In part 3 of our Heart Unions series, we catch up with the Unite Community Norfolk branch, which over the summer, took matters into their own hands to tackle holiday hunger in the face of austerity.
Mary, mother of three children ages 7,5 and 2, has little faith in the social safety net that’s supposed to support her and her family.
“The Job Centre just isn’t interested in helping someone like me,” she says. “I left school at 16; I don’t have any qualifications. I’m 25 now and I’ve got nothing on my CV.”
But her friend Molly says a job, even a full-time one, doesn’t guarantee her family’s most basic expenses will be met. “My husband works over 40 hours a week,” Molly, mother of two children aged 8 and 10, explains. “I still have to skip meals to make sure my kids are okay.”
Mary and Molly joined dozens of parents and their children who dropped in at St. Catherine’s Church in Norwich to pick up free packed lunches – provided by the local Unite Community branch – over the summer school holidays last year.
They aren’t alone in struggling. A report last year from the All Parliamentary Group on Hunger estimated that the loss of free school meals in the summer adds up to £40 a week to a family’s outgoings.
For a city like Norwich – a place of apparent wealth juxtaposed with pockets of shocking deprivation – this is no mere figure in a government report. It’s a lived reality for the majority of households in some areas – 80 per cent of children in Mile Cross, a ward in Norwich, are on free school meals, compared to a national average of 14 per cent.
And while so many children in Norwich and across the nation face the spectre of holiday hunger, supermarkets and other retail outlets waste about 4.3 metric tonnes of food each year.
It’s this glaring disparity between not enough on the one hand and far too much on the other that got the Unite Community Norfolk branch and others groups in the city thinking. Brian Green, (pictured) Unite Community Norfolk branch secretary, took up the cause of tackling food waste in Norwich three years ago, when he was part of the Norwich Claimants Union, which later merged into the local Unite Community Branch.
The group protested outside local supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer every week for over a year in an attempt to convince these enormously profitable retail giants to donate the surplus food they wasted. Marks & Spencer eventually caved in and others such as Tesco soon followed suit.
Norwich FoodHub was then set up to centralise and distribute donations from supermarkets to various local groups in need such as food banks.
“Much of what you see here today we got from Tesco through FoodHub,” Brian says as he butters a piece of bread and assembles a sandwich.
The Unite Community free lunches project, which launched in July, has given over 500 lunches to children aged 16 and under last summer.
The lunches were handed out on a first-come, first-serve basis – with no questions asked as long as children were accompanied by an adult – between 12 and 1 pm every week day.
The project was so successful the branch undertook a similar project over Christmas – a time of the year when struggling families often experience the greatest hardship.
In conjunction with the local Phoenix Community Centre, Unite Community opened a café for one week before and after Christmas. Local families were invited and offered a free two-course self-service meal. Both a meat and vegetarian option were provided as were unlimited teas, coffees and hot chocolate for children.
“The best thing about our projects is that they show what we can accomplish when we organise, build links with the community and come together,” Brian notes.
Their work, after all, is the brainchild of no one person in particular – it’s the result of various groups working together, from FoodHub and Unite Community to the local school, the church, the community centre, and the city’s Labour councillors.
And it’s more than just a packed lunch that the Unite Community volunteers offered over the summer.
“Our motto is ‘solidarity not charity’,” explains Unite Community branch chair Geraldine Murray (pictured). “Some of the families who come here open up about the struggles they face at home, in work, with the benefits system. We try our best to offer advice.”
Geraldine says a widespread fear is the introduction of Universal Credit, which begun its roll-out in the area in October. The welfare reform, which rolls six benefits into one, was introduced just up the road in Yarmouth two years ago, where it has precipitated untold suffering.
“Giving out packed lunches should only be a temporary measure – it’s certainly not the answer – but beyond making sure these children don’t go without, it provides us with an opportunity to discuss the issues,” Geraldine adds.
“The summer project earned us a great deal of respect in the community,” Brian notes. “At the heart of our campaign now is tackling Universal Credit by ‘preparing the resistance and providing the assistance’.”
Unite Community national coordinator Liane Groves hailed the Norfolk branch’s campaign to tackle holiday hunger.
“This is exactly what Unite Community is all about – empowering communities through solidarity and grassroots campaigning that makes a real difference to people’s lives,” she said. “As the Universal Credit roll-out continues, projects like these will be all the more vital.
Child poverty and holiday hunger are problems cynically engineered by this government’s cruel policies – it doesn’t have to be this way, and we at Unite Community are dedicated to making sure it isn’t.”
- Pics by Peter Smith