A Lewisham community store won the Mayor of London’s community champion award on International Volunteers Day, last week. ELL spoke to Natasha Ricketts, who has been volunteering at the shop since it first opened.
When the Evelyn Community Store opened in March it was in response to the long standing issue of food poverty in the borough. Little did the three volunteers who first ran it realise that the COVID-19 pandemic would place even greater demands on its resources over the past nine months.
Now the Deptford store, a venture backed by Lewisham Homes and national food charity Fareshare, relies on 13 volunteers to keep it going and its membership has doubled to around 100 families. The store is in urgent need of support to continue its job of getting food to families struggling to feed themselves.
Natasha Ricketts, 46, a volunteer in the store who was named one of Lewisham’s mayoresses and manages the Bunny Hop Day Nursery located in the Evelyn Community Centre, told ELL: “It’s important for us to make connections with other organisations and people. Our numbers grew, so we need an increasing amount of food to match. And to get that, we need more donations. We simply can’t take on new members otherwise.”
The pandemic “put a spotlight” on the issue of food poverty, Ricketts said. During this time the shop’s membership numbers doubled to more than a hundred families. “We had to slow down our membership intake. We just don’t want to compromise on the amount of food we can give them.”
Anyone living in the borough who is struggling can become a member and shop at the store every Tuesday and Friday for a fixed fee of £3.50, regardless of what they bring home. Even when the fee proves to be an obstacle, people are still more than welcome. “I don’t ever want people to not come just because they don’t have any money. I don’t care about the fee, we want to help,” Ricketts said.
The fee aims to counteract the stigma associated with foodbanks. “Foodbanks are amazing, but people see it more as charity. We want people to take ownership of their shopping,” Ricketts said. This is why the community store looks more like a small supermarket. Members can pick out their own products, rather than having a food package handed over to them.
“I once had a mother come in who couldn’t afford baby food, so she made a porridge from bread and water. It just makes me wonder what would have happened if we weren’t here to help out? Would they have been forgotten? It is not normal to leave people without support like that. How do you expect kids to learn on an empty stomach? Or adults to do their job? Not to mention the strains [of food poverty] on both mental and physical health.”
But the store can only do so much. Ricketts, who grew up in food poverty herself and is now doing everything within her powers to tackle the issue in the borough, is critical of government policy: “I know what it is like to go without. Going to a friend’s house for dinner was like going to a banquet. Here we are 30 years later and the issue is not getting better, it’s actually getting worse.”
The Mayor of London’s volunteering awards recognise “the unsung community heroes” who help others throughout the pandemic.
This year the winning volunteers secured £5,000 funding to support the continuing work of the organisation that nominated them. Categories included crisis response, delivering differently, and community champions. Evelyn Community Store was one of four winners in the last category
Over the summer three of the store’s volunteers, Natasha Ricketts, Christina Norman and Dawn Atkinson, were named mayoresses of Lewisham after mayor Damien Egan visited the store to discuss the challenges they faced due to Covid.
“It is really nice to get this appreciation for the whole group. Whether you volunteer for an hour or two days, it is valued and very much needed. We have volunteers from all sorts of backgrounds, some of them are members here themselves, and without them this [project] would not be possible.”
In October the group of volunteers, with some help, managed to deliver more than 7000 free school meals to families in the borough.
Ricketts said it is time for the government to step up. “They keep pretending they’re doing us a favour by extending their [free school meals] programmes [through the Christmas and Easter period]. But they’re talking about something that should be a given. Food should be a given. You’re basically messing with people’s lives here.”
In London 1.5 million adults have low or very low food security, according to the Trust for London’s 2019 ‘Beyond the Foodbank’ report. 400.000 of London’s children struggle to access enough food.
Croydon, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham are among the top ten boroughs leading the way in tackling food poverty, having developed food poverty action plans for their areas. Hackney is currently developing a plan.
Carrying on during a pandemic
The community store had to change the way it operates due to Covid. There used to be a social aspect to the shop. Locals could come together and have a chat over a cup of tea or coffee. “Some of them would almost forget to do their shopping”, Ricketts recalls.
“Then Covid kicked in and we took a big nosedive. People could only come in, shop, and go out. A lot of people really suffered from that, because this was their only social activity.”
Fortunately, the shop has seen an increase in the amount of donations, but it still needs more. “I think Covid has shown the humanity of people, their generosity and sense of community. Some people come in with boxes full of donations. Others with a can of soup, but then they feel guilty as it’s ‘only’ one can. But that can is a meal to someone, don’t you ever feel guilty about proving a meal.”
Want to help out? The Evelyn Community Store is located at the Evelyn Community Centre, 9 Wotton Rd, Deptford, London SE8 5TQ. They are currently stocking up on Christmas donations and special treats.