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Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

"What drives me is people and community. I am passionate about equality and want to see that here in Linacre ward."

Jo Seddon at St Leonard's in Bootle
Jo outside St Leonard's Youth and Community Centre in Bootle

All over the UK, tenacious and compassionate people are helping make change happen in their communities. This blog takes us to Bootle, near Liverpool, where there are big challenges but bright ideas.

Jo has a dream – but it’s not for herself. It’s for her community, the residents she sees every day, and for the children of the future.

Her dream is that local youngsters will dream big, and start to have bolder, brighter hopes.

A recent survey of local people here in Linacre Ward, Bootle, commissioned by local social landlords, found that young people’s ambitions were notably more local and pragmatic than elsewhere.

St Leonard's Youth and Community Centre in Bootle

An over-riding vision of hope

“It was quite clear that the aspirations here were about local issues and safety,” says Jo.

“It wasn’t about people wanting to be astronauts or to go traveling, like in other places. People’s aspirations were to have a warm house or a clean safe park. 

“The vision overriding all of this is hope. In ten years, I would like local kids to have very different answers when asked their aspirations for their life.” 

What happens at St Leonard's

Jo is helping to drive that transformation, by linking up with other like-minded hopers and changers. She joined a recent Speaking Truth To Power training session and is now working to build local people power in Bootle, towards a better future. 

Jo is a community development worker at St Leonard’s Youth and Community Centre in Bootle, which provides wide-ranging support and friendship to local people.

She leads weekly groups including a craft hub, local weekly guided walks, a women’s space group and a men’s space group (growing numbers of local men are struggling with living and mental health).

11 people in a line on a path, among some trees
Members of the St Leonard's walking group in Derby Park, Bootle

Jo also promotes regular cookery courses at St Leonard’s, a weekly community lunch and helps support people to access an in-house benefits advisor and onward referrals. St Leonard’s operates a weekly foodbank and Your Local Pantry and also offers over-55’s activities. 

She also supports lots of people who present at St Leonard’s in crisis and helps them access the most appropriate services or support.

This could include people in fuel or food crisis, debt, housing or health issues. Jo also recruits volunteers (people who have previously accessed St Leonard’s for help) to help support the range of activities on offer.

"We don't want to do something new if it doesn't empower people"

“We regularly hear of the challenges pre and post pandemic, in the local community; inadequate housing, debts and money difficulties, unemployment, and issues around basic public services. 

“People tell us they feel undervalued and ignored by local provider services and regularly speak about their frustrations with regard to their local environment; refuse collection, fly tipping, pest control and street cleansing. 

“People have unaddressed environmental issues outside their front doors and are struggling financially. We had one woman here saying she felt like she was feeding the meters more than the children. 

“I was born and brought up in Waterloo, so a near neighbour of Bootle. I can walk a short distance from here and be in a really wealthy area where rich footballers live, but here there is real poverty. Sefton is strange like that – a single street can separate wealth and poverty.

“What we really want to do came out of the Pantry, and us wanting to do Speaking Truth To Power. We want a community forum where people can come and offload if they need to, but we want to do it in particular way and place that then has the task of trying to address these challenges.

“Last year local registered social landlords commissioned a consultation of ‘The Poet’s Streets’ around here (streets named after poets). A lot of people were bringing different challenges, but not talking about what they themselves might be able to do, or finding confidence and power within themselves to address challenges or difficulties.

“We don’t want to do something new if it doesn’t empower people. I want people to have the resources, and to take things on.

“The men’s space and women’s space and craft group have generated friendships and power that have evolved beyond what we do here. It has spread way beyond St Leonard’s. So now if someone is ill or in hospital or low, then other people have provided support mechanisms that have grown out of the groups here.”

Gathering ideas & power together

About a dozen people, sitting in a circle in a training room, with a projector screen at the front.
A Speaking Truth To Power training day in Manchester in January 2024.

The Speaking Truth to Power programme aims to support people in low-income neighbourhoods to jointly harness local insight, expertise and resolve, to tackle challenges and injustices together.

In August, emerging leaders gathered in Manchester to learn new approaches, and share ideas, and Jo was among them.

She began working in the voluntary sector in the early 80’s working for different charities locally, regionally and nationally, mainly in the areas of mental health and social inclusion. Jo then chose to come back to her home patch.

She says: “What drives me is people and community. I am passionate about equality and want to see that here in Linacre ward where local residents can have something more to hope and aspire to.

“I like working in the community. It’s a privilege. Everything we do is a real privilege. We are involved in people’s lives every day and people trust us to disclose some uncomfortable and challenging things, and it’s a privilege. We are making a difference every day, helping give people hope. 

“I don’t know if the phrase ‘Truth To Power’ will resonate with people here, so we are trying to come up with the right name.

“But I’ve spoken to a lot of people here and in the food bank and asked if they would like to be involved, and the answer was an overwhelming yes. It might look at neighbourhood litter or crime or domestic issues or rats but we want to take it a step further, so our work is enabling people to move forward and address things.”

About 12 people in a group, with Liverpool Anglican Cathedral in the background
A group from St Leonard's outside Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral

Bootle 10 years from now...

“Ten years from now, I would like to see a real financially healthy, viable Linacre ward, where there are prospects for young families and children. We talk to a lot of families and in the “cradle to career” surveys we talked a lot about prospects for young children, how they can get a good schooling and a journey to a career.

“The majority of people here are unemployed. I would like to see people with young children being given the right support earlier on, with access to schools and nursery services, and access to community mental health services. Mental health is a big challenge here.

“I would like people to have the power to challenge things, to be able to challenge the powers that be, whether that’s social housing providers, private landlords, the council etc.

“I would like to see a healthier, vibrant Linacre ward, where people are happy to live.” 

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

7 ways a Your Local Pantry could help YOUR community in 2024

Artist Don: How Leith Pantry has helped ease my depression

Are we set for a landmark legal change on inequality?

SPARK newsletter winter 2023-24

Let’s say what we truly want society to look like – Let’s End Poverty

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New Year’s Honour for inspiring campaigner Penny

Meet our five new trustees

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Liudmyla and Stephen, with her portrait

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

This is Church Action on Poverty’s statement on the 2024 Budget. It includes the views of our expert advisors with direct current experience of poverty.

Church Action on Poverty's logo, alongside the Houses of Parliament

The 2024 Budget further punishes and marginalises people on the lowest incomes, and is outrageous and counter-productive.

That’s the message from social justice campaigners with Church Action on Poverty.

Recent Budgets have rarely provided adequate support or good news for people on low incomes, despite polling showing that 88% of the British public think more should be done to tackle poverty.

Further cuts to public services will harm communities and people who are most likely to need public systems such as health services, libraries, social housing, public transport, and children’s and youth centres.

Calculations by Church Action on Poverty indicate a two-parent family on £60,000 a year will be about £3,100 better off a year as a result of the Budget and Autumn statement, including cuts to National Insurance and the increases to child benefit given only to higher income households, whereas the childcare assistant or teaching assistant charged with looking after their children on a starting salary of £14.500 will be a grand total of £80 better off. 

How can this be right? 

And someone unable to work due to disability or caring responsibilities will not be better off by a single penny. How can this be right?

Our advisers, all of whom have direct current experience of poverty, have called for a more just tax system, action to fix the UK’s broken housing system; and investment in a long-term future for everyone rather than short-term tweaks.

A headshot of Stef Benstead ,with a quote: "When they are spending money, it should be to help poorer people, not funding tax cuts for richer people."

Stef Benstead said:

“I would want them to be increasing taxes on the wealthiest people so they can fund social care and health care properly. When they are spending money, it should be to help poorer people, not funding tax cuts for richer people.

“The Chancellor’s supporters say countries with low taxes grow fastest, but that’s only in the short term, because you then have a bust. IMF research has shown that the more equal countries grow fastest in the long term because they do not have that bust afterwards.

“We need to look at what makes for steady long-term growth. The answer is to reduce inequality. Data shows we could be much more equal – more equal than Scandinavian countries – and still improve growth. We need to look at what makes for long-term growth, and the way to do that is taxing the very richest, because they currently take too much for themselves.

“It’s not a matter of punishing wealth, but of deterring rich people from over-paying themselves excessively while their staff are struggling on low pay.”

Tracy Porter said:

“We need to commit to meaningful co-production policies with people who have experienced the impact of previous policies.

“I would also like to see more done to increase digital inclusion. So many people have not got the same access, and that means their opportunities are limited, whereas if they had equal access then people could achieve more.

“It affects young people at school and also older people, who maybe are told to use technology to do tasks and send things. It’s not just about having the technology, but also knowing how to use it.

“It is estimated that it costs around £120,000 to raise a child to the age of 18. £120,000 is a lot of money for any household, but if you find yourself unfortunate enough to be at the bottom of the economic scale it becomes even more difficult to provide the basic essentials for that child to flourish.

“A lot of families, in reality, have very few choices. Some families have a disability, learning difficulty or mental health issue, some have to cope with all of these things as well as raising a child to the best of their abilities.

“Without fair access, children can quickly fall behind and the gap between what they and their peers can achieve grows ever wider. Enter the cost of living crisis and the cracks that were already there, become chasms that are swallowing families up.”

A headshot of Wayne Green, with the quote: "We need to act on housing, instead of MPs seeking to water down policies like evictions laws."

