JB Gill, the former member of X Factor boy band JLS, now a TV presenter, was on hand with the Mayor of Croydon to open London’s first combined welfare and food club for hundreds of people in Fieldway and New Addington.
The subsidised mini-market has been set up by Croydon Council together with community group The Family Centre and charities, in response to the genuine hardship being endured by the unemployed and people on the Tory Government’s disastrous Universal Credit system.
Following the ribbon-cutting duties performed by Gill and the Mayor, Toni Letts, families on Universal Credit in Fieldway and New Addington can get around £20-worth of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy and other foods each week for £3.50 at the Food Stop based at The Family Centre.
In return for access to the discounted groceries, families in need are signed up to receive help from Croydon Council’s Gateway service.
Established in response to the Government welfare reforms, the Gateway service has helped more than 1,000 families avoid homelessness through support with household budgeting, benefits advice and training courses to improve their maths, English and digital skills.
It is not the only intervention from Croydon’s Labour-run council to try to stave off the worst impact of the ill-considered changes to the welfare system.
At Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, highlighted how Croydon had to spend £3million of its budget to prevent private tenants, unable to pay their rent or in arrears, from being evicted. Delays in receiving benefits through Universal Credit had created many of the arrears problems, and Croydon Council decided it was better to step in than be faced with the disruption, and potentially greater costs, of dealing with families made homeless through evictions.
Croydon was one of the first areas in the country trial the Tories’ Universal Credit system.
“Croydon Council which piloted the scheme is now spending £3million of its own budget to prevent tenants from being evicted due to rent arrears caused by Universal Credit,” Corbyn said, challenging the temporary Prime Minister, Theresa May. “Does the Prime Minister think it’s right or fair that hard pressed local authorities, having their budget cut by central government have to step in in this way?”
The Government may have abandoned the 55p per minute call charges for people using their Universal Credit “helpline” – having been shamed into doing so by the Labour opposition – but the six-week delays in making payments to benefit claimants remains a cause of great hardship to many families, including the working poor.
Fieldway and New Addington are the two most deprived wards in Croydon.
Since the beginning of this year, Croydon’s Gateway service has helped 56 families in New Addington and Fieldway who are on benefits. So far 29 have been helped to keep their tenancies, eight have been prevented from being made homeless and 14 previously long-term unemployed single parents have been helped into work.
The Food Stop will be open every Wednesday and Friday to anyone who has an address in Fieldway or New Addington wards, but priority is given to residents on benefits such as Universal Credit.
Membership will include access to council officers offering help to prevent homelessness and support with household finances. Members will also receive access to a weekly jobs club, volunteering opportunities, healthy cooking workshops and support to quit smoking.
The mini-market offers a wider range of products than usually provided at a food bank, and customers have more choice. Food with a short shelf-life, such as fresh fruit, vegetables and bread, is free.
The Food Stop has been made possible by volunteers and staff at The Family Centre and FareShare, a national charity that sources and delivers surplus supplies to the Food Stop. The scheme is part-funded with £16,600 from the Evening Standard’s Dispossessed Fund, £5,000 from council repairs contractor Mulalley, and £10,000 from the council.
As part of the project, FareShare has enabled the Food Stop to become a local collection point for other charities who distribute free food elsewhere, such as the Salvation Army.
Julia Weller, chief executive officer from the Family Centre, said the initial target is to get 100 members of the Food Stop. She said: “Our priority is anyone who is out of work, but we would like to open it up because there are also the working poor we want to include.”
She said the Food Stop is a community effort, from council Gateway staff offering logistical help and local volunteers painting the centre, to Tesco in Elmers End donating surplus food.
She added: “We couldn’t have done any of this without everyone’s input, from the council and FareShare to local residents.”
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