Football stadium turned pop-up pantry now lifeline for many struggling families

News

On the concrete terrace of Ashton United Football Club where supporters would usually gather is a trestle table laid out with bread, pasta and boxes of cereal.

Matches are postponed because of coronavirus, but for single mother Emma Rebinska, this historic little ground on the edge of Manchester provides a weekly fixture far more vital than football.

Emma, 40, is the first to turn up at a pop-up pantry – funded by Save the Children – which provides carrier bags of basic essentials to struggling local families for a sum of £3.

There is too much pride here for people to accept hand-outs.

Arriving on a wintry morning with her 18-month-old daughter Molly in a pushchair, Emma admits that the pantry is a lifeline they now depend on.

“It has been a Godsend,” says mum-of-four Emma, a former dental nurse. “I have been coming here since before the school holidays after hearing about what they were doing from a neighbour.

“Without this, getting through the week would be really difficult; I cannot afford the basic essentials. I would not be able to buy these things for my children. The benefit cap means I have much less to pay for food than I did before.

“It has been much more difficult during the pandemic, so what I am able to take home in this shopping bag tides us over.”

Like many of the 30-odd parents who come here on Thursdays, Emma would be keen to take on a job to pay for her children’s welfare. As well as Molly, she has Harry, four, Lilly, six, and Luke, nine, to provide for.

But in recent times each time she has applied for a post, she has lost out because the employer has opted for someone younger able to work more hours for less money.

Emma’s stated ambition of getting back to work is “easier said than done”, she admits.

For now, each day is a challenge for the mum and her children, one none of them would be able to tackle without this extra help.

They are not the only ones. After opening earlier this year to provide lunchboxes for hungry children during school holidays and lockdown, this temporary pop-up facility was supposed to close in September.

However surging demand throughout the pandemic has led to it becoming more permanent.

Save the Children has added more funding for the pantry to keep it going, at least until the end of this year.

What began as an emergency response has evolved into a lifeline.

“I know that my children have been affected by the lockdown, mentally and emotionally, particularly the older ones, ” Emma continues. “They just don’t really understand what is happening.

“Trying to explain why they can’t go out and play is just impossible. They get bored a lot, and then all they want to do is eat.

“That’s why it is so good coming here. As well as food they have also supplied us with activity packs. These were really good because they were targeted at families with no access to digital devices, people like us who cannot afford internet fees.”

Government figures released earlier this year revealed that more than one in four children in Ashton and the surrounding area are living in poverty.

  • £5 could pay for a day’s’ food for a child so they don’t have to miss a meal
  • £10 could buy a Christmas present for a child
  • £20 could buy an educational toy
  • £50 could buy a pack of educational games and books
  • £100 could buy a bed for a child so they can get a good, safe night’s sleep

The town on the edge of the Manchester conurbation, nestled below Pennine foothills, was identified as one of the hardest-hit parts of the city in 2016.

Julie Wilson, who leads the Smallshaw-Hurst Children’s Community Network in Ashton for Save the Children, explains that the generosity of the football club has been an incredible help.

“The hunger was very palpable during lockdown,” she says.

Now, however, a more sustainable solution is needed in Ashton-under-Lyne, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner’s constituency.

Later in the morning Dawn Cheetham, who works part-time for the local council, arrives through the football club’s open wrought-iron gates.

Dawn, 46, became a widow last year after the sudden death of her husband Phil, who was only 47. She is also the prime carer for her parents, for whom she has had to obtain food and other essentials while they were shielding inside their nearby home.

An incredibly tough time has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis in 2020.

For her two daughters Elise, nine, and Amalee, five, the support provided by the volunteers has made a traumatic situation more bearable.

Coupled with her grief, Dawn has had to manage on a tightened budget because the working tax credits she would have previously been entitled to have been superseded by Universal Credit, which she cannot claim.

Smiling, despite her circumstances, Dawn declares: “These guys have been absolutely brilliant. I really can’t thank them enough.

“I have found it hard adjusting to being a lone parent. We had been together for 27 years and then my whole life came crashing down.

“When lockdown happened it was so hard for my children. They missed their friends more than anything. I tried to make it fun, but it’s not the same.

“That was why I started coming here in March. On VE Day they gave us hats and banners so we could have a party. They gave us pumpkins for Halloween. They are so lovely here. It’s a real community thing.

“That’s one of the few good things about lockdown – people have been really helping each other out.”

Christine Beresford, 54, a local community activist, talks of rising levels of food poverty even before the pandemic.

“The number of families going without food and heating has been going up,” said Christine, who lives close to the football ground.

“It’s become more obvious in recent years. I have definitely noticed more deprivation during the pandemic. Anxiety and depression are definitely on the rise.

Earlier this year, Lynda Moyo gained inspiration to establish Lemon-Aid, a newsletter community composed of like-minded parents and carers all dealing with the lemons that life gave us whilst learning to adapt to the ‘new normal’.

Now, the daily newsletters that have put a smile on the faces of so many for the past eight months have been compiled into one handy E-book. For each e-book sold, 99p will be donated to the Save the Children Fund.

The £1.99 book recounts the relatable, sometimes hilarious and albeit down right strange situations of being a parent in lockdown.

The valuable lockdown tips, tricks and hacks of the original newsletters now grace the pages of the book alongside comical and witty observations thrown in for good measure.

You can also expect notes on subjects such as the joy of lockdown birthdays and the complexity of successfully establishing home school whilst working a 40 hour week and trying to reclaim your positivity.

The ongoing success of the original Lemon-Aid newsletters is sure to make this book a staple of the family bookcase as we continue to navigate an extremely testing year.

“Since Covid came, some families have been stuck in their homes without enough food. I would always collect tins to help families over Christmas but since my mum died I haven’t been able to, so this project has stepped into that gap. It gives so much support.

“Some of them were too ashamed to ask for help, or for me to take it to them. They don’t want to talk about their personal circumstances because they are still parents and don’t want to think they can’t feed their own kids.

“When the children were all off school in the first lockdown some of them just didn’t have enough food because the benefit payments were so slow. Parents were going without in order to make sure their children were fed.

“Most of the families on the estate where I live didn’t have laptops and they can’t afford the internet so they couldn’t do home-schooling. They cannot afford home phones or top-up credits.”

What she describes is a vacuum in the digital age, a space into which those without a voice can so easily vanish unheard.

Thanks to Save the Children they have a better choice of getting through this most uncertain year. And hopefully a happier 2020.