Wayne Green said:

“A wealth tax is needed. We need an asset tax. Once you earn more than £250,000 you pay less tax as you can afford to invest in assets and shares. If you had something like a 3 percentage point tax increase on offshore wealth, it could pay for so much – it could pay much of our national debt off.

“The very wealthiest people have millions or billions. There is an imbalance – we should be taxing the super rich and investing in this country long-term.”

“We need a better form of community tax. It does not work properly. And we need to act on housing, instead of MPs seeking to water down policies like eviction laws.”

Wayne had said he would be worried about the ending of the Household Support Fund, which he had said would be outrageous. In the Budget, it was extended by only six months.

A headshot of Mary Passeri with a quote reading: "I think the rich are going to keep on getting richer, but if you are on a low income it disproportionately badly affects you."

Mary Passeri said:

“I think the rich are going to keep on getting richer, but if you are on a low income it disproportionately badly affects you.”

Alisha Barton said:

“I think it will make no positive difference to me, and cutting National Insurance inherently means a cut to public services.”

Sydnie Corley said:

“What needs to really change is the difference in income when you try to get back into work, or into more work. I am part time and if I go over the income thresholds, I lose everything else suddenly.”

Contributors to this article are member of Church Action on Poverty’s Speaking Truth To Power programe.

  • Stef Benstead is advisor on disability and social security, and also the author of Second Class Citizens: The Treatment of Disabled People in Austerity Britain.
  • Tracy Porter is a trustee and digital inclusion advisor.
  • Wayne Green is advisor on unemployment, social security and policy.

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

7 ways a Your Local Pantry could help YOUR community in 2024

Artist Don: How Leith Pantry has helped ease my depression

Are we set for a landmark legal change on inequality?

SPARK newsletter winter 2023-24

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Liudmyla and Stephen, with her portrait

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

This is a guest series of stories that challenge and change. These are intentionally contrary stories that push back against negative ideas, and force us all to re-examine negative stigmas and stereotypes. They are longer than our usual blogs, and we encourage you to read them when you have the time to do so in full.

These stories are told by Stef Benstead, a social justice campaigner, Manchester Poverty Truth Commissioner, and an expert on the mistreatment of disabled people.

Meet Emma...

Emma is your ‘typical’ workless benefit claimant: overweight; in a power chair; all-but never worked.

She’s the kind of person who’s pointed out on the street as an exemplifier of all that’s wrong with Britain. The obesity epidemic; the eating of fast-food and processed food and sweets and ice creams; the lack of work ethic; the attitude that believes it’s right and better to take state money than to work.

The person who had children whilst on benefits, rather than wait to be able to afford them. The person who uses abortion as a birth control method. The person who fights like a tiger for her ‘entitlements’, but can’t keep a stable relationship.

Except that that’s not Emma’s story… That’s the narrative that rich and lazy people weave in their heads around people like Emma, because it’s easier than finding out the truth. 

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Do not jump to conclusions

Finding out the truth would mean going to actually speak to people like Emma. 

It would mean refusing to make any assumptions about the reality behind the image, and refusing to pass on one’s imaginings as the ‘truth’ about so-and-so in a piece of faux-shocked gossip.

Sometimes I wonder if the reason middle- and upper-class people jump so easily to false conclusions about poor and struggling people is because they’re reflecting their own selfishness and greed onto a people who are actually less selfish and more community-minded than them. 

Why do so many judge falsely?

But that would be to ‘other’ the rich, and would be unfair.

Whilst there is data showing that richer people are more selfish and greedy, it isn’t right to assume that every rich person is inherently morally inferior and to be judged negatively.

Many may simply be ignorant, living as they do lives that are so divorced from the bottom half of the UK income or class scale. They simply don’t know what is going on in these other people’s lives, and for whatever reason many of them choose to judge these people falsely and negatively.

Seek the right narratives over the easy ones

It is easy to judge Emma from the outside. But judging her and writing her down as a skiver and feckless mother doesn’t make that pejorative narrative true.

It’s the easy narrative, because it lets the richer person off the hook for showing justice and generosity, and even allows us to kid ourselves that justice and generosity is to let this person suffer for their sins until they learn to do right. That’s exactly how God treats us, of course, and is why God had no problem when a person in great debt shows no mercy to someone in a little debt.

Meet the real Emma...

A red Holy Bible, on a wooden church pew

So let me introduce you to Emma. In her mid-thirties, she’s training in lay ministry as a youth worker as part of her training to become a vicar. 

With her knowledge of poverty combined with her acute mind, she’ll bring compassion and clarity to her role.
A silhouette shot of a church, with the setting sun visible through its steeple

Where many middle-class vicars have only their brain to draw on, Emma has personal experience and extensive knowledge of  what life is really like for many people. That invaluable insight is beginning to be recognised by the Church of England and other denominations.

She has two daughters, one a young adult and one in primary school. She has a sharp mind and a strong drive to be engaged and active. In periods where she has been unable to obtain work, she has engaged in lots of volunteering and various training and skills courses. These courses range from basic CV-writing, to life-skills, to crafts. Whatever was available at the time.

She has a back injury from an abusive husband who kicked her down the stairs. When the doctor told her she’d be in a wheelchair within a year, she didn’t want to believe the doctor about the ongoing deterioration of her spine.

But the doctor was right, and Emma now depends on her powerchair for more than occasional and short-distance mobility. She struggles with anorexia, and her body fights back by shifting to starvation mode and clinging on to calories. 

Emma: recovering from abuse

She has ADHD, autism and dyslexia. When she entered secondary school, she was functionally illiterate and yet still undiagnosed. Like many people with ADHD, Emma’s body is poor at telling her that it’s time for food, and this failure to eat regularly compounds the anorexia in her body’s insistence on its need to store rather than spend the calories it gets.

Emma had a difficult childhood. Her dad wasn’t around, but her mum worked as a cleaner and her step-dad worked in a paint factory. Both were binge alcoholics, leaving the children in the care of a babysitter whilst they socialised. That, of course, is an entirely normal and middle-class proceeding, and shouldn’t attract any censure. The problem was with the abusive parenting, which caused Emma to leave home at 17.

Emma: poorly supported in school

A stock posed image of a pupil in a classroom, writing at a desk.

Emma struggled at school, both because of bullying and because her dyslexia meant she couldn’t keep up with lessons. She enjoyed maths, but other lessons were challenging. It wasn’t until secondary school that anyone paid enough attention or care to get her assessed and diagnosed, and she was then given an amanuensis to help her in her work. In this way, she was able to pass GCSEs in maths, science and English.

After school, Emma signed up to train as a mechanic. Unfortunately, she had undiagnosed epilepsy, and was experiencing absence seizures. To the garage, the petit mals, coupled with her poor social skills and limited literacy, made her look like a slacker and scrounger. They fired her within a year.

Facing homelessness

Emma was still being abused at home by her mum. When she lost her mechanics position, she left her mother’s house. She stayed for a week with her sister, but her sister was also abusive. Emma was able instead to get a place at a hostel, a few miles away from where she had been brought up.

For middle-class people used to the luxury of cars, this may sound like living in one’s home area. For people with limited means to travel, being separated from your community like that is a big deal.

Emma joined what was a youth training programme, giving her support in CV-writing; confidence building; budgeting; household management; and travel. This was helpful for her, with her learning difficulties and relatively limited education. But it wasn’t on-the-job training. Whilst she was on the programme, she also worked part-time as a cleaner, to top-up the financial support she received as part of the programme.

Facing rejection and unhappiness

Stock image of church windows

Emma is a bright woman. But her learning difficulties hid this from the casual observer, and blocked her from getting any meaningful job training. The constant rejections were demoralising and dispiriting. The worst was when she was rejected for vicar training, on the grounds that she would not be able to handle the work. She felt that God had given up on her as well as the rest of the world.

She wasn’t receiving anything to help her maximise her career, fulfilment or earnings potential.

Nor was she receiving anything to help her process the abuse she had grown up with. 

Consequently, she was both bored and desperately unhappy. She entered a time of self-destruction, wanting to die and managing the despair with dating, drink, and drugs.

Illness, pregnancy and false accusations

Emma was taking contraception, but she didn’t know that epilepsy medication interferes with the efficacy of contraceptives. She became pregnant. The pregnancy drew her to the attention of social services. She was found a place in a mother-and-baby home, where she was able to live for two years. When her baby reached six months, she was eligible for a place on social services nursery.

This allowed Emma to engage in training and volunteering. But baby caught impetigo from nursery – and Emma was falsely accused of neglect and of burning her child, because impetigo can look like burns.

Emma stopped her drinking and drugs when she became pregnant, and has stayed away ever since. But her learning difficulties and epilepsy made her an unfavourable mother in social services’ eyes.

This was a time when people with learning disabilities were still being sterilised, and Emma’s own sister had undergone a court-ordered sterilisation. Emma had also struggled with physical illness during her pregnancy.

When contraception failed again and Emma became pregnant for a second time, with her baby only three months’ old, social services told her she could have either the current baby or the pregnancy, but not both. If Emma continued with the pregnancy, they would take her three-month-old away, and they would likely also take the new baby when it was born.

Emma asked if she could carry the new baby to term and then have it adopted, but was told no. If she went with that plan – or any plan that involved continuing the pregnancy – her three-month-old would be removed.

