On sunny Thursday morning in September, the Pantry in north London is buzzing. Customers browse wooden crates for celeriac and butternut squash; one takes a can of organic tomatoes and puts it in her basket. The smell of rich mushroom soup wafts through the air.

But it’s not a luxury grocery store with prices to match; it’s a ‘people’s pantry’ on an estate that may be a stone’s throw from King’s Cross high-end outlets but seems millions of miles away.

New social enterprise, the pantry is stocked with surplus food. Once a week, customers pay £3.50 and complete nearly a week’s worth of shopping worth between £15 and £20. Served by volunteers from the Priory Green estate, shoppers stay, have a cup of tea or warming soup and chat with their fellow citizens.

It is not, the members point out, a food bank. “You can choose what you want and only take what you need,” says Sheenika Webb-Rainsby, 32, whose baby Matthew happily passed through the room. “There shouldn’t be any stigma about going to a food bank, but I think some people feel a sense of shame. Here it’s more like you’re shopping and giving back to the community at the same time.

Sheenika Webb-Rainsby sits with her two sons in the pantry near King’s Cross. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

The social enterprise behind, cooking for good, also organizes food-for-business team building events, with all profits going back into the community. Profits from events held in a new kitchen at the heart of the estate flow back into the area, and Cook for Good also runs cooking and life skills workshops for residents.

Zeina Nour, 38, says volunteers helped her write her CV and find volunteer work to help her find a job. Her friend Anan Faraj appreciated receiving advice on how to incorporate vegetables into nutritious meals for her children. “They make us feel like part of this family,” she says. They adore their new friends Eileen and Doreen – “the old ladies” – who wave from across the room. Nour says, “They love children and now when we walk around the estate we can say hello to them.

The other aids are more punctual. Rose John, 71, explains how Martha Ahmet, a community coordinator who grew up on the estate but has since moved, helped her when her electricity company tried to force her to pay money she didn’t shouldn’t. “I was worried sick. I couldn’t eat, but she reassured me,” she said. “She has a halo, this woman.”

New skyscrapers frame the King’s Cross skyline, but a short walk from the shops and restaurants of Granary Square and Coal Drops Yard is an area in the bottom quartile of the Deprivation Index, where a quarter of all residents report being in dire financial straits.

Cook for Good offers local businesses a way to give back to the community they immersed themselves in, says co-founder Karen Mattison, who previously ran social enterprises to help women with family responsibilities. She calls this “the hyperlocal gift”, in other words being a good neighbor.

Karen Mattison and volunteers
Karen Mattison, co-founder of Cook for Good, center, with community volunteers. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

“Money changes hands, but it’s for a locked-in social good,” she says, dispensing soup from the pantry, located in a remodeled former circular laundry room on the estate.

Cook for Good gives businesses the option to cook together and then eat their own menu or share their three-course meals with local shelters or charities. Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta funded the renovation of an abandoned estate cafe a short walk from the pantry – donating the firm’s architects, designers and contractors – while kitchen appliance maker Ninja donated a full set of kits.

It’s not just about good public relations, insists Mattison, who founded Cook for Good with Robinne Collie, whose background is in food-based corporate team building events. “Companies want to connect with communities — not just with funding, but using their resources to help address the social issues they see,” she says. “Companies want team building, they want events, they have the resources and they are going to spend them anyway. What we’re trying to do is get them to spend the social pound, not the corporate pound, and then you get a double hit.

Users of The Pantry are enthusiastic about the boost it has given to community feeling. Deolida Pereira, 58, who was told about the project by her GP, says after the death of her son and daughter it gave her a reason to get out and meet people again. “I was very lonely,” she says. “But this place is special to me. Everyone seems to like me and I like them. I feel like I belong.”