International Women’s Day: meet the Wandsworth councillor striving to eradicate food poverty

The Deputy Leader of the Wandsworth Labour Party is working to eradicate food poverty in the borough through food-based charities and political activism.

When Kemi Akinola was hit by a car in the final year of her architecture degree, her life path changed forever.

She was in a coma for two and a half months following the accident, and then faced nearly two years of recovery – during which time she had to learn to walk all over again.

It was this experience that inspired Kemi to work towards eradicating food poverty.

As a result of her injuries, Kemi started suffering from blackouts and memory loss. These episodes also meant she would often forget to eat, which left her feeling fatigued.

She didn’t have the strength to leave the house as often as she would have liked, and eventually found herself struggling with loneliness, financial difficulties, and food insecurity.

She explained: “I learned what it was like to feel hungry and lonely, and I knew that a lot of other people were suffering with the same things.

“I wanted to provide a place where people could go and feel welcome – somewhere they wouldn’t feel judged. I wanted to help people be sure that that they would eat something that day.”

Kemi now provides food to roughly 340 households across Wandsworth every week.

LIFE CHANGE: Kemi’s accident meant she could no longer be an architect, but she was inspired to make a difference to the community

In 2013, she launched Be Enriched, a community canteen based in Tooting.

Having re-trained as a youth worker following her accident, Kemi focused on recruiting young offenders and young people at risk to help out with the canteen.

She said: “I had volunteered with young people at risk before, but I found that while they were left to their own devices to do community work, whether that be working in gardens or painting public spaces, some of them would be advising each other on how to commit crimes and not get caught.

“By bringing these people into kitchens, with a wide range of other people – old, young, all from different walks of life – it was a more positive way for them to spend their time, as they learned new skills, such as how to cook.”

In 2015, Kemi took over the management of The People’s Kitchen with both the ambition of ensuring the longevity of the project as well as the hope of growing it to a similar scale to Be Enriched.

The People’s Kitchen delivers nutritious food supplies to people across Wandsworth and aims to reduce food waste.

During the pandemic, the organisation was also commissioned by Lambeth Council to run an emergency food hub.

This was a much-needed service at a time when food bank usage was rising, as Norwood and Brixton Foodbank for instance saw a 137% increase in people needing help in 2020.

Kemi said that she wanted to focus on food insecurity in particular, as not only should access to healthy and tasty food be a human right, but she also believes food is something that brings people together.

She commented: “Food is the most natural thing that people do. Once you’re all sat down at a table, everyone’s on an even playing field.

“When food is prepared with love, there’s something special about that – knowing someone cares enough about you to do that.

“It’s also lovely to hear from people how much it means to them. You know, we have people who say, ‘I haven’t spoken to anyone else this week, it was so nice to come in.’ Or, others have told us, ‘I didn’t know if I was going to eat today, thank you so much.’ It’s humbling.”

COMMUNITY LEADER: Kemi’s work during the pandemic has helped hundred of households gain access to nutritious food

Kemi’s most recent career move was to step into politics. Inspired by her experiences at Be Enriched and The People’s Kitchen, she wanted to bring food poverty and inequality to the forefront of the council’s agenda.

She explained: “I want to make a difference to the community, and the best way to do this is by taking things to a structural, strategic level.

“I want to bring an end to the need for food banks and an end to food insecurity. It’s all about making sure people have enough money in their pockets to buy the food they need and want, and particularly, ensuring they can afford nutritious food that is good for their bodies.

“This is vital in developing an equal society where we can all be healthy and can all feel valued and equal.”

When Kemi was elected as Deputy Leader of the Wandsworth Labour Party last year, she also became the highest-ranking black politician in the borough in 107 years.

She said this type of representation is particularly important.

Kemi commented: “Wandsworth is a very diverse borough, and its constituents need to be represented. We have to ask, why aren’t more BAME people standing in politics?

“I think it can be very exclusionary, the language can be quite exclusionary and you don’t want to join something where you feel you won’t be accepted.

“Things are changing, but not really in Wandsworth and not quick enough, so I hope I can be a role model to other people to show them it can be done.”

Looking to the future, Kemi’s next ambition is to win the council.

In terms of her charity work, she hopes to launch a community bus, which will bring food access into estates where there aren’t food shops within walking distance. She will also soon be opening another community canteen, Covid-19 regulations permitting.

To find out more about Kemi Akinola’s work, you can click here.

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