Phoenix Centre’s kitchen
Joining the fight a local group of grass roots activists has formed, Norfolk Against Holiday Hunger (NAHH) – with its twin aims ‘to extend and expand free school meals into every holiday and to every child that needs it.
One of Brian’s favourite maxims is “Providing assistance while organising resistance,” and the campaign is gathering a strong following, including among some local head teachers. This is important as often children are suffering in silence – not knowing that help is at hand. Brian hopes that, as teachers are best placed to spread the word, these children and their families will hear about the scheme and know they’ll get a warm welcome at the Phoenix Centre.
Last day of Autumn half term holiday: “We were run off our feet – the queue lasted for well over an hour. We provided about 240 packed lunches,” says Brian .
“We’ve been working against holiday hunger for three and a half years now as a trade union with Unite Community and industrial members. I believe trade unions should be doing more of this work – it shouldn’t just be left up to churches and charities. We should be encouraging more members to get involved in schemes like this one,” he believes.
The team’s hampers have proved to be especially popular with families at the Phoenix. Variety is the spice of life as they say – and in this case – the spice of hampers. “We like to ring the changes,” Brian explains. “We’ve done a ‘fry up’ box with all the ingredients you would need, a ‘fish and chips’ box, a ‘chicken dinner’ box – they’ve all gone down well.”
And the work never stops. “We’ve been supporting people since the beginning of the outbreak. Families, as I’ve said, but also those who have lost their job, been made redundant, or who are just finding life tough right now. Demand has gone up five-fold. Everyone is welcome. They can just turn up – we never ask questions.”
With Christmas getting ever closer Brian and the team have everything in hand for the big day. “This year from two weeks before Christmas Day we’ll be taking orders from families for hampers – everything they need for a Christmas Day chicken or turkey lunch. We’re expecting to give out 150 to 200 hampers,” says Brian.
The chickens come from Morrison’s who has given the team a generous 40 per cent discount. It feels like the whole community is pulling together. Brian reports that an extra £1,500 pounds was raised in the last couple of weeks with welcome donations including those from the city council and the Times Community Fund.
But a Christmas Day hamper is just for, well, Christmas. And unlike most charities the Phoenix team will be serving hot and cold lunch choices throughout the festive period – with the option of a hamper for New Year too.
Hunger doesn’t stop for Christmas
“I believe it’s vital to continue over the Christmas period,” says Brian. “Hunger doesn’t stop for Christmas and neither do we.”
Which is all great news for families in Norwich – and elsewhere in Norfolk as Unite Community Coordinator for the region, Vic Paulino, reports.
“I absolutely support and want to officially thank all the Norfolk Unite Community volunteers who give their free time to the Phoenix holiday hunger project, a project that is now self-funding which is a credit to them,” Vic says.
“Our volunteers at the Phoenix project fit in totally with Unite the Union’s Christmas Appeal launched by Steve Turner last week, with this in mind.
“The Norfolk Unite Community branch will be launching the Yarmouth holiday hunger Christmas project next week – it would be lovely if the industrial branches thinking of donating to the Unite Christmas Appeal would contact me (details below) and I will put them in contact with the Norfolk Unite Community branch secretary, Niahl Hubbard.”
As Vic points out, Unite has indeed now launched a Christmas Appeal for members to get involved with or donate to.
“Even before the pandemic, food bank usage under the Tories’ merciless attacks on the social safety net had rocketed,” says Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner.
“For years, Unite Community activists across the UK have been witness to desperate families being punished by a welfare system that left them unable to feed their children or pay for even the most basic of necessities.
“The government, almost exclusively made up of politicians lucky enough to have never gone through the indignities of claiming benefits, have been content to ignore the spiralling child poverty and profound social deprivation their policies have unleashed.
Tory government shames our country
“It shames our country that in 21st century Britain, charities and food banks are having to step in because our government has washed its hands of responsibility for those most in need of help.
“The coronavirus has thrown countless workers onto the mercies of Universal Credit and other benefits and thousands more will follow before the crisis is over. In its current form, the welfare system is a trap that needlessly perpetuates poverty and hopelessness,” he added.
Steve concluded, “As well as continuing to pressure the government to fix the country’s broken social security system, this winter Unite is also running a Christmas appeal to help struggling families by raising funds and donations for local food banks and other grassroots charities.”
Unite raising funds to fight hunger and to maintain initiatives like the Phoenix is crucial. As Brian tells us, “Nothing good lasts forever. The extra Covid government funding we’ve been receiving won’t exist after March. Everyone – families, union members, unemployed – we all have to join together in the fight against hunger.”
UNITElive wishes Brian and the Phoenix team every success this Christmas – as we do all our fantastic Unite members – and thank you for supporting the Unite Christmas Appeal.
WANT TO HELP OUT WITH UNITE’S CHRISTMAS APPEAL?
Our union’s branches and amazing members can make a real difference to so many this winter. Unite Community branches can help you identify your local food bank – contact email@example.com
Visit our campaign website for contacts and downloads
LIVE IN NORFOLK?
Can you help Unite Community in Norwich or Yarmouth? If so please contact Vic Paulino, Unite Community Coordinator, London and Eastern Region at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite