Food poverty in Surrey, fact or fiction?
The free school meals debate rages on across national media outlets, across party lines in parliament and local social media.
A senior Tory has declared the party has to “admit we’ve misunderstood the mood of the country”. There are Conservatives across Surrey who have been saying that since the vote against extending the scheme.
There are examples in action right now across Surrey where party politics have been put aside, with the notable exception, perhaps of a few of the usual suspects. Political activists and councillors from a broad political spectrum are rolling up their sleeves to make sure families can feed their children. They know food poverty in Surrey is very real.
There is a common misconception in Surrey that because there is a lot of affluence in the county that food poverty does not exist. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In Michael Gove‘s constituency of Surrey Heath, for instance, there is the UK’s most expensive house in the village of Windlesham. The most wooded Borough in the country is also home to some world-famous people including Queen guitarist Brian May and HRH Earl of Wessex.
Yet just a short 4-minute drive from Prince Edward’s mansion at Bagshot Park, you will find yourself at the Old Dean estate which is one of the most deprived areas in the county.
Camberley resident, Trefor Hogg, Chairman and Trustee of the Old Dean Community Group, a registered charity, has been running, along with a team of volunteers a free fresh fruit and vegetable store. The produce on the stall is as a result of donations from home growers gardens, allotments and kind-hearted local businesses.
The stall was created from a plan put together to get ready for the inevitable impact from COVDID-19 by the local church and the Old Dean Community Group.
The Old Dean estate is a recognised area with multiple deprivation issues. The economic effects of the Pandemic and Lockdown hit the area hard with very many people on reduced pay or rendered unemployed. Many of them are in short term service sector jobs or had been self-employed, and there are quite a few NHS support workers.
As the lockdown eased, it became apparent that lack of money to even food for their families had become a serious issue. Over a hundred families were using Free School Meals, meaning around a third of the pupils at the local schools according to Trefor. He talked to the local Allotment’s Management Committee and asked if they could help out with some of their products. He also arranged with the local church to provide the venue. Trefor advertised the initiative on the Old Dean Community Group Facebook group.
Old Dean Community Group alongside St Martin’s have now been running the Free Food Stall as a joint project since the end of July.
At first, with just allotment/ homegrown food and more recently with vegetables and fruit provided by Mr Emment’s Fruit & Vegetable Emporium at cost.
The first Sunday we ran it, one of those who came was a young mum walking by us who asked me what we were doing. She was on the way to the local store with her last £5 for the week. That was to buy food to feed both her and her two children. Trefor and his team of volunteers were able to turn things around for her with two bags full of produce and a tray of eggs. Trefor said, “We had to gently persuade her as she was concerned about taking more than her fair share”.
Approximately 100 families from the Old Dean make some use of the free food stall every week with a mixture of regulars and new faces. They also deliver food parcels from the stall to several residents who are housebound or still shielding.
Additionally, Conservative Borough Councillor and School Governor Shaun Garrett has organised packed lunches for collection for families struggling to feed their children during the October half term. Shaun says that food poverty in Surrey is an issue which he sees first hand at the schools he is a governor at and where breakfast clubs have been organised to ensure children can focus on lessons and not hunger. Shaun and his ward colleague, have put political differences aside for the benefit of children in the community.
Following a lot of weekend hard work from the Old Dean Community Group, St.Martin’s Church, High Cross Church, local schools & the two Old Dean Borough Cllrs (1 blue/1 red), a local plan is now in place to help OD children on free school meals next week. Well done to all involved
— Rodney Bates (@RodneyBates1) October 25, 2020
The situation at the Old Dean is not unique in Surrey. There are other boroughs within, what is considered an affluent county with recognised areas of severe deprivation. So food poverty in Surrey is very real.
There must be more innovative ways to address the problem of food poverty in Surrey. One idea could be to utilise the meals at home service or look at ways in which school kitchens can operate on skeleton staff during the school holidays.
The resident’s network hopes that the Government will have a change of heart and reconsider its position. Furthermore, we hope opposition parties and local Surrey activists do not seek to capitalise on the situation.