By Jo Cooksey
Gill Watson, of Nelson in Lancashire, has lived an extraordinary life and even though she has left the bright lights of London behind her, she continues to be a force to be reckoned when it comes to food poverty.
She started her working life in publishing before moving on to the famous London restaurant, L'Escargot to train their floor staff and then on to open her own restaurant in Torquay. A chance meeting then gave her another avenue to explore and she became a private chef to the very rich and the very famous. During this period she fed a titled lady, a billionaire financier, a James Bond leading man, an arms dealer and a supermodel. The money these people spent on food never failed to amaze her. For example, one client had rocket flown in from Italy at £50 a bag and was happy to pay nearly £30 for wild garlic and wild sorrel and £100 for three little pieces of cheese for afternoon tea. This was fifteen years ago.
Nine years ago she moved her young family back to her home town but never one for a quiet life Gill soon found herself caught up in food poverty action. She had read a report in the local paper that said kids in the area had nothing in their lunchboxes but weren't entitled to free meals and so were starving. Yet she knew that millions of tonnes of food were being wasted every year in this country. She immediately persuaded her husband that they should both give up drinking during the week and started donating the money they saved to the local foodbank, whilst also volunteering there to pack the food parcels.
However, the report was still niggling away at her, so she sent a letter to all the local Pendle primary schools, asking if they were noticing that their pupils were coming to school hungry. The response was overwhelming. School Governor's said they were buying food for the kids. Teachers were admitting to buying sandwiches for the hungry children. One school admitted that the problem was so big they couldn’t cope with it.
The primary school in Barrowford invited her in to discuss the problem. Despite being in a fairly affluent area many of the children came from Nelson, a very under privileged area. This was because the school had a brilliant reputation for working with children with behavioural problems and autism. The school had asked local shopkeepers to help by donating food but they had said no because they were having their own struggle for survival against the large supermarkets. Gill agreed that every Monday she would take in bread, milk, jam and biscuits plus tea and coffee for the parents who volunteered to help. She persuaded the local church to do a weekly cereal collection and donate that, as well as their Harvest Festival proceeds. With this extra food they were able to feed the starving children twice a day at 9.30am and 3.00pm But then the school holidays loomed and Gill thought, "What do we do now?"
After volunteering with a Manchester poverty charity she came across another charity, Fare Share, who collected and re-distributed waste food to over 100 other charities and community groups. She discovered that they had a problem. Their warehouse closed on Friday afternoons for the weekend and so they were forced to dump anything that was left over. Gill agreed to take this excess from them and so her fruit and veg round was born. She spoke to Lancashire County Council and they donated £500 for petrol and a banner to go on the front of her car. With only her teenage daughter, a car full of produce and a list of addresses of the parents she helped at the school she set off on her first round. As it was teatime she also took homemade hot snacks like onion bhajis and falafel wraps, to give out to the children, so that they had a hot meal there and then. It soon became obvious that there were desperate families everywhere. Gill told me, "Whole communities were starving. Literally starving. They had nothing in their cupboards and nothing in their fridges and it was the start of the summer holidays." She also discovered that many did not want to use foodbanks because they didn’t want to end up on a list somewhere. Fearing that because they had had to use a foodbank that they then ran the risk of having their kids taken away. Gill offered them an anonymous alternative and word soon spread.
Gill said, "I'm taking food parcels to people who work in supermarkets, who have food going past them all day but they can't afford to buy any. That can't be right can it?" It seems that the media and politicians are portraying people who use foodbanks as work shy benefit cheats, who are fagging it and boozing it all day but speak to Gill the desperate ones are decent hard working people who can’t afford to eat or who are suffering long term health problems that leave them unable to work. They are people who have been made redundant or have had their benefits stopped or 'sanctioned' as it's called, through no fault of their own. The very people the State is supposed to help.
The Friday round soon wasn't enough so Gill started to go out Saturdays as well. Every time she went out she got more and more tip offs about people who were struggling and the round got bigger.
On one particular occasion she was told about a man who had been made redundant and had five children and they were all starving. The source told her the name of the street they lived on but couldn't tell her what number. Undeterred Gill set off and discovered that it was a very long street. Fortunately, she spotted the local postman and asked him if he knew of any families who were struggling. Basically he said that the whole street was going under and virtually everyone was living in poverty, so Gill started knocking on doors. At first some of the residents thought she was mad and were suspicious but she told them that the food was free and to come have a look and bring a bag. The people were desperate so they came. She even managed to find the dad of five that had initially brought her to the street and filled a bag for each of his children.
Gill then heard that Warburton's, the family bakers, supplied school breakfast clubs in Burnley during term time but during the school holidays there was no one to take the bread, so again Gill stepped in and took it out on to the streets. The Wednesday bread and sweet treats round was added on to the existing fruit and veg rounds.
During her trips Gill found that her 'customers' also had many other problem besides that of food poverty. They were victims of terrible landlords who rented them damp, rat infested houses. One woman with two small children had no boiler as it had broken six weeks before. Since Christmas they had had no heating or hot water. Her front door was so badly warped that it wouldn't close properly and she had to stack furniture behind it to stop it blowing open. However, every time it rained the downstairs of the house flooded. Gill was disgusted and posted photos on her Pendle Helping Hands Facebook page and the problem is now being addressed.
The more she saw, the more she realised the problems were far bigger than she had imagined. She has also started getting messages through Facebook begging for help. She has been involved with helping people stand up to their landlords and to date, four families have got their council out to inspect their rented properties and the difficulties are being sorted. She is also helping people to get Council Tax refunds by getting their properties re-banding.
In the meantime, the Head at Barrowford Primary School suggested setting up a small charity at the school to help Gill in her efforts and enable them to apply for grants. Pendle Helping Hands came in to being and this then led to Gill coming up with the idea of giving cookery lessons to teach people to cook really cheaply. A local councillor heard and gave them a grant of £2,500 to buy everything for the cooking school and she is hoping to start the first full course this coming term.
Always one to keep her ear to the ground, Gill heard that Lidl supermarkets were giving their end of day produce to foodbanks, so she went to her local branch in Burnley and they agreed to work with her. Gill and her other volunteers now collect from them 7 evenings a week. A local benefactor, donated a hut that could be stocked with the food as a free resource to enable people to collect food parcels themselves and now the hut is re-stocked daily during term time. Local people also leave all sorts of donations in the hut, such as baby clothes. Anyone calling at the hut is also encouraged to take a bag of produce for neighbours they know who are also struggling.
It is estimated that nearly 6 million people in the UK are currently living in 'deep poverty'. That means they cannot afford any essentials including being able to feed themselves or their families. Gill's role in all this is totally unfunded and she pays her expenses out of her own pocket. I asked Gill what her plans were and she told me, "I've never had a plan. I've just been blown from one thing to another. I truly believe that someone up there has a plan for us all."
I also asked her what she wanted for the future. She said, "I'd like to think it, (foodbanks etc.) wouldn't be needed in the future but that's not going to happen any time soon, is it? I hope some good will come out of this with regard to the supermarkets and they stop wasting so much food. There shouldn’t be waste."
Gill Watson, is an exceptional woman who is passionate about what she does and cares deeply for the community she helps. She is certainly not one to take life lying down and will fight against injustice wherever she sees it. Every community should have a Gill on their side and I’m sure we will be hearing much more about her in the future.