This command may in part have reflected Emma’s physical health difficulties with her first and her now second pregnancy. But it is telling that she was never offered support to keep her pregnancy, and her three-month-old, even to give the new baby up for adoption. Emma was compelled to have an abortion.

Navigating the benefits labyrinth

Emma didn’t know what benefits she was entitled to, so only claimed disability benefits for her epilepsy, income support as a young mother, and child benefit. She didn’t know she should also have been getting child tax credit. When the DWP finally realised that Emma’s claim for child benefit was also in effect a claim for child tax credit, they paid her over £4000 for a year’s backpay. It is not at all clear that the DWP would be so fair today.

At the same time, Emma was no scrounger. She was no mythical ‘teenage mum’, having a baby in order to avoid work. Raising a young child is hard work and also often boring, monotonous and isolating. Emma had had no intention of being a mother at 19; she wanted to work and train and improve herself. She wanted a career and a life and money to live off. Still, having a child helped to save Emma’s life.

A close-up of a camera lens

Finding home, purpose and training

Boring as it often was, it helped her to live with her memories of her own abusive childhood and the long-term impacts on her own wellbeing and relationships.

After two years, Emma was offered a social house. Whilst her child was still young, she went on a number of training classes. Mostly these were still low- or non-competitive skills, like cooking or photography, which might stave off her boredom but didn’t help with getting a job.

Eventually, though, she was offered a place to train as a peer educator in sexual health and wellbeing. For several years, this was her work. And then the Conservatives came back into power, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

Over a period of years, with much striving, and with some help from church (the mother-and-baby unit) and state (social housing, nursery place from six months, access to training, and a meagre but better-than-nothing income), Emma had started to build herself a life.

She had a stable job that she enjoyed and was good at, and therefore had a future. And then the Government – in the name of Big Society and helping people to get out of poverty and into work – pulled it all away from her. They cut funding to the programme in which Emma worked, and her job was removed. 

Stock image of a life-ring

Lifelines ripped away

Emma’s job had previously been used as a reason to take her disability benefits away from her.

Now she had neither benefits nor a job. Yet she’d still had epilepsy, dyslexia, ADHD and complex PTSD the whole time.

She had to start again. Back on benefits; back to struggling; back to insufficient money through no fault of her own. Eventually, she became one of many who had to turn to foodbanks to survive.

The foodbank was run by a local church. Going to the foodbank encouraged Emma to start going to church again, after turning away from faith as a young adult. The church has supported her since that time, and it is because of that that she is now training to be a vicar.

Like with everyone, what helps Emma’s life is not punishment but support. Support for housing, income, childcare and training is what got her her job. The housing, income and childcare support were all vital to give Emma the space to engage in training that led to her job. Later, it was the support of foodbanks that helped Emma find community that eventually led to her training to be a vicar.

What you didn't see at first: the care, the compassion, the sharp mind and more

Conversely, the withdrawal of support is harmful. The cuts made by the Conservative Governments after 2010 caused Emma to lose her job. Her health problems meant it was extremely difficult for her to obtain new work, and it has taken years from when she first left the peer educator role before starting vicar training. Those years could have been more fruitful if cuts had not been made.

From the outside, Emma may look like the epitome of the sickness claimant who is ‘only’ there because of obesity. But that’s because all you can see from the outside is the obesity. You can’t see the spinal damage, the complex PTSD, the dyslexia or the ADHD. Equally, you can’t see the sharp mind or the depth and breadth of experience and knowledge that Emma has. You can’t see her compassion, her care, and her sense of fun. You can’t see the real person and her inherent value.

What you can know, however, is that you should never judge by the outside.

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

7 ways a Your Local Pantry could help YOUR community in 2024

Artist Don: How Leith Pantry has helped ease my depression

Are we set for a landmark legal change on inequality?

SPARK newsletter winter 2023-24

Let’s say what we truly want society to look like – Let’s End Poverty

Charity and church leaders call for urgent action on rising poverty in the UK and around the world

New Year’s Honour for inspiring campaigner Penny

Meet our five new trustees

Feeding Britain & YLP: Raising dignity, hope & choice with households

Parkas, walking boots, and action for change: Sheffield’s urban poverty pilgrimage

Dreamers Who Do: North East event for Church Action on Poverty Sunday 2024

Autumn Statement: Stef & Church Action on Poverty’s response

Act On Poverty – a Lent programme about tackling UK and global poverty

How 11 people spoke truth to power in Sussex

Obituary: Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ

Annual review 2022-23

Ashleigh: “I think we will become known for making a change”

North East churches & community gather to tackle poverty together

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Liudmyla and Stephen, with her portrait

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

Welcome to our new guest series, of stories that challenge and change. These are intentionally contrary stories that push back against negative ideas, and force us all to re-examine negative stigmas and stereotypes. They are longer than our usual blogs, and we encourage you to read them when you have the time to do so in full.

These stories are told by Stef Benstead, a social justice campaigner, Manchester Poverty Truth Commissioner, and an expert on the mistreatment of disabled people.

Meet Alan...

Alan is the quintessential benefit scrounger. When a work coach or jobcentre staff member tells you they can identify the scroungers and malingerers, it’s Alan they’re talking about. They’re confident in their assessment that this guy is never going to want to contribute to society. He’s just thinking about how to score and how to get money to score.

As soon as Alan walks into a jobcentre, all the staff know what he is, even if they’ve never seen him before. They see it in the way he walks, the way he stands, in his choice of clothes and haircut. They know he’s on drugs and is high right that moment.

A stock image of a JobCentre Plus sign

When the work coach interview starts, the confirmation continues. Alan has been sanctioned before. In fact, he’s on a three-month sanction right now. He doesn’t care, though, because the rental component of his benefits goes straight to his hostel landlord, so he needn’t worry about eviction. 

The work coach isn’t interested in how Alan will survive. How is he buying his food, paying his bills, or using the bus?

The options are limited. Perhaps Alan has savings, though that is unlikely; they’d have been spent on drugs by now. Perhaps friends or family or charity are bailing him out, though the work coach hopes not: they’d be undermining the sanction. 

Maybe Alan is borrowing from loan sharks, which will present acute problems later, but might at least reinforce the punitive intention of the sanction. A final option is that Alan is working on the side, taking cash in hand without declaring it to the DWP. The work coach would not be surprised, although she also believes that Alan has no work ethic.

Sanctions: designed to punish

Aerial view of Houses of Parliament

Whatever way Alan is surviving, the DWP’s approach suggests they don’t really want him to do it. The point of the sanction is to punish Alan into socially-conformable behaviour by leaving him no other option. The message from the top is that the way to get Alan off drugs and into work is to punish his behaviour until he sees sense. The fact that it doesn’t seem to be working that way doesn’t matter.

So when the work coach queries why Alan didn’t apply for a particular job, she’s not really interested. It will be a made-up reason, maybe borrowed from someone else who said it had worked. She sees no valid reason to turn down a job one is physically capable of doing. She knows, and Alan knows, that a further sanction will now be applied but Alan doesn’t seem to care, which just confirms the work coach in her judgment of him.

Now meet Ben

Then there’s Ben. He had successfully held a range of jobs, including running a second-hand store on a busy street. He is also good with his hands and worked as a car mechanic until a friend introduced him to a swimming pool company where he got a job as a filtration engineer.

It wasn’t easy and involved a lot of travel, but he loved that job, working all across the country in schools and for councils and for private buyers. He worked on the lido at Oxford and at the eight pools built for the 2012 Olympics. 

After that, the trouble started. Ben was made redundant. It’s not clear why it was Ben, given that he’d been with the company for five years. The ‘last in, first out’ principle should have protected him relative to the newbies taken on for the Olympic Games. But it was a Scottish company, and Ben wonders if they favoured Scottish people.

When Ben lost his job, his landlord served an immediate eviction notice, without even giving Ben a chance to look for work or claim for social security. 

There weren’t even any rent arrears, but Ben didn’t want to cause trouble for his house-mates, so he left by the date on the eviction notice. 

Ben had nowhere to go. After 40 years of work, he had no knowledge of the benefits system or what to do when homeless.

Once, walking back from visiting friends, he was gripped by a suicidal impulse. Swinging his leg over the fence to jump from the footbridge to the motorway, he survived only because the friend with him fought him back. Ben didn’t speak to that friend for two years. It was so hard to still be alive, that being grateful was impossible.

Forced into awful settings

After two months of sofa-surfing, Ben got a place in a hostel – not through the council or the Jobcentre, but through word-of-mouth from another resident. It was a nasty hostel – which is standard for the sector – and many, even most, of the residents at any one time were drug users.

Ben had used cannabis recreationally in the past, at weekends with friends. It hadn’t become a problem for him, any more than alcohol becomes a problem for most drinkers. But in the hostel, drug use – and heavier drugs than cannabis – was the only social activity available and the only way to make friends.

Ben didn’t have many friends and was deeply depressed. Making friends and surviving the sudden penury and misery was important. Drugs were the only answer being offered. In his situation, it was almost a rational choice. Certainly, it was an emotional one. And emotions are powerful beasts, heavily affected by our circumstances.

So Ben ended up with an addiction to crack cocaine and spice. This was unfortunate, because now that he had a registered address he was able to claim benefits and start to have an income and means to live again. It should – if the benefits had been reasonable and Ben’s living accommodation decent – have been the opportunity to get back on track. Instead, Ben was still depressed, in circumstances barely if at all above destitution – and with a new addiction.

