Just a single orange in the fridge: the facts of life in a 'food desert'

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DEBORAH SMALL'S prams keep breaking. The problem is not her year- old son. It is the shopping she must cram in for the long trek from the supermarket to her home on the isolated Kingsmead council estate in east London.

Ms Small, 37, a lone parent relying on benefits, cannot afford a cab. Carrying the baby, shopping and a pushchair on to the bus is impossible. So she walks across the playing fields. "The other day," she said, "the pram collapsed in the middle of the street. I had to throw it away and struggle back with the baby and the shopping."

Such difficulties mean she rarely goes to a supermarket. So there are few fresh foods in the flat. Joanne, her 14-year-old daughter, showed me around their cramped kitchen. There are tins of cheap beans and spaghetti, large plastic bottles of pop. A small freezer is filled with bread, chips, fish-fingers, chicken nuggets and ice cream. There is a single orange in the fridge. "I'd love to buy them more fresh fruit and vegetables," said Ms Small. "But they are just too expensive in the local shop."

Deborah Small and her family are living in what Sir Donald Acheson, a former government chief medical officer, has labelled a "food desert" where many of the poorest people find it impossible to buy cheap, varied food. The Kingsmead estate in Hackney has over 3,000 residents, but its only shops are "Ronnie's" mini- market, little bigger than a corner shop, "Steve's" fish and chip shop, a chemist and a doctors' surgery. What must have been a proud tiled shopfront for "P. O'Dwyer's Groceries" has been boarded up for a decade.

This sad Thirties parade is surrounded by five-storey blocks of flats, without lifts, whose urine-soaked stairways, broken windows and concrete yards littered with wrecked cars are the classic signs of deprivation. There are no deliveries - milk floats never come here. Buses do not drive into the estate. The boxes of organic produce that are driven to the doors of middle-class households in nearby Stoke Newington have never been spotted here.

This is a place where even a basic need such as electricity can be a luxury. Janet Galloway, who has three children, has, like most of her neighbours, a "power key", which she must pay to have charged up so that she can activate the supply. It has a pounds 6 credit on it, for emergencies. "What happens is that you use up the pounds 6 and then you have to pay pounds 7 to make it work again and boil the kettle." Not surprisingly, many residents, two-thirds of whom live on benefits, are periodically cut off.

But their biggest problem is shopping and the hours spent bringing a couple of bags back from a supermarket miles away. "I'm constantly going back and forth," said Maria, 37, who walked me around Ronnie's shop with her children, Elesha, three, and CJ, two. "You can see that pop here is 60p, but I can get it in a supermarket for 15p. Bread is 60p - in Tesco's a loaf is only 23p. Tinned peas are 39p. I can get them for 9 pence. Sugar is 80p here. In Tesco's I pay 69p.

"I could get everything even cheaper if I went to Netto's. But I can't afford the cab fare back - it's pounds 4.50. So I rely on people giving me a lift."

But there are not many lifts available on the Kingsmead estate - two- thirds of households do not own a car. Fewer than half of the adults are economically active. Maria, who receives about pounds 100 a week in benefits to support herself and her two children, cannot afford a car.

Timor Karakas, owner of Ronnie's, the mini-market, sympathised. He says that he has sought permission to incorporate the neighbouring, derelict grocer's into his store, but the council has prevaricated. "People here have no money. They ask for credit, but I can't give it. I buy the cheapest fruit I can find," he said, pointing out the Golden Delicious on sale for 24p a pound.

"But I could buy 4lb for 50p if I could get to the market," said Maria, who left empty-handed.

The result of such poverty is poor nutrition, according to Charlotte Holroyd, dietician at the Kingsmead medical centre.

"It has been shown that people are suffering from malnutrition. There is a lot of iron deficient anaemia. One reason is the is lack of fruit and vegetables, which allows iron to be absorbed."

The solutions are not that difficult. The Kabin, a local community organisation, has begun weekly bus trips to Tesco, dropping people back to their doors.

But Deborah Small, standing in the bleak concrete courtyard between two blocks of Kingsmead flats, made clear what residents want: "Why can't we have a Tesco's right here in the middle of the estate where it is easy for all of us to shop?"