The foodshare is on a hill above St Ives harbour, where an end of terrace house will cost you £2 million and you might see a pale blue Lamborghini on the road in a poor imitation of Monte Carlo. Half a million day-trippers come in summer, and half of them stay over, but they aren’t here now. Old St Ives is empty, the church is locked, and the windows of the cottages are dark.
Those who use the foodshare live at the top of the hill in the Penbeagle estate. It is run by the St Ives Community Orchard inside the St Ives Rugby Club, which donated their premises for free. They collect waste food from local supermarkets and give it away, so it doesn’t go into landfill. Unlike foodbanks, of which there are many in Cornwall, you do not need a referral from an agency, which will take your testimony and, if you are judged worthy, issue a chit. You just show up.
There are trestle tables covered with produce: a pile of potatoes and carrots (the only glut here, how British); a few onions; oranges, bananas, apples, and lemons; yesterday’s wilting pastries from the Co-op; four ham and cheese quiches; eight packets of miniature sausage rolls; one pack of noodles; four packets of mashed potatoes; three tins of vegetables; four rice puddings; five packets of crisps; one small box of salad.
Anyone who thinks this is mere bounty, something to be unconditionally celebrated, doesn’t understand food poverty, by which I mean poverty. This food is given with love and concern, and often collected by those who use it themselves. But it is remnants. There is no fresh meat except one packet of sliced beef; no fresh bread; one box of eggs and no butter, fish, green vegetables or milk. What is here is only what others do not want and cannot sell; at the end anything that is left is fed to pigs
I watch a man with two small children walk about, considering what to take; often people think they are not the most in need, and take too little. I see a girl, perhaps 11, with an empty carrier bag and an expression so defeated I am shocked to see it in a child and, later, I do cry, which shames me further. Tears are cheap, and I don’t cry after subsequent visits: immunity is easily caught here.
The children are keen to help. Why wouldn’t they when their parents walk so heavily with their fear, as if carrying a great physical burden? But their chirping is stilled. Here there is no joy in the having; that is a fantasy for people who do not use these places. There is too much pain in the needing. Initially this foodshare was used by people who simply didn’t want to waste food. Increasingly it is used by people who could not survive without it.
No one smiles except the volunteers who grin brightly, for denial. It is quiet, speechless almost, like a deathbed. Just a murmur of thanks and a wave as they go out into the rain. Then a woman with three boys snaps at them as they say what they would like and ask her, too — what she would like? I recognise what I see: not an unloving mother, far from it, but a woman who can take no more. She chides them noisily, and her voice rises further to panic; but then she gathers herself, looks at them, touches them, praises them. She returns from her terror to herself. She smiles a small, tight smile and walks away with her bags, the children trotting with her.
If you are poor, landscape is only a taunt; a physical impediment even, for the hills around the harbour are steep. Those who live in Penbeagle would have lived on the harbour once, and seen seals and maybe dolphins from their windows, but the hunger of outsiders to own a second home, rather than stay in a hotel or caravan park has pushed them up the hill into a council estate that manages, with its pale uniformity, to deny its own Cornishness. “We all live up here now,” says Jo Chatterley, a volunteer, as I drive her to the orchard with what is now the pig food. “Some people don’t even go into the town in summer. They don’t feel welcome”.
The natives of St Ives can no longer afford the picturesque. They are no longer considered worthy of it. A local estate agent called St Ives, recently named the happiest place in Britain (in a survey conducted by another estate agent) — not a town, but a business. Where does that leave people? The old trades of fishing and mining are fetishised beyond the duchy in books and novels, but one is declining, and the other is gone. It is another way of mythologising Cornwall. To mythologise something is another way of not seeing it; and you can’t eat myths.
The orchard is picturesque, though, because only pigs live in orchards; that is, it doesn’t contain any holiday accommodation. The ground is lively and sodden; the apple trees are gnarled and expressive. There are bees; a fire-pit; a vegetable garden. This orchard exists for itself, which is rare in a town which is also a business, and to counter that other epidemic that thrives amid lack: depression. People come here for their mental health; subsistence farming is considered healing, and it is, but not by itself.
Cornwall pays a price for its insane beauty. The average house price is now £254,382; in St Ives it is £100,000 more. Living costs are as high as London, and sometimes higher (the price of a return bus ticket from Pendeen to Penzance is more than £5 and if you don’t have a car you are forced to pay it or risk your life on a bike across the moor that gathers fog, and many do). Parking in summer is £5 a day or more. Restaurants and clothing cost what they always do. But wages are two-thirds of the national average in St Ives, often for a combination of zero hours and split shifts, which mean, respectively, that you cannot take another job to supplement your income, or that you are paid for a part-time job but do a full-time job with a long lunch break.
