As celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, calls on the Government to extend free school meals to the holidays, PETER BARRON visits a charity project has seen a 20 per cent rise in families needing help this summer…

GREAT grandma Joan Naylor’s busy stacking shelves amid a hive of activity in the little community shop that’s a lifeline to more families than ever.

“I love it here – it keeps me young,” smiles Joan, who volunteers three days a week at the 'eco-shop' in Victoria Park, Thornaby.

“I enjoy meeting people and it’s nice to know you’re making a difference to people who need help,” she adds. “With the summer holidays, we’re busier than ever. We’re seeing new faces coming in all the time.”

The shop sells cut-price food, clothing, toiletries, and baby supplies – donations from supermarkets and other retailers that would otherwise go to landfill. Additional food is gratefully accepted from local allotment-holders.

It’s all part of a pioneering model set up by social housing association, North Star, in partnership with the Sprouts Community Food Charity.

The first piece of the jigsaw was the nearby Havelock Street ‘Community Hub’, which was bought by North Star more than 20 years ago, and has grown in importance ever since.

North Star saw the potential to work with Sprouts, which was already doing great work in the community, and the charity was given access to use the hub for a range of initiatives and activities.

As the need for support increased during the pandemic, the community shop was opened across the road in the park. On one side of the shop is a community garden, where local people can grow their own produce. On the other is the newly opened Victoria Café, run by Sprouts in a building managed by Thornaby Town Council, and serving affordable, nutritious food.

“It’s a model that’s been a huge success and a more sustainable and dignified solution than foodbanks," says Peter Locke, Head of Communities for North Star.

The Northern Echo:

“We’ve established similar partnerships in Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and East Cleveland, and we’d like to have more in other parts of the North-East, but the key is finding the right community partner.”

And it’s a model that’s proving its worth more than ever as families try to cope with the extra pressures brought by the school summer holidays, with free school meals unavailable for six long weeks.

North Star and Sprouts are seeing a 20 per cent increase in customers at the shop, with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by the school holidays.

It’s why celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, has been making national headlines this month by joining calls for the Government to carry on providing free school meals during the holidays.

His campaign comes as a survey by the Trussel Trust revealed that one in four secondary school children know someone their age who regularly skips meals and goes hungry.

“We're seeing families who fear the school holidays because they don’t know how they’ll afford to get through the six weeks,” adds Peter.

“That anxiety starts building a month before the kids break up, and it’s not only families on free school meals – it’s gone beyond that now.

"We do what we can to provide support but it’s not solving the underlying issue. A long-term solution has to be found.”

Sprouts’ manager, Debbie Fixter, agrees: “We already had a lot of people using the shop, but that’s 20 per cent up easily this summer, with a growing number of working families needing help because food and staple goods are still shockingly expensive,” she says.

The Northern Echo:

“There’s a real knock-on effect on families because they can’t afford to do anything with their children. By saving money on essentials through the shop, it means they can do something nice with the kids.

"We had a mum the other day who was able to buy her kids an ice cream and that meant the world to her.”

Sprouts pays £25 a week to be a member of FareShare, the UK’s largest charity fighting hunger and and food waste. In return, it gets 10 crates of surplus food from supermarkets and other retailers. It also works with the Cultivate co-operative to grow food in the community garden.

In previous years, Sprouts has also arranged children’s activities in the 140-year-old park, but that hasn’t been possible this year because the park is being renovated.

However, North Star supports a number of holiday clubs in the region, and has recently arranged family events, offering fun activities and food, at Darlington and Barnard Castle.

Meanwhile, in the Victoria Café, mum-of-two, Chantelle Shuttleworth is having lunch with children Isabelle, eight, and Penny, five, having already done her shopping next door.

“It’s a lifeline for us because of the cost of food,” says Chantelle, who is a registered carer for her disabled grandfather.

“Even though my partner works full-time in retail, we're still considered a low-income family.

"It’s been noticeable how many more people are using it during the holidays – it’s busier than ever.”

Before midday, there’s already been 75 customers through the shop, having queued up in time-slots allocated by a number picked up earlier from the hub.

Chantelle has done a food hygiene course with Sprouts, and her family are among those growing food in the community garden.

“We should be getting some onions through soon,” she explains.

But, in recognition of the help they receive, the family are also keen to put something back into the community.

They’re active in a local litter-picking group, while Chantelle also volunteers with the 'Grow Baby' project. Funded by North Star and managed by Sprouts, Grow Baby collects donations of clothes for pre-school children and distributes them through Thornaby’s Vineyard Church.

“Everyone just pulls together – the charities, the volunteers, and the families. It’s amazing really because no-one should be worried about the school holidays, should they?” says Chantelle.

If Jamie Oliver wants to see an initiative that’s not only highlighting the increasing financial pressure on hard-up families, but providing joined-up support where it matters, he should look no further than this impoverished but enterprising part of Teesside.