Friday, December 23, 2022

“Having a big car doesn’t mean you’re financially well off”: Increasing demand for community food centers

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As the cost of living crisis deepens, a network of ‘pantries’ is offering subscribers £15-20 worth of groceries for just £4.50

What if you’re on a low income, struggling to survive during the cost-of-living crisis, but don’t qualify for means-tested benefits or the referrals needed to use many grocery banks?

Local community groups are stepping in to fill the gap, helping households without support elsewhere to stock their fridges as food prices soar.

For just £4.50 per store, members of Your Local Pantry – a national network of subscribed Food Hub services – can stock up on fresh fruit and veg and stock £15-20 worth of essential groceries. They also get their ninth shop for free and have access to advice and support.

Doreen Evans, a pensioner from Peckham, south London, relies on her local branch to make ends meet. “I’m not in an income bracket that needs benefits, but you know, there’s a fine line between comfortable and not.” Evans lives with her son, who has Down syndrome and doesn’t work.

By using the Peckham Pantry, she can spend the money saved on small treats. “We don’t eat out,” she says. “That means I can buy maple syrup from Lidl [to put] there’s muesli on Sundays and egg sandwich on Sundays – it costs me almost £4.”

Subscribers receive more than just purchases under the program. Ed Powell, Access to Food mission manager for Co-op, which dropped its big Christmas TV ad this year to support Your Local Pantry, said one volunteer referred to the Peckham Pantry community as their “second family.”

“It’s not just about direct access to food, literally access to food, but … food is a really powerful tool to bring people together,” he said.

Unemployed mother-of-one Victoria Noakes, 43, was one of the first people to use Peckham Pantry. She volunteered her time to help other local members at the store and now uses it on a weekly basis.

“I do two to four stores a week here because it helps,” she said I. “They say you can get £20 for £4.50, sometimes it’s more than that. We left here and I went home with five bags full of groceries and that’s enough.”

For Ms. Noakes, a reduced grocery bill helps ensure her daughter Zafiyah doesn’t miss out on attending after-school clubs.

“My daughter does extracurricular activities, so whatever I can save always goes towards my daughter’s future. She does karate, martial arts; She’s doing soccer training. So whatever me [save]it hurts her.”

Pantry manager Temi Okudiya launched the service in 2019, and demand has increased significantly in recent months.

“We see people coming maybe twice a week now,” she says. “And we’ve seen a lot of new sign-ups. In one day we see almost 60, 70 people and we open six days a week… I would say we’ve had an increase of about 30 to 40 percent.”

Ms. Okudiya said there has also been a change in the demographics of service users.

“We saw people with big cars coming into the pantry,” she says. “When they parked outside, we were just like, ‘Are you going to be here, are they taking advantage of the pantry?’

“But actually they aren’t. They may have had big cars last month, but their circumstances have changed now, their bills have gone up now, so they believe the pantry is there for them.

“So if they can use their income to pay their other bills, then they can come and get groceries [the] Pantry – and we heard that from them. So let’s not judge anyone now. Seeing big cars doesn’t mean they’re doing well financially.”

Mr Powell said: “We know that many people are facing the cost of living right now, regardless of their background. I think it’s something that affects us all.”

And with no sign of letting up, Ms. Okudiya expects more and more people to come through the pantry doors in the coming months.

“I think if things don’t improve, [that if] The rising cost of living is not stopping, we will see more.”

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