Social Justice

Community grocers have become the nation's safety net

Mustard Tree's Food Club in Manchester is just one of many across the UK helping to keep people afloat in the cost of living crisis

Mustard tree illustration

When Mustard Tree – a charity that works to prevent homelessness – opened its Food Club as part of a refurb in 2018, keeping it stocked cost £24,000 per year. Now, it costs £25,000 per month, down from £38,000 at the height of Covid. 

The Food Club is one of a growing number of community grocers across the UK and is open to anyone who receives benefits or is on a low income. Members pay £3 per visit which gets them 10 items, including six cupboard essentials such as bread, cereal and long-life milk, plus four fridge items like ready meals, meat, fish and dairy. For people in a critical situation, these items are free. 

“If you’ve got no recourse to public funds then you don’t pay,” says Jack Barton, Mustard Tree’s communications manager. “It’s about a 60:40 split between people who do pay and people who don’t.” 

Contributions from paying members are subsidised by sales from Mustard Tree’s low-cost second-hand furniture shop, as well as donations. 

Community grocers entered the public consciousness in 2020, when BBC One aired Marcus Rashford: Feeding Britain’s Children. The documentary, which followed the Manchester United star’s work to secure free food for children living in poverty, featured a visit to Evelyn Community Store, a community grocer in Lewisham, London. 

At the time, it had only been running for a little over a year but already faced long waiting lists. This rapid growth in demand is one Barton recognises. 

“In the years up to Covid, Food Club was a very, very small part of the charity,” he says. “There were only about 25 people using it per day at the time, and our team was able to work with those 25 people on a one-to-one basis and help sort out their finances quite quickly.” 

He cites the case of a man who was using his state pension to cover his rising rent, unaware he was eligible for housing benefits. Mustard Tree staff helped him to apply for the support he was entitled to, and he no longer had to rely on the Food Club. 

But in 2020, everything changed. As the country shut down, the organisation ramped up its support, even featuring on the BBC’s Panorama

“When Covid hit, we had a lot of new clients come and register for the first time, because the services they usually visit weren’t open,” Barton says. “A lot of those people are still using the service, which we didn’t expect, but we’re dealing with the fallout of the war in Ukraine and cost of living crisis. We’re still dealing with an emergency situation.” 

Daily footfall at the Food Club now frequently exceeds 100. “The problem is, when you’ve got 100 people using it, you can’t work with them on that one-to-one basis,” Barton says.  

The project faces a common dilemma among community grocers: high demand leaves staff unable to provide holistic support, resulting in more long-term reliance and creating a cycle of dependency. 

The charity is struggling to keep up with demand, but Mustard Tree chief executive Jo Walby emphasises that staff are ambitious in their plans to help more people in meaningful ways. 

“Our mission is combatting poverty and preventing homelessness. Unfortunately, we have never been more relevant,” she says. 

One problem is supply chain issues, in which they struggle to source the food they need, both in volume and variety. And as the cost of food rises, the charity is under increasing strain. 

Barton partly credits the rise in membership to the quality of the Food Club’s offer.

“The food team work so hard to try to cater to everybody,” he says. “We never want to say, ‘You’ll get what you’re given’.” 

Last year, food bank network the Trussell Trust distributed 2,986,203 emergency food parcels – an increase of 37% on the previous year. With community grocers offering more choice and attracting less stigma (“it’s more like a shopping experience,” Barton says), they are also growing in popularity. 

In Manchester alone, Food Club is joined by Healthy Me Healthy Communities, the Zion Centre Cafe, Miles Platting Community Grocer, Message Community Grocery and Community Grocery Salford. But Barton hopes to see a day where they are no longer needed. 

“The ultimate goal is that nobody in the country has to use crisis food provision,” he says. “We want our frontline focus to be on preventative support. But there’s no quick fix for it. 

“We’ve been doing this for years, and the situation hasn’t improved. We’re just keeping the wolf from the door.” 

Join Mustard Tree’s High Fivers monthly giving campaign, or donate here

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