This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 30/07/2018.
How a city-wide women’s community movement began in Croydon
A nomadic life is not particularly conducive to feeling rooted, and my fair share of hopscotching across geographies left me longing to root myself in the community of Croydon when I came to live here.
I know from past experience that a sure-fire way of embedding oneself within one’s neighbourhood is to volunteer in local groups. And another is to share food with friends, neighbours, strangers. And so I did both, jumping in to volunteer at the local South Norwood-based community kitchen, where surplus supermarket food was cooked and served every Saturday.
It struck me then that community kitchens and the surplus-food movement was a much bigger endeavour than was publicly visible. Well-known organisations such as Planzheroes, London Food Bank, Street Kitchens, Trussel Trust, Amurt were touted on social and national media. But there were small, less-known groups, working quietly with little fanfare. Interestingly, one group that I came upon was founded right here, in Croydon.
Founded in Croydon, the Indian Women in London group has grown into a city-wide movement
I chanced upon this group when I was searching for community-led initiatives and discovered a group of Indian women planning, preparing and executing large-scale, free food delivery drives to the homeless and the economically fragile all over London. Spearheaded by two women, one the Croydon-based co-founder of the 10,000 strong Indian Women In London, this initiative has grown exponentially into a London wide movement, with the apt title of ‘IWIL Living and Giving’.
How did this movement develop? A seed of an idea to do good and to share one’s own surplus emerged from a conversation between a few women based in Croydon and outside the borough. Driven by a compelling desire to give back something to society and to help people who had less, they stumbled upon Arch 76, a ladies’ hostel in Whitechapel, which was looking for food donations. Using Olio, the app that matched food givers to recipients, this venue became the first organised food drive.
A dynamic team of seven women transported adequate supplies to cook and feed twenty women and children at the hostel. And what these generous folks remember most of all from the day was the fun they had playing with the children and talking to the women at the shelter! It was this initial success that was pivotal in driving the group to explore and extend volunteering, feeding and donating to other venues in London.
The joy they shared was immeasurable
A core group of women from the group launched extensive search to source places where free food, sanitary and bedding items were needed daily. A delighted Hopetown Women’s Shelter, one of the preliminary organisations, took up the offer and the very first Facebook Event page was created. A team of women, armed with commitment and food, created a feast for those in the shelter, bonding and dancing together after the shared meal. The joy they shared was immeasurable.
With the success of this event, IWIL gradually began to streamline its processes by choosing what worked, eliminating problem situations such as receiving monetary donations (as the group was not a registered charity) and in using out-of-date supermarket ingredients (which had health and safety implications). A Facebook page, IWIL – Living and Giving was created, to separate the networking activities of the parent group and to moderate logistics and to coordinate food and non-monetary donations. Underpinning all activities was a strict transparency regime and good housekeeping, with diligent and meticulous record-keeping by the core team of women.
The choice of food donations and location to roll them out is not random. There is on-point research and planning behind the scenes, with ten coordinator volunteers armed with a project management plan, a logistical grid which includes food allergen notices, transport, packaging, batch cooking, portioning (yes, this is vital), distribution (recyclable containers) and costing for the food. Security is vital as it is a women-led endeavour. Decision making is centralised and there is full visibility of the shared spreadsheets and volunteer database. This is no simple execution, but a complex and detailed plan involving cohesive team work.
This generous community of women is close to my heart
Increased communication with the food banks, shelters and community kitchens has led to the creation of a large pool of women volunteers, including doctors, lawyers, programmers, engineers, stay-at-home mothers and carers. Using Twitter and Facebook, the founders discovered a need for other non-food items such as sanitary towels, diapers and maternity pads, which led to a sanitary item donation drive at food banks across Lewisham, Brixton, Norwood and to the refugee and asylum seekers organisation, Bloody Good Periods.
From cooking and donating food to over 300 people at any time, donations have flooded in and include baby food, nappies, blankets, clothes, menstrual products, towels, flannels, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other practical items. Some foodbanks specifically requested adult diapers. Others needed re-usable bags – and effortlessly, a surfeit of these items poured in through the women.
The group has now extended its volunteer activities to meet other needs such as encouraging blood donations, stem cell donations and other projects across London, while continuing to volunteer to cook and serve food and donate sanitary products in locations include Charing Cross with SWAT (Sikh Welfare & Awareness Team), Children of Adam, Brixton Soup Kitchen and Akshay Patra.
As humans, we gravitate towards those with shared values, shared histories and purpose. This remarkable group of women, whose beginnings and journeys were rooted in Croydon, is one we should all celebrate, along with those running services like the South Norwood community kitchen. For me, this is close to my heart. Just as Croydon is now my home, so is this generous community of women.