Before pandemic, Cornish employment was higher than the national average, and the Cornish worked longer hours than the average in “jobs”, I am told, “because there are almost no careers”. In 2019, this felt like a duchy that existed for people who do not live here; then pandemic came, and employment fell. Universal Credit claimants swelled by 135% and it is not enough to live on. Food is the obvious thing to cut back on. You won’t call a bailiff on yourself.
Usually, Jo says, in St Ives you have a seven-month holiday season in which to earn enough to keep yourself through winter. This year it was three months. “You have a lot of people living pretty much on the breadline and there’s a lot of people who aren’t usually over it anyway. People went from doing all right to absolutely nothing pretty much overnight. We are helping people who aren’t used to asking for help”. She knows a self-employed builder with four children and no work this year; when his wife developed breast cancer their income fell to nothing. She knows one family of seven adults existing on one wage.
Ten miles away, in Treneere, Penzance, Liz Sullivan runs Whole Again Communities (WAC). She sits in her office, her leg on the desk (she has hurt her ankle) and tells me how WAC exists to teach people how to cook healthy food – soups, hot pots, pasta sauces – from scratch on a budget. They distribute food, offer cooking classes – in pandemic these were online – and teach gardening, giving out compost and seeds. “We are a real community of making things and managing,” she says. “They don’t go around groaning and begging. They get used to managing. They are incredibly resilient. People are trying so unbelievabley hard and it’s still incredibly difficult. People live hand to mouth. Rent in Cornwall is so incredibly dear. Everything is more expensive down here”.
Owning is unaffordable and there is almost nothing to rent, due to the profusion of holiday cottages. A Rightmove search for Penzance brings up 11 properties, and only one is under £500 a month.
Liz explains what people will do to avoid the foodbank. One single mother (her partner is dead) took a full-time job as a carer, walked to work despite her ill-health (she had no car) and left her son with his grandmother, who is shielding: “She had to forgo seeing her son [during pandemic]. That is a typical story”. This girl wanted to be a baker – she is a gifted one – but she has no premises; caring is one of the few jobs you can get. It is the same for a girl who wants to be a beautician, she says: no premises, although many of the shops in Penzance are empty. She tells me about a chef who left his job to care for his wife, who has complex health conditions, and their three children; they now need donations of food.
“Covid-19 is just one issue,” she says. “It’s not just all of sudden that food poverty has become an issue. It’s just the way it is, and some people cope better than others”. It has been worse since 2010, she says, when the coalition government came to power. “There is, she says, “the exhaustion of living a certain way. Some people, I believe,” she pauses, “people are where they feel they deserve to be”. That is perhaps the saddest part. She shows me a letter of thanks she received, from a woman with ill-health (two of her three children also have complex health conditions): “if we didn’t have the boxes [from you], we would have gone hungry. Tom is digging up the garden and planting the carrot and courgette seeds”.
I meet Lynne Dyer at the Growing Links community garden nearby. She runs a community store cupboard, teaches gardening to children and adults and also runs the street food project, which provides hot meals to vulnerable residents each night. Lynne knows people who are making a loaf of bread last a full week. She knows families evicted from their rental accommodation in summer for the tourist season, who have to camp in fields. She knows a sick man denied his benefits because he could walk 15 yards left destitute for a year and a half. She knows a woman who lost her job under the first lockdown unable to manage on Universal Credit. “She was feeding her children and not feeding herself. These sound like stories from Victorian times, don’t they? One thing about the Victorians – they had the poor house, didn’t they?”
And that is it: in west Cornwall people are feeding their neighbours, and kindly though it is, it cannot be a substitute for a functioning state. It is flickers of light inside a catastrophe.
In St Ives yesterday, as she set out the Christmas Eve collection, Jo was anxious to tell me that she knows of only one family that has abused the foodshare scheme. I didn’t want to include that – incidentally, the proportions are identical to the benefit fraud numbers, which are negligible — but I feel I must, because the narrative that such places are run by the politically motivated for the idle and wicked is so widespread. I understand why. It is essential to believe that, because it is absolution for the rest of us: it allows us to avoid responsibility for a child with an empty carrier bag and an adult’s eyes.
This piece was nominated for the National Press Awards in 2021.