a leeds revolution

Holbeck Wellbeing Is In The Right Hands: Why a theatre company is running a foodbank

October 16, 2020

Holbeck Wellbeing Is In The Right Hands: Why a theatre company is running a foodbank

The bright yellow double decker bus of Slung Low’s Cultural Community College has become a landmark in the Holbeck area. It sits proudly in the front car park as a symbol of the organisation’s commitment to community, social responsibility and giving a luminous sheen to daft, harmless amusement. In the bus’s front window is a sign declaring that “culture is dangerous in the right hands”. It is a tagline that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of what Slung Low do and the reaction their approach hopes to elicit.

And that’s easy to understand from the point of view of a theatre company producing theatre. But when that theatre company evolves to become the natural candidate to run a foodbank in the middle of a global pandemic, you could be excused for wondering why, and equally, asking what constitutes ‘culture’ anyway?   

(The Cultural Community College bus at Slung Low)

“People say ‘why is a theatre company doing this?’” Alan Lane, artistic director of Slung Low, declares with a look that confirms with cast iron certainty that he’s been asked this a thousand times “we’ve been really clear, we believe that everyone who lives in Holbeck and Beeston should have access to the most exciting cultural life they possibly can. And in this city with all the riches it has, that life should really be very, very good. And we know that that’s not the case. So I’m doing my hardest along with my gang, to put the best cultural life we can into this community, and if that means giving them food so they can buy their own crayons or school shoes for their kids, then we’ll do that. If it means giving them food so they don’t have to worry about that and instead can do a painting for our LS11 lamppost gallery – which was unbelievably popular – then I’m not really giving them food am I? I’m giving them the time to express themselves. Well that was my job all along, so when our funders, who have been very good, say ‘why have you been running a foodbank for ten months?’ I’m not……..well I am………….but it’s a means to an end. I’m on a mission. We just did two shows at the weekend, they were great. People can’t come here if they’re starving hungry. You’ve got to fill their bellies first and then they might come along and watch you.”

Alan’s words are a not entirely unexpected appreciation that Slung Low’s self-imposed remit extends to every facet of life in their immediate community, to the extent that whilst art or culture is the eventual goal, they will not only deliver that, but they will also create a pathway for you to get there, and whether you had previously shown any remote interest in theatre or not. An alternative way of looking at it is that this is an out of the ordinary situation, which requires something out of the ordinary to address it. And anyway, didn’t someone once say that art is open to interpretation?

“People in Holbeck and Beeston deserve some quality life,” Alan adds “quality cultural life. That’s our expertise and we’re trying our hardest to provide it in whatever ways we can.”

The foodbank organised and delivered by Slung Low has grown from small acorns with neighbourly intentions at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in those strange and unsettling times of mid-March 2020, to a well-drilled, mostly cohesive and functional system, which everyone thought, must end sometime.

“We were asked to do it at first for three months,” Alan continues “and we very quickly realised that what was needed was a non-means-tested self-referral foodbank, which basically means if you come down here and ask for food, or ring me and ask for food, we will send you food.”

(Photo credit: Slung Low - Artistic Director Alan Lane)

Organising and physically sorting the foodbank has taken countless hours of countless days – and weekends – and overtaken the various rooms of Slung Low’s base at The Holbeck. From the bar area to the snooker room, much of the operation now takes place in a refrigerated container kindly donated recently by local company Clipper Logistics with help from Michael Kinsey of the Leeds United Foundation.  

“The foodbank will cost about seven grand cash per month,” Alan confirms “and the council paid some of that, about three months of that, the rest has been donations from people which has been amazing, and the shortfall – which is about 40% of the cost – we soak up, because that’s our job. That’s one of the reasons why it can’t go on forever. But the combination of losing money through running the pub, not making money through theatre, and the foodbank means that there does need to be a limit and we planned to go to December, but we now feel we still need to carry on looking after people beyond that. We’ve got a really good relationship with the Real Junk Food Project and we’ll continue to work with them to make sure people do have food, but the idea that we are the one-stop-shop in Holbeck and Beeston for food needs to just change and we need to do things a little differently in order to survive ourselves.”

Whilst this might come across as philanthropy, there are many uncomfortable truths in the argument as to why Slung Low’s work is necessary, not least the fact that they are hardly blessed with copious resources themselves. 