Pushed into crisis

Drugs change people’s emotions and attitudes; that’s why people take them. If they didn’t create a high, a release from worry, or a sense of being above the world and its cares, then they wouldn’t be sought after or addictive.

So when Ben took cocaine or spice to relieve depression or keep in with his hostel mates, it also created a devil-may-care attitude, unconducive to following pointless, or downright unhelpful or dangerous jobcentre commands. Neither the high of the drugs nor the depression were likely to help Ben return to stable, full-time work. They certainly hindered any attempts to look for work.

Ben was sanctioned.

Stock image of a hospital 'emergency' sign

Some time later, Ben found himself in hospital. Broken by the use of drugs and attempts to find work, his body had collapsed under him. He’d been in a coma for seven days.

The shock helped Ben want to turn his life around. Crucially, he was also finally offered a council flat, where he still is now. This gave him the break he needed. It is near impossible to withstand the pull to drugs when you are living in a squalid hostel and the only mates around you are taking drugs. 

So Ben got lucky. He was also able to find a rehab clinic to attend every evening. He was still taking spice, and the staff knew it, but he was cutting down and had cut out the cocaine. He was taking steps to get his life back together.

But the Jobcentre still didn’t help. They saw him as a drug-addict; a scrounger; no different from Alan. It was horrendous. He was trying to get off drugs by attending rehab each evening, by no longer taking cocaine and reducing his use of spice, and capitalising on the opportunity he was given by getting a council flat.

But the Jobcentre wasn’t helping. Instead, Ben says: 

“It was like they were stood on me shoulders keeping me under water, like they’re trying to drown me.”​

————  Ben  ————

Ben: They're trying to force me into hard positions

His illness – his depression, his despair, his drug addiction that he was trying to get rid of – meant nothing to the Jobcentre other than as proof that he was a scrounger to be pushed and punished, constantly.

On one occasion he was told to apply for a job that involved working a till. Ben was trying to beat his drug addiction, but he hadn’t beaten it yet and he knew he wasn’t perfect or beyond temptation. To stand at a till, eight hours a day, five days a week, desperate for money to buy drugs, was a temptation that he was not confident he could consistently withstand.

He said this to the Jobcentre work coach. His recognition of his own weaknesses and his desire to overcome them was seen as irresponsibility. He was sanctioned.

Ben’s own thoughts and feelings didn’t matter. He says: “Well, at this moment in time, I’m taking drugs every day. I’m going to dip that till. I know I’m gonna dip that till because that’s where my head is.

“And I didn’t want to do that because it’s summat I’ve never done. But knowing where I am, I don’t want to be put in a situation where it’s gonna cause more anxiety for me because I’m stressed out looking at all this money daily. They’re trying to force me into these positions and sanction me. It was really, really hard.”

Ben’s life in his council flat was really lonely, so to fill his days, he would sit in a park. In a park, he would not take spice openly; he would wait until people weren’t around, and this desire to conceal his habit naturally reduced his consumption. Sitting in a park was also Ben’s most social interaction. Sometimes just seeing people walk by was a comforting reminder that there were other people in the world.

Ben: finding limited help

Stock image: letter tiles spelling 'support'

Ben was able to get help from a local charity, with his benefit claims and to his debt (no-one had told him either that he needed to pay council tax while staying in the hostel, nor how to do so, nor that he could claim council tax support). He started volunteering with the charity, and progressed into paid work at another charity.

When the manager at that charity left, he acted as interim manager. But when he applied for the permanent position, he was told he wasn’t dynamic enough. (This is a man who went on ‘Naked Attraction’!) He’s up for a laugh and joke, and is a fun and gregarious person who is a pleasure to be around. His 40-year work history has given him a solid range of skills, including in management and running shops. He applied three more times for similar positions with that chain, whilst continuing to work as interim manager. But each time he was rejected.

The fourth rejection hit him really hard. He was doing the job, yet kept being refused the permanent position. It was deeply disheartening, and undermined his self-confidence in his ability to put his past behind him. He had to take sick leave for a few months.

He hoped to find a different job, but didn’t get one, so had to return to the store that didn’t want him. When he did get a job with a different company, he was let go after the probationary period for not being good enough with computers.

Ben is now in debt again, because of losing his job. The jobcentre are currently being kind, because he isn’t on drugs (they don’t know about his history) and they can see that he is looking for work. He could seek early retirement, but he wants to work.

He wants the structure, the independence, the extra money. He doesn’t want to depend on state hand-outs or have to seek food parcels to survive, but he is in a perilous situation, physically and financially. If winter comes before he is offered a job, it is hard to see how he will get by.

Ben & Alan: similar paths, similar solutions

Ben and Alan are similar people. But where Alan might be termed a member of the ‘underclass’ for lacking a work ethic and choosing to stay on drugs, Ben’s situation was a response to the circumstances imposed by outside forces – a change in the economy; his boss’s decision to make him redundant; his landlord’s decision to kick him out; the Government’s failure to catch people when society drops them or to ensure a liveable income during jobsearch.

Alan is the kind of person who makes the middle-class scared of the council estate and deprived inner-city wards.

They worry about his behaviour and attitude, and whether they’re at risk of attack and to what extent he is gaming the system. Ben, on the other hand, is not at bottom distinguishable from the working class. He shares their work ethic and commitment to providing for oneself, and takes responsibility – even at the cost of benefit sanctions – for keeping himself away from drugs. Alan should be punished; Ben should be helped.

The problem is that Ben and Alan are the same people. One person is who you see from the outside: the ‘scrounger’. The other is the person on the inside, trying to survive in horrendously challenging circumstances. One is the superficial person who the government insists needs to be punished. The other is the real person, helped by support but held down by sanction.

The lives and truths we don't see

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

The complexities of our lives cannot be broken down into stereotypes. Those of us who have never been in the sort of situation that Alan/Ben experienced will always struggle, to the point of impossibility, to understand the emotions and the survival decisions required. Those of us who have come out of such situations risk false confidence in our own contribution to the escape, and a concomitant false scorn for those still in it.

But what I find most interesting is that ultimately, whatever you think of Alan/Ben, the question about how to respond to is still answered in the same way.

Punishment did not push Alan/Ben into ‘right’ behaviour; it pushed him further down into desperation. What he needed, however much his situation was his own fault or the fault of others and structural factors, was support.

He needed an exit from the environment he was living in; a stable life with stable and sufficient finances; and a community around him to give him joy, purpose and a reason to keep living. It was this support that enabled Alan/Ben to start and maintain efforts to stop taking drugs,. It is the loss of this support, in the loss of his job and the risk of homelessness if he cannot pay his rent, that could push him back into drug-seeking.

The answer to drug addiction, homelessness and unemployment is not punishment, but help. Until the Government and political parties realise this, all we will get is the continuation of policies that make desperate people’s lives much worse, harming both them and wider society.

The answer to drug addiction, homelessness and unemployment is not punishment, but help.

Until the Government and political parties realise this, all we will get is the continuation of policies that make desperate people’s lives much worse, harming both them and wider society.

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

7 ways a Your Local Pantry could help YOUR community in 2024

Artist Don: How Leith Pantry has helped ease my depression

Are we set for a landmark legal change on inequality?

SPARK newsletter winter 2023-24

Let’s say what we truly want society to look like – Let’s End Poverty

Charity and church leaders call for urgent action on rising poverty in the UK and around the world

New Year’s Honour for inspiring campaigner Penny

Meet our five new trustees

Feeding Britain & YLP: Raising dignity, hope & choice with households

Parkas, walking boots, and action for change: Sheffield’s urban poverty pilgrimage

Dreamers Who Do: North East event for Church Action on Poverty Sunday 2024

Autumn Statement: Stef & Church Action on Poverty’s response

Act On Poverty – a Lent programme about tackling UK and global poverty

How 11 people spoke truth to power in Sussex

Obituary: Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ

Annual review 2022-23

Ashleigh: “I think we will become known for making a change”

North East churches & community gather to tackle poverty together

There’s huge public desire to end poverty – will politicians now act?

What is Let’s End Poverty – and how can you get involved?

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Liudmyla and Stephen, with her portrait

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Artist Don: How Leith Pantry has helped ease my depression

Pantry member Don tells us how he and Your Local Pantry helped him have helped each another

A pen drawning of Portobello Beach in Edinburgh, by Don from Leith Pantry

Your Local Pantries are making an amazing difference to people’s lives, in all four nations of the UK.

From Portadown to Portsmouth, Edinburgh to Ebbw Vale, Pantries are bringing people together around food and helping people forge friendships and freedom, to live more full lives.

Pantries are about so much more than food.

We were delighted recently to chat to Donald, a member at Leith Pantry in Edinburgh and a talented artist.

Some of his pictures are now on display in the Pantry, for members and volunteers to enjoy.

A pen drawning of the church that houses Leith Pantry, by Pantry member Don

Donald, who is 66 and recently retired, says:

“I’ve been painting and drawing my whole life. I worked in graphic design at first, then in advertising, in Edinburgh then London then Amsterdam.

“Unfortunately, throughout my life, I have had mental health issues based on my childhood. I have suffered depression really badly.

