Alnwick is a town of around 8,000 people in north Northumberland. Although historically it’s been a relatively prosperous market town, we also have a food bank that has seen a massive increase in use since the start of the pandemic. A mutual aid group sprung up last year too, and one of our main initiatives was to set up a community larder in a phone box. It was run according to the very simple principle of ‘take what you need, leave what you can’. There was a reliance on trust and goodwill and while mutual aid might not yet be a well-established principle in Northumberland, both trust and goodwill are. People kept it topped up entirely autonomously and it was heartening to see how people who may have had to go without themselves wanted to help other people in their community. It was a lifeline to some people. The food bank does fantastic work and building on this, the Community Larder helped avoid some of the stigma involved in asking for help from an established organisation; the Larder’s central location in Alnwick made it easy to drop off and collect food with relative anonymity.
Things ran reasonably smoothly for 10 months. We used ideas like surplus food apps to keep the Larder topped up, set up a cleaning rota to ensure things were as hygienic as possible, and created a fundraising page on Open Collective for when the shelves were empty. A lot of the support came from people who were already active in community aid efforts and we’re hugely grateful to them.
We did come up against some conservative attitudes; complaints were made about people who were known to be receiving support from other organisations taking ‘too much’ from the Larder. Worries were expressed that the Larder would attract ‘undesirable’ people. Rumours flew round that one of the people who regularly took food was, to use a direct quote, ‘a male prostitute’. As a mutual aid group, our position was and remains that we make absolutely no judgement on who can take food from the Larder. No human being is ‘undesirable’. Sex workers need to eat, just like everyone else.
Recently, however, a shop owner complained because a pear was thrown through their window, smashing it. The Community Larder had pears in it, therefore, the Larder had to close. The police and council had already been contacted and so by this stage, we had few other options but to close, albeit hopefully on a temporary basis. We had so far been operating independently of the council or any official organisations and the concern is that we’ll be outright banned. After nearly a year of operating without incident, it seems something of an overreaction to call for our closure. If a brick had been thrown through the window, nobody would be demanding the closure of local building sites. For those people who see the world in terms of ‘desirables’ and ‘undesirables’, it’s easy to view initiatives like the Community Larder as ‘bringing the tone of the town centre down’. We’re seen as easy to get rid of, which is why people jump to the most extreme solution.
We have no interest in pointing the finger of blame, either at individual shop owners or pear-throwers. Our priority is to help people. The issues facing our society are systemic and complex. While we can’t help with everything, people need to eat, and although this was just one phone box in one small town, it was helping people who needed help. Since we’ve had to close, some people have expressed the opinion that they saw this coming and that it was only a matter of time before our goodwill was abused. We reject this idea. People want to help people, and our volunteers have been doing exactly that, taking great personal risks to provide support during the pandemic, and doing the boring, unglamorous job of disinfecting a phone box on a daily basis. It is easy to dismiss initiatives like these as naïve but it is extremely disingenuous to do so without providing any support yourself. One harmful incident in no way cancels out the support we have given, and in no way should it mean that we’re forced to close down without compromise. Imagining those who were relying on the larder for food being confronted this morning with a ‘closed’ sign is heart-breaking, and we don’t want to let that stand.
If you are able to advise on a location for the Community Larder which would maintain the discreet nature and principle of not judging any individuals for their circumstances, we’d be delighted to hear it, or any other ideas you have! There has been an outpouring of support on social media from the moment we announced we’d had to close, which is really encouraging. We’re on Facebook and can be emailed on mutualaidalnwick(at)gmail.com.
Katie Roskams / @72stroopwafels
All photos by Mutual Aid Alnwick.