“We originally said we would stop in the middle of December for lots of reasons,” Alan continues “two of us every single day are working on the foodbank full-time. We’ve got a van, we’ve got money. So if you ring and you say ‘I need my gas and electric paying’ we’ll give you twenty quid, and we’ve done that for hundreds of people. We’ve spent tens and tens of thousands of pounds buying fresh milk, buying halal food, buying nappies, putting it in gas and electric meters, and that’s amazing and it’s a real privilege, but I will run out of money eventually.”

“It doesn’t mean we’re stopping though. It just means we need a new plan for how we do it, because there is clearly still a need for this service out there. We deliver two huge boxes with eight plastic bags full of food, to 200 families every week. That requires such a huge logistical effort that we can’t carry that on indefinitely. But we’re still going to be helping people, we still have all the contacts.”

Watching the foodbank in operation and understanding how it works, you quickly see how, even when things run smoothly, it can eat into every minute of every day and not be too accommodating to how work is normally done at Slung Low, albeit ‘normal’ for anyone is a pretty distant memory. But amidst all this, theatre has still happened in LS11. Slung Low put on theatre as soon as they could under lockdown restrictions, as much as a community service as anything else, because on their daily travels they could see lockdown tensions requiring a distraction.

“We put on a lot more kids’ theatre than we would normally,” Alan explains “and the kids turned up. One thing we did was an hour and 10 minutes long and the kids did not move, they literally just sat there and went ‘this is just amazing’. And it was just a silly game show, you know it had a nice band and we’d rehearsed and it had some pyro, but it was still basically daft. One of them said ‘this is like that Ant & Dec thing’.”

Alan laughs at the memory, but entertaining local people is the nice side of the pandemic, and isolation and a restriction of movement has facilitated what Alan calls a more ‘granular’ relationship between the strange theatre company who pitched up at The Holbeck nearly two years ago, and their immediate community.  

“We’ve definitely seen that the people who live immediately in the vicinity are like, finally, and because there’s nothing else on, ‘what are this lot all about?’ And the lamppost gallery (an online and door-to-door leafleting appeal for local residents to express themselves through art during lockdown and entries were posted on lampposts around the area) was the most popular thing we’ve done in years. People were desperate for that to carry on. We’re about to turn one of our old shows into an illustrated kids book, and it’s beautiful, we’ve got a bonfire show where you tell stories around a bonfire, we’ve got a magic show upstairs, we’re planning a big nativity show at Christmas to keep momentum.”

(Photo credit: Slung Low)

The granular rapport Alan speaks of has enabled Slung Low to build relationships on first name terms with local residents who no longer treat them with suspicion, and actually allows more things to be expedited and to get done, because they know the right people. The other side of that coin is that a number of elderly residents in Holbeck could no longer participate and volunteer as prominent residents, due to the indiscriminate nature of the pandemic and their vulnerable, shielding status. However, there was no shortage of other local heroes stepping forward.  

“Lots of other different types of people have come to the fore, so a lot of our volunteer drivers are young people who live in Holbeck, but weren’t involved in anything before, weren’t involved in the Holbeck Gala, weren’t involved in the usual things. Which left a lot of room for people to come in and act as civic leaders, which has been really useful and really exciting.”

The difficult bit is maintaining those resources, because it is easy for people to step up and be civic leaders when they’ve been furloughed or made redundant and they have the time and the inclination. That won’t always be the case, and Slung Low are already seeing many volunteers returning to work and teachers returning to schools. They need a minimum number of volunteers each day and by and large they get them. If a specific call for help goes out on social media, the response is immediate and heart-warming.

“And all of that’s a positive,” Alan comments “but I think the negative is that there are people who don’t believe in foodbanks. And that’s an argument we have to have; the kind of Victorian idea that hunger is a result of laziness. This sort of civic responsibility to provide food to all members of your community isn’t charity; it’s citizenship, it’s mutual aid, and it’s also in everyone’s best interests.”

Hunger can manifest itself in many ways and none of them good; anger, frustration, destruction and crime. Be it individually, within the home or within the community; a well fed person can contribute far more to the intricate web of social wellbeing than a hungry one, as Alan articulates quite succinctly:

“Never get in a fight with a hungry man, because he will beat you.”

The team at Slung Low and the army of volunteers spend a lot of time sifting through food donations – some of which sadly have to be disposed of as they can’t send food out that carries any risk of being unsuitable – and crates are put together between the Snooker Room and the new outside trailer, which contain a mix of staple ingredients contributed by a network of suppliers Slung Low have gradually built-up, such as Costco, Real Junk Food Project, Makro and the Good Egg Fellas.

