Charity fighting poverty in Merton has delivered 5.5 million meals to families in need

By Harrison Galliven, Local Democracy Reporter

In one of London’s most affluent boroughs lies a problem of poverty that’s growing all the time.

In Merton, people are struggling to keep their heads above water with food, mortgages, rent and car running costs spiralling, and many people are going without basics to pay their bills.

This is where Merton’s Dons Local Action Group comes in, and they’re getting busier all the time.

Of the 124 neighbourhoods in Merton, 35 were in the 20 per cent least income deprived in England, seen in the darker shades of blue (Picture: ONS)

The group has warned that “poverty doesn’t look like it might have done in the past”. They’re providing laptops, food, mattresses, bedding and furniture to people who can’t afford it.

Dons Trustee and co-founder Xavier Wiggins said: “One of the big causes we’re looking to help with is that 22 per cent of the UK population are in food poverty. Since launching in March 2020, we have distributed food for 5.5 million meals, 3,300 laptops, and thousands of items of furniture.

“We find if you haven’t got food you often don’t have many other basics. We get lots of beds and mattresses for people. We had a lady awaiting a hip operation in a fair bit of trouble. She was physically in need and sleeping bent up on a sofa because they only had one mattress which her child was using.”

The charity was born during the pandemic after three fans of AFC Wimbledon football club – nicknamed The Dons – and friends decided to help the local community with whatever it required.

But the immediate issue of COVID leaving some out of work and short of money has evolved into a longer-term cost of living crisis.

Mr Wiggins said: “When I first sent that WhatsApp message on March 15 2020 saying we ought to do something, I didn’t have any preconceptions about what we should do. Pretty quickly it became clear that people thought we should help with food. At the time it was about COVID and people who were isolated and lost their wages.”

On any given day they have 100 people out and about in the community doing different things for Dons Local Action. These range from volunteering to wipe data from old laptops to be donated to new owners, to marketing and distributing donations.

While they have three paid staff members, it’s the army of 2,700 volunteers they have registered with them who ensure they can keep the growing operation moving.

One of the biggest fundraisers for the group is its annual Big Sleep Out at AFC Wimbledon’s Plough Lane stadium which aims to highlight the issue of homelessness in one of the country’s most affluent areas.

Haydon the Womble joined the most recent sleep out (Picture: Dons Local Action Group)

In its third year, it has raised over £30,000 this year alone, and garnered support from celebrities. On X (formerly Twitter) Alistair Campbell wrote: “Met Dons Local Action Group volunteers this week, aiding the community in poverty. Sad we need them, but let’s support by joining or sponsoring the Big Sleep Out 3.”

Mr Wiggins said: “We had 65 people sleeping out, that included the full AFC Wimbledon management team, including coach Johnnie Jackson.

“We also had Haydon the Womble, and former Merton mayors Joan Henry and Michael Brunt as well as lots of fans getting involved. There’s a lot of goodwill in the community. A lot of people now see Dons Local Action as their charity, trying to go out and address the balance a little bit.”

The group now works in tandem with Merton council which offers support in publicising its work and events, while directing its volunteers to those who may need help.

Pictured top: Dons Local Action Group have delivered 5.5 million meals since March 2020 (Picture: Dons Local Action Group)

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