Helping people find food, hope and faith during the cost of living crisis

Volunteers at The Message Trust's community grocery in Kingdom Life Church, Newcastle.(Photo: The Message Trust)

The Message Trust's community groceries aren't just helping people practically. They're also offering people life skills, friendship and the chance to discover the ultimate source of hope - Jesus.

Jill Mallen, the Trust's Regional Development Manager for Community Groceries, speaks to Christian Today about how the community groceries are giving people so much more than food.

CT: How do the community groceries work?

Jill: They're open to anyone finding it tough to make ends meet. Members pay a £5 annual membership fee and can do a £4 shop with us up to three times a week. So for £4, they can fill their basket and get up to £25 worth of food, fruit, veg, bread, frozen food and non-food items like toiletries.

CT: Does the food come from donations?

Jill: We buy most things from surplus food charities like Fair Share. We also use supermarket end of day collections and buy direct from suppliers. Some people make individual donations and the membership fee also goes towards purchasing food. We're always on the hunt for food!

CT: So it's quite a big network making all of this happening?

Jill: It is. We've grown from just one community grocery two years ago during the pandemic to over 20 across the country. We launched at a time when people were struggling because of Covid. Now it's the financial hardship caused by all of the rising costs across food, heating and fuel.

CT: Have people been able to come in and get the things they needed to make Christmas a bit special?

Jill: We've had lots of bits and pieces to support people over the season like Advent calendars, toys and brand new books that came through the local library. We really try to source things that will bless our members and they can get these things as part of their £4 food shop.

Jill Mallen: "It was very important to us that the shops look great and that it's a nice experience to shop in them."(Photo: The Message Trust)

CT: Have you seen demand increase with the cost of living crisis?

Jill: We're seeing demand increase all the time. According to the latest data, around two million people can't afford to eat every day and we've seen footfall increase across all of our shops since we started out.

CT: What kind of people are coming to use the community grocery?

Jill: When we started out, it was people who had lost jobs because of the pandemic or were self-employed and couldn't get furlough. But we also had people in work poverty, not just people on benefits and it's the same now because this crisis is affecting everybody. We're getting people from across the board and all walks of life who are finding it tough to do the weekly shop.

For some people, they come to the community grocery to do their whole shop. For others it's a top up that helps to keep their weekly food bill down. Right now, people are just trying to balance all their costs at home and for many people, life is difficult and they're having to choose between heating their homes and buying food to eat. The cost of living crisis is having a massive impact on people.

CT: What is the vision behind the community groceries?

Jill: The community groceries bridge the gap between foodbanks and supermarkets. It's different from a foodbank because it's laid out like a vintage farm shop and that was important to us because we wanted to offer people a way to shop with dignity. So, they're not just given a bag of shopping but can come into a real shop and choose the items they need. It was very important to us that the shops look great and that it's a nice experience to shop in them.

But we're more than just a grocery shop because we also offer a range of support courses and services giving members free access to wrap around support. We don't just want to help people practically and physically, but also mentally and emotionally and give people. That's why we offer courses in money management, cooking lessons, life skills, Christianity, youth activities and friendship groups to combat loneliness.

The community groceries also offer members a number of free courses like cookery and money management.(Photo: The Message Trust)

CT: How are churches involved in the community groceries?

Jill: The community groceries are run in partnership with local churches. We take care of the food side of things and the churches provide the courses and the wrap around support. Many of the volunteers come from the churches as well as the local community.

CT: Are you seeing people coming to faith through the community groceries?

Jill: It's had such a massive impact in this way. There have been so many opportunities to share Jesus with people and they've been so open, it's been like harvest time.

During Covid, when all the churches were shut, we started an online Bible study course and at one point we had 200 people joining. So many people were coming to faith that we set up the Message Community Church. There were people who had never looked at a Bible before and didn't know anything about it, and that's continued. We have baptisms nearly every month from grocery members and they're telling their friends. It's having this knock on effect.

CT: How does your own Christian faith motivate and inspire what you do with the community grocery stores?

Jill: It's the thread that runs through the very centre of it all and it's the reason why I do it. It's Kingdom work and we're representative of Him in that. We have teams in the grocery that will pray before the store opens. We always pray that we will be able to help people in whatever way we can. We're givers of hope and that hope comes from Jesus. With the community groceries, there have been so many opportunities to give people that same hope, and some of the stories of life changes that have come out of it have been amazing.

To find out more about how your church can get involved with The Message Trust's community groceries, visit