“About six years ago, I was staying in Holland got really depressed and ended up homeless. I ended up back in Edinburgh and needing to use the food bank. And then they told me about the Pantry.

“I joined just as it was opening a year or so ago, and it was really nice. I go every week. The free vegetables and fruit is great. I’m on a limited income, so I was buying processed food as it’s cheaper, but it’s not as good for you.

“Since joining, I’ve been feeling a bit better and I have been off my medication for the first time in six years.

“It’s improved my diet and I have finally been getting good treatment from the NHS.

“A big part of that improvement has been thanks to Leith Pantry.

“I wanted to give something back, and what I do best is drawing and painting. So I brought a picture in one day and the manager Ann liked it, and now there are five or six on the walls – some of scenes in Leith and Edinburgh, and one of the church where the Pantry is. 

A bright painting of Leith Links, by Don from Leith Pantry

“The Pantry contributed to me feeling better and being able to do my art again, and that in turn helps my mood further.

“I went to the food bank first, but at the Pantry you have choice, which is important. You can choose what you want.

“You also get the good social contacts. It’s well run and they’re always very cheery and I look forward to it every week.”

83% of Your Local Pantry members say membership has been good for their mental health
A blue bunting flag with the Coop and Your Local Pantry logos
Social impact research
2023

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Liudmyla and Stephen, with her portrait

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

This is a guest series, of stories that challenge and change. These are intentionally contrary stories that push back against negative ideas, and force us all to re-examine negative stigmas and stereotypes. They are longer than our usual blogs, and we encourage you to read them when you have the time to do so in full.

These stories are told by Stef Benstead, a social justice campaigner, Manchester Poverty Truth Commissioner, and an expert on the mistreatment of disabled people.

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Meet Sarah

She’s definitely a scrounger. In fact, the street is full of them. You could make a programme about it.

They claim to be ill, and even walk slowly as if to make the point, but they’ve been seen to strim a lawn when they want to. Two of them are active smokers, so their difficulties are their own fault: if they stopped smoking, they’d have more health and more money. You can’t take seriously any incapacity for work that’s based on smoking. 

Another one has been seen dancing in her garden, yet says she has major back pain. You couldn’t make it up. They’re all cheats. It’s no wonder the country is going to the dogs.

What people think they see

Sarah is one of the ones who can often be seen out gardening. And not just her own garden; she’ll be out in her neighbours’ gardens too, helping with those. Sometimes she’s behind a lawnmower; sometimes she’s digging out dock and brambles; sometimes she’s cutting down trees. You might see her out with a cocker spaniel, taking him to the local park, or walking to the nearby shops.

Most assessors, of course, know exactly what she is. But it only takes one to miss it, and let Sarah slip through the net, and give her benefits she shouldn’t get for longer than is appropriate. 

The others know that someone as young and healthy-looking as her, bar paralysis or other identifiable injury, has no real reason to use a wheelchair. And when they ask her what she does, and she says that she does research on disability and social security, all their initial impressions are confirmed.

Who can measure another's pain?

This is someone who knows the benefits system well; who has made a practice of studying it; who has learnt the words to say and how to say them. Her words, therefore, can’t be trusted. 

She is saying what she knows will get her benefits, not what is true about herself. So she is rejected for benefits, on the grounds that she looks healthy and therefore must be healthy, and she knows too much about her alleged illnesses and the benefits system to be telling the truth about them.

Of course, if you asked someone to declare how much pain another person was in based on how they look, they wouldn’t be able to do it.

Nor could they tell you how much dizziness that person feels, or whether it is more of a vertigo or a fug in the head than tingly dizzy. They  couldn’t tell you whether the person feels sick, or hungry, has stomach pain. 

You can’t look at someone and know anything about a vast range of health problems, injuries, and symptoms. 

But that doesn’t stop you trying.

Rare conditions and lazy judgments

Sarah claims to have a condition that means her greatest pain and exhaustion come not at the time of activity, but a day or two later.

But that’s ludicrous. Whoever heard of such a thing? Certainly not any of the benefit assessors or appeal panel members who decide whether or not she deserves benefits.

They are of the opinion that if Sarah’s health declines, then that would be the appropriate time to claim benefits. But if she herself reports feeling fine now, in the moment, then she is fine.

And nor have any of the politicians who design benefit assessment processes heard of such a thing. What they have heard of, though, and told themselves, is people who have wrong attitudes and beliefs, who would be fit for work and able to look after themselves if only someone would tell them so.

When people like Sarah go out and mow lawns, or attend multi-hour meetings, it just reaffirms to observers that these people aren’t really ill. When they want to do something, they can; it’s only when they don’t want to do something that suddenly they are too ill.

It is a shocking moral laxity that needs to be rebuked and punished, not praised and rewarded, but sadly too many politicians of all stripes have been too lax in the benefits system. The assessment criteria need to be tightened, the money that is paid out needs to be cut, and these people need to be required to prepare and look for work in return for the money they receive.

Meet Rosie...

It is especially important that all this happens, so that people like Rosie can be properly protected and cared for. Rosie has a genetic condition called hypermobility Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS). This affects collagen, and as collagen is everywhere in the body her condition has an impact on everything.

It is said that if you were to take everything else out of the body, the collagen remaining would create a perfect replica of what was there. It is in your skin, your blood vessels, your ligaments and tendons, and the fascia that embed and surround every organ and tissue. It is no surprise, then, that when collagen goes wrong, nothing goes right.

Understanding your own symptoms

Rosie experiences a wide range of diffuse symptoms. Fatigue, pain, nausea, dizziness, muscle weakness, difficulty eating, digestive problems, generic inflammation, and more.

It is difficult to test for and prove these things. But when they come together like this, alongside hypermobile joints and evidence of circulatory problems such as Reynaud’s Syndrome and Postural Tachycardia – all things which can be tested and demonstrated – then the diagnosis of hEDS is easy.

And then a whole load of seemingly nebulous and generic symptoms actually make sense and are explained and explainable.

Having a diagnosis makes a huge difference. It means that Rosie understands what is going on in her body when her lymph glands swell and she develops a sore throat and feeling of internal inflammation.

It’s not ‘flu or any other virus; it’s what her body does when she’s over-worked, and it can therefore be avoided by reducing activity levels to keep within what her body can do. Where a respiratory virus is avoided by being careful in crowded places and observing good hygiene, overwork needs a different response. So it is important to know the difference, in order to safeguard properly against it.

It means that when Rosie starts to feel depressed, despairing, or panicked, she knows it’s not usually about her emotional situation. It’s about having done too much over too long a period of time, and her body is rebelling and going on strike in defence against the over-bearing brain.

When the usual remedy for depression is to go out and be active, Rosie now knows that her depression is physical, and that the remedy is to go to bed. This in turn means that she can now stave off suicidality, by knowing that the answer is not to work harder but to work less.

Post-exertional malaise

Stock image: a trowel on grass

Rosie experiences a classic symptom: post-exertional malaise (PEM). This symptom seems to be poorly understood by doctors, let alone benefit assessors, for whom the concept that activity now might cause worse symptoms tomorrow rather than in the moment is apparently bizarre. 

But for people with Rosie’s and related conditions, it is extremely familiar. Doctors who understand Rosie’s condition usually have more familiarity with PEM, but still it is difficult to get across to someone who has never experienced it that you might feel okay today doing X, but tomorrow you will feel awful.

Whilst the answer to Rosie’s physical depression is to rest, that is nevertheless a boring and meaningless existence. And that itself brings depression.

So sometimes, Rosie has to find physical activity to do, that is enjoyable and meaningful, to counter depression that comes from doing, and being able to do, little. For Rosie, that might include gardening. Often this is done sat on the floor with a hand tool, because standing up causes Rosie’s heart rate to soar, and that is a sure trigger for PEM.

When the body battery crashes

One time, Rosie took out a lawnmower, creeping behind it very slowly, in order to help out a neighbour whose birthday was the next day and whose grass was overlong. Rosie’s heartrate hit 170bpm. The targeted heart rate for her age during high-intensity activity is 160.

Activity like that makes Rosie ill the next day. She has fibromyalgia as a consequence of over-working, physically and mentally, in her early 20s when she didn’t yet know that she had hEDS. This flares up as a result of activity and, despite her opioid patches, leaves her pacing the floor in tears if she has really overdone things.

Her body seems to act like it has a virus when it has done too much, with all the sore throat and fuzzy head and aching, heavy limbs and swollen glands that come with it.

Rosie recently acquired a second-hand fitness tracker, which confirms that overactivity makes her ‘body battery’ crash and stay down for days. Her resting heart-rate also increases during these periods.

Sincerity and scorn in one place

Someone like Rosie, presenting to a benefit assessor with only the list of generic symptoms, is easily dismissed as a fraud and malingerer.

The assessor, despite allegedly being trained to assess functionality and not diagnosis, nevertheless treats completely differently two people with the exact same symptoms, but one has a clear tested diagnosis, and the other has no diagnosis.

One is taken  seriously and even recognised as having a lifelong condition. The other is scorned and rejected. The very same symptoms that confirm a genetic condition in the one are taken as evidence of laziness and hypochondria in the other.

See Sarah and Rosie together...

But Rosie is the same person as that malingerer, Sarah, whom we discussed earlier.

