By Kate Sing’ombe

Operations Manager at Saint George The Martyr, Southwark

Food has been a key part of our mission at St George the Martyr over recent years.  It brings people together, sustains and reenergises us, allows us to share love, time and cultures and provides a time to socialise and enjoy ourselves.  We look forward to restarting the wonderful church lunches made by the talented chefs in our congregation, and our children’s holiday club lunches and lively community café.  Sharing what we have with others and loving our neighbours are recurring themes of Jesus’ teachings.

Like many other churches we were moved to act at the start of the pandemic to support those in our local community.  Many people felt uncertain and fearful, supermarket shelves were empty, and a large number of people were told to shield and couldn’t get access to food.  We started collecting surplus food from the rapidly closing hospitality industry and with an amazing group of volunteers started delivering to those at home.  We quickly linked up with Southwark Council and became one of the 8 food distribution hubs across the borough, taking referrals from the council and other local organisations.

As last summer progressed, we saw a change in the demographic of those we were delivering to.  Many of the shielding group started to get access to priority supermarket delivery slots and didn’t need our services anymore.  However, we saw an increase in households being referred to us living in food insecurity.  The cost of living in London is challenging and keeping the household budget balanced isn’t easy – it doesn’t take much for it to tip into the red – furlough, job losses, benefit delays, children being at home in lockdown all had a big impact.

We wanted to continue to support our community and have a sustainable project less reliant on external funding, but we also wanted to introduce more dignity and reduce the stigma around accessing a food bank.

In October we launched The Borough Food Cooperative, a local community shop that welcomes everyone.  The Cooperative is open 3 days a week and offers a wide selection of food – fruit and vegetables, bakery, dairy, meat, pre-prepared meals, and cupboard staples.  Members pay £4.50 per shop and choose £15 – £20 of food.  Our aim was to reduce people’s food bills to help free up money to be spent on other things.  Membership is now over 600 and growing at around 15% per month.

The Cooperative has become a community which is now about much more than food.  It’s been wonderful for us to be able to meet so many more members of our local community.  The clergy team are always on site during opening hours to speak to people, provide support and prayer and words of encouragement.  Our volunteer team now numbers almost a hundred with the majority now being Cooperative members who have come in to shop and asked to come and be part of the project.  We know all our regular shoppers by name, and the team spend time chatting to those waiting to shop and pay, finding out how they are.  For those living alone a visit to us may be the only contact they will have that day or even that week.

The last year has shown us that those who have strong support networks have tended to manage better than those who are isolated.  We became the support network for those who were struggling initially – but now the community that has sprung up around the Cooperative is forming bonds and including people, increasing resilience as we go forward.

We aim to nurture and expand this community as we release from lockdown.  We are planning to open a café offering good value food to run alongside the Cooperative.  The café will offer creative activities as well as a social space and we hope to co-locate advice services in the space.

If you are interested in learning more about Food Cooperatives and would like to set one up, the Diocese of Southwark are holding an event on 27 April to look at building resilience to food insecurity through food co-ops. Book your place on the events section of the Diocesan website or for further details, please contact [email protected]  If you would like to visit us and see our Cooperative in action, then please contact [email protected]