'I’m going days without meals': Inside Lewisham’s community food store
If you looked at most of the people here, you’d have no idea they were struggling.
With rocketing energy and supermarket prices, any concept of a ‘typical’ person in need has gone out of the window.
Spend the day like I did at the Evelyn Centre in Lewisham - which charges £3.50 for a week’s worth of food - and you will find working families with young children, nurses, retirees from the civil service, people in their twenties all the way up to their eighties.
In the current economic climate, poverty doesn’t seem to discriminate between age, sex or ethnicity.
The choices those on the edge are facing are stark.
“I’m going days without meals,” says Toni, a mother-of-two. “I’m having to make sure my kids are eating. I don’t always eat”.
The “ridiculous” rise in prices for basic foodstuffs means she has had to borrow money from friends and extended family to pay for meals.
Winter terrifies Toni and most of the other regular visitors to the centre.
For some like Maureen, a pensioner who lives nearby, turning on the central heating isn’t even an option; it’s already so expensive it would burn through her funds almost immediately.
“We’ll just put a jumper on,” she says determinedly.
“What about when it gets much colder in the coming months?” I ask.
“It’ll be the same thing,” she replies.
You might wonder why the community store charges anything at all for food, when people find themselves in such desperate situations.
“It’s about dignity,” says Natasha Ricketts, who set up the store. “We’ve checked and almost all of our customers would prefer to pay something.”
In reality, the fee is optional. Some always pay, some give whatever change they have in their pocket and those who can’t pay are still allowed to shop.
The store is laid out like a supermarket, with different fruit and veg, proteins and dried goods to choose from. Those who come here are presented with an option about what they’d like to take home, it’s meant to mimic a normal weekly shop.
It has proved incredibly popular, with 450 people coming each month and a growing waiting list. There simply aren’t enough donations coming in to provide for all the people in need.
The Evelyn Centre is a hyper-local grassroots initiative to help alleviate difficulties in one neighbourhood, but it isn’t a long-term solution.
Staffed entirely by volunteers, it primarily caters to those living on the estate that surrounds it. The work is hard, both physically and emotionally, with days starting at 7am and volunteers listening to the difficulties many of their customers are facing.“I’ll often go out into the other room and have a cry,” says Dawn Atkinson, who’s worked at the centre for three years.
She has seen families come in with children who only eat properly once a day - their school lunch.
“It gives me nightmares what we’re expecting over the coming months.”
Many of their users are vulnerable or have long-term health issues. It means that the volunteers often end up acting as de-facto carers.
Natasha delivers food in a creaky shopping trolley across the estate to those, like David, who can’t physically make it to the centre. The former chef lives in a cramped, stained flat on one of the top floors of a neighbouring tower block. He once cooked escargots at a hotel restaurant in Reading, and now can’t afford to buy fruit or vegetables.
It’s not just food delivery, Natasha also helps book appointments, ensure bills are paid, picks up prescriptions and even bathes those who are unable to look after themselves.
She knows it shouldn’t really be her job, but says with state funding so stretched, people in precarious situations are being forgotten about. It’s the same sense of duty that drove her to set up the store.
“My fear is what happens to them if the likes of myself and others out there aren’t able to do it anymore,” she tells me.
“In my head I wonder what if it was my mum and there was no-one to help.”