You can’t see any of Rosie’s symptoms: her pain levels; her fatigue; her brainfog; her internal inflammation, sore throat, and swollen glands; her drained ‘body battery’ or raised resting heart rate; the way her heart rate shoots up just because she’s upright. A tilt-table test proves the Postural Tachycardia (PoTS) (a heart rate that shoots up when upright), but not the actual debilitating symptoms it causes for Rosie, which might be different for someone else. 

And when a doctor does a simple version of the test, asking Rosie to move from seated to standing, they have generally failed to account for the fact that for someone like Rosie, with severe PoTS, just being seated rather than lying down has already elevated her heart rate, so the scope for her heart to go even higher when standing is limited.

If they think they’re treating Sarah, not Rosie, then they dismiss the evidence for PoTS and tell her that her problems are all down to a lack of fitness.

Who do you see?

A graphic of two overlapping head silhouettes, one in pink, one blue

So the politician, the benefit assessor, the complaining neighbour, and even some doctors only see Sarah.

They never realise they’re dealing with Rosie. They never realise the harm that they cause with their misguided advice, such as to be active when Rosie desperately needs rest, which just makes her physical illness and therefore mental health even worse.

They never realise the impact of their misguided refusal to give Rosie enough money to live off in the belief that going out and getting work is what will make Rosie better, rather than driving her to such physical illness that she despairs of life.

They never realise the damage they cause when they phone the ‘benefit fraud’ hotline, to report Rosie for fraud, because they only see Sarah and not the desperate illness underneath.

In telling her story for this blog, Rosie remained seated with her legs on a footstool to help counter her PoTS. Keeping her legs horizontal helps to let her body know that it really doesn’t need to send the heart-rate so high. Nevertheless, Rosie’s heart spent most of the 30 minutes involved above 120bpm. She was suffering from particularly bad PEM, having over-done things whilst spending time with her two nieces over a week before, and from which her body had not yet recovered.

Dangers are caused when politicians do not understand people

This is the reality behind people like Sarah, and the neighbours you see out walking a dog or strimming their lawn or dancing in their garden.

This is why you will hear them sometimes talk about attending meetings. You see them engage in activity that brings meaning and joy to their life, enabling them to have a reason to keep going. What you don’t see is the impact on their body: the pain, the exhaustion, the inflammation, the inability to eat, the difficulty walking, the vertigo and dizziness and nausea.

You don’t know the price that these people pay to participate at least some times, on their terms, at their discretion.

This is nothing like attending work at someone else’s discretion, without the opportunity to engage only as and when able, or to rest and still remain financially secure.

But until politicians and public understand what it’s really like to be chronically ill, people like Rosie and Sarah will continue to be harmed by the dangerous policies.

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

7 ways a Your Local Pantry could help YOUR community in 2024

Artist Don: How Leith Pantry has helped ease my depression

Are we set for a landmark legal change on inequality?

SPARK newsletter winter 2023-24

Let’s say what we truly want society to look like – Let’s End Poverty

Charity and church leaders call for urgent action on rising poverty in the UK and around the world

New Year’s Honour for inspiring campaigner Penny

Meet our five new trustees

Feeding Britain & YLP: Raising dignity, hope & choice with households

Parkas, walking boots, and action for change: Sheffield’s urban poverty pilgrimage

Dreamers Who Do: North East event for Church Action on Poverty Sunday 2024

Autumn Statement: Stef & Church Action on Poverty’s response

Act On Poverty – a Lent programme about tackling UK and global poverty

How 11 people spoke truth to power in Sussex

Obituary: Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ

Annual review 2022-23

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Liudmyla and Stephen, with her portrait

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Feeding Britain & YLP: Raising dignity, hope & choice with households

Your Local Pantry, Feeding Britain and others are working together to prevent hunger, offer dignity and choice, and co-design a national exit strategy from dependence on foodbanks

The past few years have presented a great many challenges for the country, felt perhaps most keenly by people on low incomes.

We know that all too many households are struggling to afford even the basic costs of living. We hear from parents who are skipping meals to feed their children; from people who are needing to seek support for the first time in their lives; from pensioners who are making the choice between heating and eating; and from people working multiple jobs, who are still unable to make ends meet. 

But across the country, people are coming together around food and with a shared determination to help make change happen.

Communities, friends and neighbours are sharing their resolve and ideas – and across the voluntary and community sector new partnerships are being forged and innovative models of food support are being introduced. 

A toddler in a pushchair holds a box of rice, at a Your Local Pantry

Pantries: a sense of belonging

Feeding Britain and Your Local Pantry are working to develop Pantries which provide members with access to nutritious food, in a dignified setting, with wraparound support on site.

In return for a few pounds each visit, Pantry members can fill their baskets with a broad range of fresh, chilled or frozen, longlife, and household goods, often valued at around £25. Members save £21 per visit on average, and this helps them to stretch their budgets further, and keep their heads above water from week to week.

But Pantries are about so much more than financial savings. Pantries also help members to build dignity, economic independence and choice, and prevent people from needing to rely on crisis food parcels.

They also strengthen people’s sense of belonging and being connected to their community, and have been shown to improve physical and mental health, and food variety. Wraparound support services address additional issues that people are facing, to help them back on their feet long-term.

A member reaches for a bag of salad at Hope Pantry in Merthyr Tydfil

Pantries: places of community

Both Feeding Britain and Your Local Pantry are seeing the impact of these projects. As one member said: “This place helps so much, it just takes that little bit of pressure off. I don’t think I would be coping very well without it. It feels more like a community shop than a foodbank, that takes pressure off too – it makes it easier to walk through the door.” 

In Merthyr Tydfil – an area where 10% of adults have gone hungry, and 28% have struggled to access food – Your Local Pantry and Feeding Britain are working together to support the Hope Pantry, which is part of the Your Local Pantry Network. This Pantry is open two days per week, and members pay £3.50 per visit. Support from Feeding Britain has enabled Hope Pantry to secure a reliable, local, high quality supply of fruit and vegetables to serve their 224 Pantry members, as well as to pilot a similar arrangement for meat – adding to the sense of being a food co-operative which combines members’ collective purchasing power to improve their access to low-cost but good food.

So much more than just food

Heidi, the Hope Pantry Manager told us: “Hope Pantry is much more than just food, it’s grown into a community, where members have made friends, look out for each other, share life together. The impact on the well-being of our members is financial, physical & emotional. 

Partnering with both YLP and Feeding Britain has added value to our pantry. We have good working relationships with a number of local businesses, having been able to trial weekly purchasing of fruit & veg, as well as more recently fresh butcher meat. This is important to us, to keep money in the local economy, and provide healthy nutritious food. Both have resulted in longer term weekly arrangements with the suppliers.”

The greengrocer that supplies Hope Pantry with produce says: “I didn’t know such a provision existed, it’s good to be able to help with fresh seasonal fruit & vegetables. Knowing we have a regular order with the pantry is very helpful to us as a small business.”

Dignity, choice and hope

Feeding Britain and Your Local Pantry feel that projects like the Hope Pantry could play a crucial role in a future shaped by dignity, hope and choice; and help to prevent another decade of lengthening queues for, and growing dependency upon, emergency food parcels.

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Liudmyla and Stephen, with her portrait

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Autumn Statement: Stef & Church Action on Poverty’s response

This is Church Action on Poverty's response to the 2023 Autumn Statement, from campaigner, researcher and writer Stef Benstead.

Stef is a trustee for Church Action on Poverty, author of Second Class Citizens: The Treatment of Disabled People in Austerity Britain, and a member of Manchester Poverty Truth Commission.

Church Action on Poverty's logo, beside a headshot of Stef Benstead

The Government has yet again come up with policy ideas that don’t match the reality of benefit recipients’ lives. Some of what they say sounds good until you realise what the actual issues are. Some of it only sounds good if you think that the right way to help people is to punish them into doing what you want.

A lot of it is very frustrating to anyone who has read the Government’s own research, because their policies tend to be the opposite of what their research says.

Aerial view of Houses of Parliament

Government needs to learn the realities of Universal Credit

The Government is saying it will kick people off all support, if they are on an open-ended sanction for six months and don’t get any money for housing or other issues in their Universal Credit. In their head, I imagine they are thinking of young adults living with their parents, and these young adults are just not bothering to look for work. 

Actually a lot of these young people may already not be claiming benefits at all! Instead the people the Government are talking about could be people who are living in temporary accommodation, B&Bs, hostels, refuges, or sheltered or supported accommodation. They might be sick or disabled, but not have this recognised by Universal Credit because they’re not deemed ill or disabled enough. They might have shared caring duties, but again not have it recognised by Universal Credit because the other carer is claiming those duties on their benefits.

Precisely because their extra challenges aren’t recognised by Universal Credit, these people can be some of our most vulnerable. And now the Government is saying it wants to make these people’s lives even harder by kicking them off benefits completely, just because the challenges of their lives make it difficult for them to do anything and everything a work coach might decide to impose on them.

A screenshot of the Universal Credit website

Government has responsibilities

The Government wants to force people to take unpaid work placements at private companies. The Government tried this ten years ago, and it went down really badly. The public objected to the idea that private companies should profit off forced labour in this way, and that jobseekers should be forced to take low-skill, entry-level activity instead of doing meaningful activity like volunteering. It is crazy that the Government is trying to reintroduce such a bad idea.