“We buy fruit and veg and that’s a big cost for us,” Alan explains “or it gets donated, normally by a cash and carry ringing up, and the rule is you have to take everything. So on the one hand it’s lovely you get free food, but we spend a lot of time sorting it and we have a big bin out the back because we throw so much stuff away. We spend a lot of time trying to fix that and a lot of money getting rid of it, but what we’re left with is fresh stuff. There’s a bag of dry stuff, tins and pasta, there’s a bag of fruit and veg, there’s a toiletries bag, there’s a bag of treats, there’s bread and milk, cereals, eggs, cheese. So it is a proper shop, but you don’t have any choice. You do get people ringing up saying ‘have you got any avocado?’”

Alan tells a tale about an unsolicited call offering 1000 avocados and “something daft like 700 litres of sour cream.” They had obviously had to cancel a Mexican Night, but despite the goodwill there is sometimes an element of ‘what do we do with this?’ Likewise, a delivery of 30 ducks confused a local populace who didn’t know how to cook one. Other deliveries can be random, hard work, but rewarding.

(Photo credit: Slung Low - delivery time at the Slung Low foodbank)

Such an unforeseen drain on resources can be challenging and coupled with the extreme highs and lows of being at the sharp end of a downtrodden community, can test the spirit of anyone. But it has hardened the resolve of Alan and his team and leaves them even more determined to see this through past their original end date in December. But the need for people on the ground after all the planning the Slung Low team do is plain to see; for the good of the people of Holbeck, the foodbank and for Slung Low itself.

“We’ve been really lucky,” Alan explains “for six months we’ve had hundreds of amazing volunteers and they’ve come from our CEG connections, our arts connections, from Holbeck, each part of the community that touches this place has sent their heroes who go ‘yeah I’ll go drive for a bit, I’ll come down today’. And we do 200 deliveries a week and realistically that’s the part of the operation that has to be done by volunteers, because it would take up all of the time and there’d be nothing left. Most days we can go back to work at 2pm, but between 2pm and 7pm we then have to get all our actual work done. That’s what pays for everything and obviously we run the pub one day a week now, we have the Cultural Community College, there’s a show every two weeks on average now. The building is still being used, although the rules have changed again, we had line dancing in yesterday, Forging Futures are bringing a group of lads down, there’s still things happening. But all that needs managing and doing, so we kind of need to be done with the foodbank by 2pm.”

Hence volunteers are still needed, and they can get in touch here or through Slung Low’s social media. “They come down for about 11am and they normally drive until 1pm, never more than 2.30. We pay petrol and they basically deliver the food to wherever it needs to go. It’s nearly all in LS11 and occasionally we’ll get a call from somewhere else and we’ll go, because why wouldn’t you?”

With their stated December end date not too far away, the unspoken reality was that food and utilities poverty in Holbeck would still exist beyond that, and whilst Slung Low may not have solved anything with their work in 2020, they have highlighted the problem and thrown down the gauntlet for more influential and accountable bodies to do more. Even though they plan to carry on regardless.

Living through lockdown for many people has been difficult but Slung Low’s work has at least enabled them to have a choice, to have an extra few pounds in their pocket to do something nice for their families and to prepare themselves for when that daily support isn’t there. Because that day will come, but before then, Slung Low have brought into focus, along with the many other successful and hard-working foodbanks across the city, that there is a food surplus. There is an imbalance in supply and demand, and in the welfare system, that is letting some communities down. And these aren’t people who have specialist needs. 

The endless appreciation that comes Slung Low’s way from residents and supporting organisations is well-received and certainly energising. But Alan and his team would much rather their work and this period of time marked a line in the sand and signalled a change in how basic needs are met in such a progressive city as Leeds, and prevented an organisation like Slung Low having to define what ‘culture’ means and where their role in the community begins and ends. For now, and whilst this indecision remains, we need to be thankful that the delivery of that role is at least in the right hands.   

A solution of some sort might come in balancing the failure in the food system with failings in the economic system. Ultimately Slung Low are delivering to “perfectly normal folk just trying to get their shit together” as Alan calls it, and the foodbank has merely highlighted the need to channel food in the right direction.

“What this is doing is just giving people a tiny bit of breathing space,” Alan concludes. And in helping them save £40 a week on food Slung Low have also given people in Holbeck a choice, and they’ve proven that, in the right hands, actually there’s enough food to go round for everybody.