Oxford Mutual Aid in action
Image Credit: Alfie Davis

Saving Oxford Mutual Aid after a decade of Tory failure

The UK finds itself at a breaking point, witnessing a surge in food bank use that surpasses any previous point in British history. The Trussell Trust, which represents around half of the UK’s food banks, reports a staggering 50-fold increase in users since 2010, reaching a record 3 million individuals.

But what happens when government support disappears and these organisations feeding millions can no longer afford their energy bills? For Oxford Mutual Aid, this has become a reality.

As the UK faces an escalating crisis, with more people relying on food banks than ever before, the spotlight turns to the indispensable role of organisations like Oxford Mutual Aid (OMA). Born out of the Covid-19 pandemic and guided by principles of cooperation and solidarity, OMA has been a beacon of hope for vulnerable families. However, as government support for energy bills evaporates and demand surges, OMA confronts an existential threat.

Every month, Oxford Mutual Aid delivers over 1000 food parcels, redistributing over 20 tonnes of surplus food that would otherwise go to waste. These parcels, a lifeline for many, can cover the majority of a household’s food intake for a week. Beyond this, OMA extends its support to include pet food and hygiene/sanitary products, directly delivered to the doors of those who need it most.  Of course, not everyone is able to make the trip to the distribution centre in Cowley, so this outreach is particularly vital for working families, the clinically vulnerable, and those working long hours or unable to access childcare.

OMA stands apart with its unique non-hierarchical, volunteer-led model, born from the vision of LGBTQ+ and trade union organisers. This approach consciously aims to avoid the silent power dynamics inherent in many traditional charity organisations. OMA’s decision not to operate as a charity but as a mutual aid organisation stems from a commitment to solving problems collaboratively, with, and not merely for, the people it serves.

For volunteers like ourselves, Oxford Mutual Aid forms a meaningful way to be able to give back to the local community and simultaneously take a mental break from the academic workload of Oxford. This mutual support can manifest itself in strange ways, whether that’s a breakfast of free croissants with no expiry date that we can’t give out, or 5 kilograms of near-unusable tomatoes you have to cart up Cornmarket – but make enough soup with for the next two weeks. It is networks such as these that keep our communities, that keep the city around us, running; taking the vast, excessive waste of capitalism to create a crucial support network.

Despite OMA receiving significant and incredibly impactful support from a range of organisations, individuals, and city councillors, the organisation faces imminent closure. Government lockdowns have ended, and the cost of living and energy bill support chemes initially implemented by the Johnson Truss governments are over, leaving OMA in severe financial uncertainty. The lack of replacement initiatives from the Tories comes at a time when the cost of living crisis is escalating, simultaneously ramping up pressure on both sides. More people need help, yet operating costs are exponentially unaffordable. Over six months of double-digit inflation has left food prices continuously rising, and bill costs 59% higher than their winter 2021/22 levels. OMA has already had to reduce its capacity, and with persistent excess demand, the organisation urgently needs to raise £15,000 over the next few months to continue its vital services.

A decade of austerity has brought the UK to a breaking point, where millions rely on food banks, yet energy and fuel costs are soaring so high that these vital support systems are being pushed to the brink of closure. OMA’s story mirrors the larger struggle faced by community support organisations nationwide, highlighting the urgent need for assistance. 

Austerity, a form of class-based violence, has permeated our communities and infiltrated every facet of daily life, underscoring the profound impact of systemic economic policies on the most vulnerable members of society. Fourteen years in, most of us will have spent the majority of our lives under Tory rule – and look what we’ve gotten from it. Our communities are wrecked, life expectancy has stagnated, and over four million children live in food poverty as support continues to be slashed.

As Oxford students, we are intimately connected with the ongoing challenges within the city. Being one of the UK’s priciest urban areas is a consequence of university-led gentrification – a powerful nine-billion-pound-force by colleges and departments fighting for land and accommodation. For many students, particularly those without financial privilege, this translates into non-negotiable, ever-rising rent costs and escalating expenses. Addressing these challenges becomes even more daunting for those outside the university bubble.

Acknowledging our role within Universty’s system of elitism and gentrification that defines Oxford, it is crucial to advocate for community projects like OMA. Now more than ever, fostering student solidarity is vital. The cost of living for students and locals alike peaks, yet top university officials receive million-pound-payouts, it’s crucial to recognise how, for a lack of better wording, we’re all getting screwed over. 

It is key to acknowledge that we, as students, hold significant power within the city. We hold it through our common rooms, as a collective and as members of the community, influencing both campus dynamics and broader societal dialogues. This is power that can allow us to bridge a vast gap between academia and the wider community. Breaking this barrier is pivotal if we wish to save OMA, but also to go beyond, and continue to break down the systemic elitism which divides our city.

Class Act, as a campaign branch of the Oxford Student Union, stands at the forefront of this mission. Representing socioeconomically disadvantaged students, many of our members have grown up in deprived areas, having to rely on food distribution organisations. This fight, for us, is personal. Food security is a privilege often taken for granted by many, but it formulates an immediate, pressing issue that demands our attention.

This month, we launched a cross-college college fundraiser with the potential to raise up to £10,000, covering two thirds of the organisation’s existing funding shortfall. Your direct involvement as students is pivotal to its success. In each College Common Room, a network of student activists will be proposing motions and coordinating fundraisers. The funds raised will directly contribute to ensuring local people are fed and supported.

But the transformation our city, and country, needs extends beyond financial redistribution. Active involvement in our surrounding community is crucial beyond student life. Volunteering offers an invaluable chance to do so, and that is why Class Act is coordinating an OMA student takeover evening on January 28th. This is an invitation for students to actively contribute to OMA’s fundraising and volunteering efforts and to be trained as a hall volunteer.

Whether through charity college bops, formal dinners, or group volunteer events, we as students, as common rooms, and as a community can break down barriers in Oxford, and foster a culture of solidarity. This campaign is not just about supporting OMA, but a broader commitment to dismantling the elitist structures we benefit from and actively working towards a more inclusive and supportive city. 

It’s easy to feel hopeless for the future of national and global politics nowadays, but this campaign represents a chance to leverage our collective power and make meaningful, immediate political change on a local scale. Hope can be found everywhere, if we build it.

Alfie Davis and Eleanor Miller are representatives of Oxford Class Act, an SU-funded campaign. The link to donate to OMA can be found here.