The whole ethos of Government ought to be about building an economy with enough jobs and where jobs are decent, and where we look after people rather than making people’s lives as poor and miserable as possible in the belief that this will somehow create enough jobs, and the right sorts of jobs, in the right places. Government likes to talk about rights and responsibilities – let’s talk about the Government’s responsibility to make sure there is a decent standard of living for everyone.

Government should value volunteering

For people seeking work, I’d love to see a Government that valued and prioritised volunteering. One option would be for the Government to treat every hour of volunteering as two hours’ of jobsearch when it comes to applying conditions to jobseekers. This would recognise that people want to work and want to make a meaningful contribution to their community and society. It would recognise that actually, doing 35 hours of jobsearch every week for weeks on end is pretty meaningless and de-skilling, and helps no-one. 

Valuing volunteering would benefit communities, by having useful activity carried out that otherwise doesn’t get done. It would benefit jobseekers, by giving them meaning and purpose in their life, and allowing them to practice skills that could actually lead to a decent job. The Government should be actively pursuing ways to enable jobseekers to engage in voluntary activity like that. It should be the key stream of the job-related support that they offer. 

For people who are too sick or disabled to be able to support themselves through paid work, it is more than time that the Government recognised that we actually exist. It is so frustrating to see the Government complain that we aren’t forced to look for work, when all of the Government’s own research shows that people who are less sick still really struggle to get and maintain paid work. 

A volunteer taking potatoes from a sack in a community pantry

We need the freedom to manage our lives

The Government complains that we’ve been abandoned, when actually the freedom to manage our lives in accordance with our health needs – and not in accordance with the demands of a paid job – is so important.

The Government should be declaring that it wants to enable sick and disabled people to live a fulfilled life, and that it will support us in whatever activity we can engage in – voluntary work; community or religious participation; taking part in family life – and that it will ensure we can access timely, quality healthcare. This does not mean more CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).

A challenge to Christians and churches

Stef Benstead with a copy her book, Second Class Citizens, which looks at the way the UK has breached disabled people's human rights

To Christians, I want to say that God is very clear that He expects leaders to look out for the people they lead. Ezekiel 34 is a whole chapter condemning selfish shepherds and fat sheep for abusing the weak, sick, and injured and for acting harshly and brutally. God frequently pulls leaders up for not acting to ensure justice and the wellbeing of the poor. Government should be looking out for people in society who are struggling and making sure people in power are not exploiting others.

The society that God set up for his people was one that made sure people always had access to a home and a means to live. God used laws around debt, interest, employment, and Jubilee to ensure that everyone was provided for.

The principle is a society making sure everyone has a stable home to live in and a means of income, through work or other financial support. These are principles that Christians should be calling for and pressing Government to provide. Governments have failed to do this for decades and this is a matter of justice. Churches should be challenging Governments when they fail.

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

7 ways a Your Local Pantry could help YOUR community in 2024

Artist Don: How Leith Pantry has helped ease my depression

Are we set for a landmark legal change on inequality?

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Liudmyla and Stephen, with her portrait

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

There’s huge public desire to end poverty – will politicians now act?

This article is by the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, for Challenge Poverty Week.

What do you want for and from your society?

That might sound like a very grand or heavy question for a blog post like this, but it’s one we should all pause to ponder from time to time. 

What do we really want our society and community to look like? 

What might we collectively want to change or redesign? 

Whose voices are being ignored, for instance?  

Nothing in our society is fixed or inevitable. We should all believe change is possible, albeit sometimes difficult. And we should amplify the voices of people who are being denied justice and a fair say. 

How on earth are people on low incomes coping?

I was struck recently by some notable research from the Living Wage Foundation, looking at the impact of the cost of living emergency on low-paid workers. In a poll of 2,000 people, researchers found that hardship remains far higher than before the current economic crisis.  I often think, on checking out in the supermarket and seeing the bill for modest amounts of food, how on earth people on low incomes are coping currently.  

  • half of low-paid workers are worse off than a year ago
  • 39% had regularly skipped meals for financial reasons
  • the same proportion had fallen behind with bills
  • a third had been unable to afford to heat their homes.
  • over a quarter had fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments
  • over a fifth had turned to payday loans just to cover essential costs.  

These numbers are galling. 

There are 3.5 million low-paid workers in the UK, and beneath the headline statistics are millions of human stories: men, women, children, parents, grandparents, friends and neighbours – our fellow citizens, whose lives have been hindered and made harder, and by circumstances entirely beyond their control. 

A Pantry member in a pink top takes her groceries to the counter.
Rising living costs have particularly affected low-income households

We all want dignity - for ourselves and our neighbours

There are severe financial, health and emotional consequences across our community when people’s incomes are squeezed like this, but there is also a huge threat to our shared human dignity.  

For all our differences across society, there is one common aspiration – we all want to live with dignity, and to be able to participate fully and freely in our communities. 

And we all want that dignity, not just for ourselves but for each other. It is not so long ago that millions of us joined the collective mutual aid effort during the pandemic, because we are intrinsically unhappy seeing our neighbours going without.

In our communities, when one of us suffers, we all do. Polling earlier this year showed that almost nine in 10 UK adults says more should be done to tackle poverty in this country. There’s an overwhelming appetite for change, and it’s time for the country’s politicians to heed that call. 

The dignity of people on low incomes is consistently threatened. Sometimes by powerful employers who don’t pay people enough to live on. Sometimes by politicians who choose to keep benefits debilitatingly low. Sometimes by unequally distributed care that isn’t sufficient for everyone. And sometimes by entrenched power structures that exclude people who know first-hand what life in deep hardship is like. 

This isn’t right, but it can change. This week is Challenge Poverty Week in England and Wales, a week in which hundreds of people speak up about solutions that are working well at local level, and which could be emulated more widely.

You might hear about Poverty Truth Commissions, which bring people together at town or city level, merging people’s myriad of expertise and insights – crucially, paying as much heed to the voices of residents as professionals. There have been successful ones already in Leeds, and a York one is ongoing, bringing together the people who make key decisions and the people who are most impacted by them. 

Let's End Poverty

Also this week, many churches and community groups have been holding local discussions around the new Let’s End Poverty campaign

It is possible to change the direction of poverty trends. This is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and we know we have the resources and the expertise required. We also know that there is great public desire. But do we have the political will?  

Each day I pray that we may all be given our daily bread. This must mean each of us getting what is sufficient. Not just some of us. And so many, getting an awful lot more. 

Let’s speak up, not just this week but frequently, for what we want our society to look like. Let’s celebrate the work of the unsung people and organisations that make our communities tick, but let’s also call on our politicians to be ambitious for our lowest-income neighbours, and to deliver policies and plans that ensure the dignity of everyone.  

Let’s speak up for a future where everyone has enough to live on. Where everyone has enough to eat. Where everyone is able to wake up each day unhindered by income in the pursuit of their ambitions, and equipped to participate fully in our society.

That’s what I want from society, and this Challenge Poverty Week, let’s listen to people with first-hand experience of poverty, whose ideas and insights are essential to building that better future more quickly. 

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

7 ways a Your Local Pantry could help YOUR community in 2024

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Liudmyla and Stephen, with her portrait

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

How YOUR church can build community & save people £21 a week

Your Local Pantry began in one neighbourhood but now brings communities together across the UK. How did it grow so far and fast?

A toddler in a pushchair holds a box of rice, at a Your Local Pantry

For Kirsty in the Midlands, it’s a fantastic place to meet people and save a little money.

For Sarah, who volunteers in Cardiff, it has become a second home, a place of friendship, fun and food.

For Tam in Edinburgh, it has brought friendship and freedom – membership has freed up money for him to buy his family presents on special occasions. 

Across the UK, more than 90,000 people have now enjoyed the wide-ranging benefits of Your Local Pantry membership. The first Pantry has just turned ten years old, and this week, in Kent, the 100th Pantry opened.

But how did the network grow so far and so fast? This blog looks at the story so far, and shares some learnings and lessons that could help your own work. 

Particularly, if you are active in your church, it aims to show how a Your Local Pantry could help your church to bring people together around food in a dignified and hope-filled way. 

A volunteer in a Your Local Pantry hoody chats to a member. They are sitting beside a coffee table, the volunteer with her back to the camera, the member facing it.
Pantries offer so much more than food - including community, friendship and support

As a starting point, here’s a quick overview of what Pantries are, with contributions from around the UK:

So Much More: The Pantry story

We have just launched So Much More, our new report looking at the impact Pantries are having across the UK. It made for positive reading. 

Pantry members now save £21 on groceries, each time they use the Pantry, meaning regular members can save more than £1,000 a year.

But as the title says, Pantries are doing so much more than helping members save money.

  • They are bringing people together around food.
  • They are strengthening community cohesion.
  • They are reducing isolation and improving physical and mental health.
  • They are creating opportunities and hope, and loosening the grip of poverty in people’s lives.

Here are just three of the many uplifting comments from Pantry members quoted in the report:

I was able to save up to buy a bike for my son so he can get to college. I am saving towards us having a short family holiday this year, which we've never had before.

————    ————

Thanks to the Pantry I have an advocate to help me manage my debts

————    ————

It has been great to see my autistic son’s mental health improve in coming here. He doesn’t usually want contact with anyone, but he has taken to some of the volunteers really well – even walking round holding their hands

————    ————

Pantries are a remarkable nationwide success story, but the idea began very modestly, in just one neighbourhood, in one town, in the north west of England. It began as a small seedling that has grown and blossomed and spread, carried all over the UK on the winds of kindness and community.

