The London-based artist and activist, Virginia Nimarkoh speaks of her brainchild, Lambeth Larder, her fight against food poverty and her love for Brixton.
by Hannah L. Broughton
Along with making photographic and curatorial projects, Virginia Nimarkoh taught fine art and photography for almost a decade. She also spent seven years managing environmental regeneration initiatives before founding Lambeth Larder, a food insecurity social enterprise in Brixton that has been connecting locals and organisations since 2017.
Its dedicated efforts led to Virginia’s much-deserved award win in 2021 as part of BBC London’s Make a Difference Heroes initiative and remains her main cause today. She also continued her activism on-screen by showing the past and future of Brixton’s activism through the film We The People along with director, Fan Sissoko.
What was the driving force behind your activism?
With art and activism, you get people who are free thinkers not afraid of going against the grain and have energy and vision. They are idealists. They are not afraid to fail.
As an artist, I felt a bit removed because we [artists] make work about an issue but it’s hard to make a tangible change, but that’s not to say the work doesn’t make a change. After also teaching for many years and living that academic kind of life, I wanted to make more tangible changes in society.
I’ve always had an interest in food and I’ve also had an interest in social action. I started making work about allotments and open spaces because that was the first thing that interested me. From there, I went on to managing an environmental regeneration charity and then, I became involved with lots of community groups who were running food projects or growing food.
How did Lambeth Larder come about?
Lambeth Larder came out of an action research project in 2015 on food, poverty and Lambeth. One part of the project involved mapping, coordinating and finding what the Lambeth community was doing in response to food poverty. The other part of the project included running a grant scheme for community groups who applied for funding during the school holidays so they could run activities with food.
We received funding from Lambeth Council, The Innocent Foundation and the Mayor’s Fund for London and this pilot project funded several groups to deliver activities and food for children during the school holidays. Now, it has become a model run by many boroughs and organisations.
For a lot of children eligible for free school meals, that’s their only meal for the day, and if they’re not in school, they don’t eat. So these projects are really important. It’s also important that they don’t feel ostracised or feel like they’re going to a poor kid’s project. Through such a model, they’re going to the adventure playground where there’s food as well.
Once that project came to an end, I wanted to keep it going in some way. So as part of my exit strategy and redundancy package. I negotiated to get the intellectual property for Lambeth Larder. Our paper directory started small with maybe a thousand copies, then five thousand copies, and now we’re doing around 15,000 copies.
How does Lambeth Larder connect locals and organisations?
Locals and groups contact us. For example, if somebody contacts us and says they need some money and a group like Lambeth Mutual Aid could give a small grant of 50 quid, we would signpost them to Lambeth Mutual Aid.
Sometimes, groups like Lambeth Mutual Aid, might say “Our solidarity fund is open – can you publicise it for us?” or “We’ve got this person who needs food, can you suggest that they go somewhere?”
We try to create a network in response to financial hardship.
What are your thoughts on people not knowing that help is available?
That has always been the issue. That’s why Lambeth Larder aims to bring information together and make it as easy as possible for people to find what they need. We also send copies of our work to these organisations so they can share them with their beneficiaries.
What are the challenges faced by charities like Lambeth Larder?
I think that the charity sector is definitely under strain because receiving more funding to keep going gets harder because there are more people and less money. Some of the groups that provide surplus food like FareShare, The Felix Project and City Harvest are getting bigger but the quantity of food they’re getting from the supermarkets to pass on to the food banks is low.
There’s a drip-down effect, and how can these groups provide food for their beneficiaries? So they have to buy food in rather than getting low-cost surplus food. This stresses the sector as well.
Are there any key actions that the government could take/is taking to alleviate food poverty?
I suppose raising the living wage would be helpful so the people have more cash in their pockets. I know that in the next round of emergency funding, the government is giving people cash payments rather than in-kind payments. So that’s going to make a difference.
How has food poverty changed since the pandemic?
I don’t think the issue of food poverty, or food insecurity, has changed fundamentally because people still don’t have enough money to eat or buy clothes and essentials. Since I started doing this work, I’ve noticed there’s always some kind of external crisis that is driving food poverty.
Initially, it was Universal Credit because people who weren’t online couldn’t access their benefits. Soon, there was Brexit and everyone was worried that the cost of food was going up. Then came the pandemic, and people weren’t able to access food for another set of reasons. Now we’ve got the cost of living crisis. So it’s been one crisis after another and food poverty is still there.
Obviously, over the years, it has become worse because the amount of organisations that are offering free food has grown but so has the demand for free food. People just don’t have enough money to live and the conditions under which they’re living are more constrained. So, it changes shape in a way but it is an ongoing crisis.
How does your film We The People tie in with your activism?
So I’ve got my artist hat on now! I’m friends with Fan Sissoko who I met 12 years ago when she was a founder of the Brixton People’s Kitchen. We’ve done various projects together since and she even did the original design for the Lambeth Larder logo. We got to thinking about Lambeth being in a bed of social action and wanted to create a dialogue between older and younger activists.
We worked with The Advocacy Academy which is the UK’s first youth activism campus. They are based on Railton Road, a road that has this whole history of activism in the centre of Brixton. It was fun and we realised a lot of the things that young people are facing now had already been faced by older activists.
We were also thinking about Brixton in the context of gentrification. In my childhood, there was so much empty space in London and you could just go wandering on bits of wasteland or blackberry picking with your mates. So, squatting was a big part of activism in the 70s and 80s but it’s not an option anymore because now all the space has to be monetised and affordability is impossible. How can younger activists have the space? Doing things remotely doesn’t give the same sense of solidity and space for ideas to blossom.
So we created this dialogue [through the film] where points of connection and difference in the experiences of younger and older activists could be explored.
What do you love about Brixton?
Oh, well, my heart is in Brixton, very much.
Anyone who comes here feels at home. I feel like I’m part of the community and that’s powerful because there are lots of places you don’t.
With places like 3Space [where Lambeth Larder has been based for three years], we pay peppercorn rent and it makes it possible for all sorts of groups to exist. It’s an atmosphere of cross-pollination and a really good place to be working.
Brixton is under a lot of tension, but it’s got a really big heart. Gentrification in Brixton started at least 50 years ago if not more and there seems to be some kind of vision for what the developers want Brixton to be – with flats and the night time economy.
It’s becoming more of a tourist destination and even though people always came to Brixton for entertainment, whether it was going to Brixton Academy or the Ritzy, I think it’s heightened now.
I think the sad thing is that there’s a building opposite Brixton Village called Carlton Mansions, and it was a housing co-op for years and many of the people that lived there were artists, creatives, teachers, and musicians. They were evicted and now it’s offices are being rented out to creatives, but they’re creatives who have money.
When 3Space is redeveloped, we won’t be able to afford to stay. I’m hoping that when we have to leave, we can regroup and go somewhere else as a collective so that the model can continue and is still affordable.
I’m hopeful that Brixton will always be Brixton and Lambeth will always be Lambeth but they’re starting to become a model of how to monetise space. I’m [still] hopeful because I have to be.
Featured image by Hannah Broughton