This summer, Ajaz.org supported teenagers across OnSide's 14 Youth Zones. Youth Zones are state of the art youth centres that offer children and young people the three things they want - somewhere safe and inspirational to go in their leisure time, something to do and someone to talk to. The Youth Zones are open throughout the school holidays and in term-time, at the weekend and after school. Membership is £5 a year and it costs 50p to get in for each session. On offer are combinations of music, dance, cooking, art, basketball, football, crafts, table football and table-tennis, enterprise development, mentoring and coaching and so much more. Each youth zone has a canteen, where a hot meal is available for £1.
In summer holidays, when free school meals and breakfast clubs are unavailable and activities cost a lot of money, the Youth Zones are a vital local resource. With the cost-of-living rising, this is more so now, than ever before. Ajaz.org heard from Alison Benjamin at OnSide about the real pressure on families, particularly on OnSide's senior members - those 13 years and older who don't have access to statutory support for holiday-time meals. Senior members in particular appreciate the safe space that Youth Zones provide. They are places where the young people can be inspired to reach their potential, to be positively occupied, and to avoid the alternative that could be loneliness, boredom, or for some, getting involved in the wrong crowd.
Ajaz.org provided help to thousands of senior members to have free access to fun, support and a good hot meal over the summer. I visited Unitas Youth Zone in Barnet to hear more about the programme. It was seniors' night, and the place was buzzing. The music was on, basketball was underway, the library was busy, the kitchen full of people getting ready for the party the following day. The seniors I chatted to had been involved with Unitas since it opened. It was very clear this was the young people's space, their home from home, and that they loved it. The canteen was open and several tables were full of people enjoying sausage, beans and chips. For some, quietly, it was the only meal they would have that day.
The CEO, Robin Moss, told me how relieved many parents had been to hear about the free access and food available for their children. For them, this was a little miracle for them. He described how times are so tight, even a saving of £1.50 per child makes a difference. These are families that are cutting back on everything now, even before our energy bills go up in October. He shared other insights into the stresses and strains he sees in the community around Unitas. People no longer using their cars, employed people whose salaries no longer stretch from one end of the month to the other, more colleagues eating in the canteen, such is the draw of a meal for £1 given the rocketing cost of food.
Food poverty is a growing problem - one that causes fear, stress and strain in many families. We hate the thought of hungry children here at Ajaz.org. While we know it is up to politicians and those in elected office to make the policy changes necessary to ensure no child goes hungry in the UK, at the moment, too many are missing the food they need. Ajaz.org wants to help and made contributions to Foodstock Food Bank in West Belfast, Depher CIC's food programme and the Food Pantries run by Fans Supporting Foodbanks in Liverpool. In doing so, we made new friends and discovered communities looking out for their own, because no-one else will. Community solidarity across the country is making a fundamental difference, but the demand is shooting up all the time. I will be heading to Liverpool in September to learn more from Donna Scully and Dave Kelly, two of the drivers of the Food Pantries programme there.