A posed line-up of 8 people in front of a gazebo and Your Local Pantry signs
Communities do so much more when they work together. This event in Stockport in May 2023 marked the 10th anniversary of the first Pantry.

Anna Jones remembers the early days well.

She was working for Stockport Homes, and many residents were in the midst of crisis. The controversial ‘bedroom tax’ was forcing people to move or be penalised, and there were not enough smaller homes available.

At the same time, the food redistribution charity FareShare was doing some deliveries to temporary housing nearby, leading to the spark of an idea.

“We noticed a real increase in food bank use at that time, and Stockport Homes was really worried how residents would make ends meet. We started looking into different food schemes.

“There were lots of different ideas – free food distribution, or a food hall serving meals for instance – but we decided the most impactful thing would be to do a volunteer-led community food store, where people contributed towards it.”

So Much More: a seed that has grown

That store opened in May 2013 as Penny Lane Pantry, the first Your Local Pantry in the country

Anna says: “The first challenge was to try to get the community behind it, in Lancashire Hill [a group of blocks of flats in north Stockport]. The community food store was a great idea. There was some initial wariness, but we asked residents to choose the name in a competition, and someone came up with the name Penny Lane Pantry.

“We really wanted to do something that had a big impact with residents and gave people ownership of the project, and the benefit of volunteering experience and opportunities.

“It had a real focus on bringing the community together. It’s quite a self-contained area of 900 flats, and we wanted it to be an inclusive environment.”

One of the first Pantries, in Stockport. The network has grown so much more than anyone expected.

After Penny Lane, Stockport Homes opened further Your Local Pantries around the town: in Brinnington, Bridgehall, Mottram Street, and Woodley. And then, in 2017, Pantries went national.

Dave Nicholson is now on the board of Skylight, the charity that sits under Stockport Homes, but back then was working for Church Action on Poverty, tasked with finding community initiatives that mitigated against the ‘poverty premium’ – the unjust pricing structures that makes life more expensive for people on low incomes.

He was looking at the “five Fs” (food, finance, fuel, furniture and white goods, and funerals), and was looking for initiatives that could be scaled up and developed more widely.

One evening, he was chatting to a friend in a pub, The Beer House in Chorlton in Manchester, when he hit a stroke of luck: that friend also happened to know Anna, and introduced them on the spot.

Dave went to visit the first Pantries, and was immediately impressed, and the national journey had begun.

A Pantry member in a pink top takes her groceries to the counter.

So Much More than a handout

“What I really liked was the potential and how things were developing and could further develop,” Dave recalls. “I started spending a lot of time with them and with similar initiatives. 

“I was impressed that it was a member-based approach, so there was a much greater degree of agency for the people involved. It’s not just charity and handouts, which is what food banks tend to be. Also, it had potential to be more sustainable in terms of food and easing the poverty premium.

“I thought, right from the beginning, it was like people reinventing the Coop, emulating what the mill workers in Rochdale had done in 1844 – coming together and setting up their own systems.

“Church Action on Poverty started looking at the model and got some people to help, and then in 2017 we launched the Your Local Pantry network as a franchise model.

“I always thought it might take off in Greater Manchester, but I did not give much thought to anything beyond that. It’s incredible how it has grown.”

A woman takes a bag of salad from a shelf, while chatting to a volunteer.
Pantries offer so much more variety than many people realise

So Much More to be proud of

Today, Anna too says she feels a real sense of achievement in the way the first Pantries fostered a community togetherness, and at the way it has grown further than anyone could have imagined. 

“Each of them has a very different personality and audience,” she says.

“The number of people who have joined, is quite astonishing – how it has grown! Initially, we thought it would help people save money, but it has done a lot more than that. 

“Pantries have always charged, because we knew we had to be self-sustaining, and we wanted it to be somewhere without stigma associated. People knew they were paying their way, and we made it clear that money was going back into the Pantry.

“It’s incredible how it has grown from that first Pantry. I still keep in touch with Fiona, who also worked on the Pantries, and we say when we’ve seen where the latest Pantry is.

“We are still very invested in it and feel overjoyed by it. It’s a nice legacy to look back on. From small, humble beginnings and a small impact with 100 members, it is still supporting people.”

That figure, the number of people who have enjoyed the fruits of Pantry membership has risen rapidly from that initial 100. 

Today, more than 33,000 people are benefiting, and over the past ten years the total is more than 90,000. More and more communities have seen what Pantries can do for their neighbourhoods – and what neighbourhoods can do for each other. 

A volunteer lifts a crate of bread out of a car boot.

So Much More: a call to the country

Communities have shown us that there is so much more they can do when they come together, and when they are entrusted with resources and support.

Yet, at the same time, we know they cannot do everything on their own. Pantries operate within a difficult wider context, and they are sometimes hindered rather than helped by systems beyond their control.

In our So Much More report, many members, volunteers and Pantry tell of the acute damage being wrought by soaring living costs. 

Many Pantries are also now having to spend significant sums on food, topping up their stocks, as the FareShare distribution network struggles to meet soaring need. 

This should be a wake-up call to the whole country, and one that rings loudly at Westminster above all. 

Community organisations have long warned that charity is not the long-term answer to food insecurity. It will take so much more than that. Government must now step up. Everyone should have access to good food, and that means all incomes need to keep pace with rising living costs, so people are not swept deeper into poverty.

A volunteer lifts potatoes from a sack. Only his hands are shown, his face is off-camera.
Pantry members say they cherish being able to access so much more fresh food

Today, there are Pantries in all four nations of the UK, from Edinburgh to Ebbw Vale, Portadown to Portsmouth. There are particular clusters in Merseyside, the West Midlands, Edinburgh and Greater London, and smaller clusters in South Wales and Portsmouth.

About half of Pantries are church-based, across several denominations. Others are hosted by community centres, charities, local councils or independent local organsiations.

And there is so much more growth still to come… We expect today’s 100 Pantries to be joined by another 125 by the end of 2025, thanks to a partnership with Coop across the UK.

The network has spread, the membership has grown rapidly, but the day to day good that Pantries do has remained a steady constant. 

And what do Pantries do?…

Pantries bring people together around food.

Pantries create the physical space for local people to meet, and forge new relationships, swapping recipes, ideas, stories and kindness.

Pantries soften the impact of high living costs, reducing shopping bills and giving people some much-needed financial wriggle room.

Pantries help communities and groups of friends to create breathing space together, to pause and chat and think, to lighten the load together and to share ideas that can start making change happen.

Pantries do all this and more. Because, while people can do wonderful things alone, when we come together, blend, complement and bring out each other’s strengths, the possibilities are even greater.

 

So Much More: over to you...

Could you start a Pantry in your church or community? Here we provide some information about how to get started.

Your Local Pantry is a network built on the values of dignity, choice and hope. Pantries bring people together around food, leading to people avoiding food poverty, making large savings on their grocery bills, and strengthening community. 

Setting up a Pantry is relatively low-cost if you have a venue, volunteers and a good supply of food. Pantries can cover most of their operating costs from weekly membership fees.

Our team have experience in helping to set up and support 100 Pantries around the UK. We have a tried and tested plan and a positive approach centred on dignity, choice and hope.

You can find out so much more about the benefits of Pantry membership, and enquire about setting one up, by clicking the logo below.

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Church on the Margins reports

Church Action on Poverty North East annual report 2022-24

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition

Building hopes and dreams in Bootle

This outrageous, counter-productive Budget marginalises people with least

A sermon for Church Action on Poverty Sunday

Stories that challenge: Emma’s road to church

Sheffield voices: We need higher incomes and more for young people

Cost of living scandal: 7 truly useful church responses

Stories that challenge: Alan & Ben

7 ways a Your Local Pantry could help YOUR community in 2024

Artist Don: How Leith Pantry has helped ease my depression

Are we set for a landmark legal change on inequality?

SPARK newsletter winter 2023-24

Let’s say what we truly want society to look like – Let’s End Poverty

Charity and church leaders call for urgent action on rising poverty in the UK and around the world

New Year’s Honour for inspiring campaigner Penny

Meet our five new trustees

Feeding Britain & YLP: Raising dignity, hope & choice with households

Parkas, walking boots, and action for change: Sheffield’s urban poverty pilgrimage

Dreamers Who Do: North East event for Church Action on Poverty Sunday 2024

Autumn Statement: Stef & Church Action on Poverty’s response

Act On Poverty – a Lent programme about tackling UK and global poverty

How 11 people spoke truth to power in Sussex

Obituary: Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ

Annual review 2022-23

Ashleigh: “I think we will become known for making a change”

North East churches & community gather to tackle poverty together

There’s huge public desire to end poverty – will politicians now act?

What is Let’s End Poverty – and how can you get involved?

Our partner APLE is looking for new trustees

Nottingham’s first Your Local Pantry opens

SPARK newsletter autumn 2023

Urban Poverty Pilgrimage: Towards a Theological Practice

SPARK newsletter summer 2024

Silhouettes of eight people, against different coloured backgrounds

Stories that challenge: Sarah and Rosie’s health

Liudmyla and Stephen, with her portrait

Dreams & Realities: welcome to an incredible exhibition