It took the efforts of world-famous footballer Marcus Rashford for the issue of food poverty to be thrown into the spotlight during the pandemic.
And while life for many in the UK is returning to normal, millions of families are still going hungry.
Based on data provided by the Trussell Trust, the number of families seeking emergency food support has increased by more than a third in the past year, and has doubled since 2017. According to research by the University of Sheffield, in some areas as many as one in four people report struggling to access food, and experts warn that as emergency pandemic support comes to an end, the situation is only going to get worse.
‘I think the next six months is going to be a challenging six months,’ says David Adams of London-based charity St Giles Trust. ‘I think sadly it will shine another light on the level of people living in poverty, working in poverty.’
Adams manages St Giles Pantry, a network of community pantries that offer support for people struggling with food insecurity, and works to help address the root causes of poverty that see millions of families and individuals in the fifth richest country in the world struggling just to put food on the table each evening.
If you’ve never heard of community pantries, you’re not alone. They’re smaller, more local and far less publicised than the vast map of food banks that offer free basic grocery supplies to families up and down the country.
But community pantries offer something quite different, and are quietly quite radical. Most operate under a membership model in which clients pay a few pounds a week, and in return are able to buy fresh produce that would ordinarily be well out of their budget when shopping in a regular supermarket.
‘Of course there’s a need for food banks and emergency provision, but with the pantries it’s more about that choice element. You come into a shop, you pay £3.50 and you get your choice of items,’ explains Elena Vacca, co-ordinator for Stockport-based community pantry network Your Local Pantry.
If you’ve never used one before, you might be picturing these stores to be stacked full of soon-to-expire ready meals and wonky vegetables deemed not good enough to sit on supermarket shelves. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Community pantries primarily sell excess stock, well in-date, provided by supermarkets and other distributors. And whereas food banks primarily offer long-life staples, in these stores there’s plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat on offer.
‘In the past I was using a food bank but found it difficult at times and not helpful to my situation,’ one member of St Giles’ Pantry explains. ‘This gives you a better option of preparing a fresh meal together. When you receive a bag of food from a foodbank it’s hard to think about putting a meal together as you don’t always know what you’ll receive, and [it’s] always lots of tins.’
Over the past five years, demand for this alternative service has shot up, with Your Local Pantry now running more than 50 community pantries across the UK. St Giles’ Pantry operates three shops in London, and two more in Leeds and Coventry.
As Vacca told UNILAD, the pantries operate as something of a halfway step between free food banks and supermarket shopping. If you walked past them on the street, you’d think they were just an ordinary store, and that’s kind of the point.
‘It’s like a little shop, which is such a nicer feel than getting a handout rather than a hand up,’ she says of the model, which emphasises the fundamental importance of choice that many of us take for granted when browsing the supermarket aisles each week.
‘The idea is that if we’re going to do this we’re going to provide society’s most vulnerable that need our support with dignity,’ says Adams. ‘Just telling people, ‘you go choose your items, you do your shopping, here’s a basket, here’s a trolley, go do your own shopping.’ It sounds so simple, and it is so simple, but it’s so empowering.’
Many of those behind the community pantries know first hand what it’s like to be reliant on charities or the government just to get by; the experience can be dehumanising, leaving people feeling like a ‘tickbox’ or an inconvenience.
But as the name would suggest, the emphasis here is on creating a community that can offer not only practical support but a friendly ear. There’s a big emphasis on nutrition, with customers offered help with meal planning and budgeting, while both Your Local Pantry and St Giles Trust also run coffee shops for members to meet up and chat, as well as linking up with services providing support for other issues like housing and employment.
‘It’s not just that you come and get food, it’s a social event,’ says Vacca. ‘You meet your friends, you meet other neighbours, while also if you need any other support financially, it can be a point of contact and a place where people are able to discuss that.’
While support from high profile celebrities like Rashford has helped kickstart more conversations about food poverty, for many people in difficulty, the stigma of not being able to provide for themselves or their families remains.
‘[People will say] ‘oh isn’t this for the homeless.’ That’s far from, sadly, the situation where we’re at, and I think some people have the view that there’s always someone worse off, someone else should benefit, we can just about get by,’ Adams says.
Community pantries offer a solution to this, by giving members the opportunity to contribute financially through their weekly membership, and emphasising the fact that the food they’re buying is fresh, supermarket quality produce that would have otherwise gone to waste.
‘By having community pantries it definitely takes away the stigma, because they’re paying into a club, like a co-operative, so it’s not just that you’re coming down and getting free food,’ says Vacca, while Adams echoes, ‘When you change that narrative, when you say they’re going to contribute that £3.50, those barriers drop.’
Whether through embarrassment or simply not knowing where to turn, it’s estimated that as many as two-thirds of people living in food poverty do not access support from food banks. As Vacca explains, ‘A lot of the times people that are in poverty aren’t just folks that are unemployed but are those that are on low incomes that are working 40 hours weeks, and those are the ones that are falling through the cracks of support.’
Community pantries work with local organisations and government bodies to connect with these people, and the help that some offer goes far beyond just simply getting food on the table.
Adams stresses that St Giles Pantry is not an end in itself, but rather a piece in a jigsaw that aims to help address the underlying problems causing food insecurity, whether that be unemployment, addiction or health issues.
‘We have to tackle the root cause of why, so we use the food pantries as an engagement tool so that we can actually start building the trust and the relationships with the individuals, so then we’re able to start providing the right support,’ he says, adding that the ultimate goal is to get members to a position where they no longer need to use the pantry system.
Not every pantry goes about its work the same way. Whereas St Giles’ Pantry usually serves clients referred to them through other services for a period of around six months, Your Local Pantry sees itself as a ‘sustainable, long-term solution’ for those struggling with food insecurity, with customers able to shop without having to prove their level of need and with no limit on the length of time people can use the pantry.
Like Adams, Vacca is concerned that the coming winter could see even more people falling into hardship, as Covid safeguards like furlough and the temporary £20 uplift for Universal Credit recipients are removed. ‘Normally we have about 10-15 new members sign up per week, whereas last week and the week before we had 30 new members for the Stockport pantries, so you can see already that impact,’ she says.
Members using the pantries have described them as a ‘blessing’ and a ‘lifeline,’ with some revealing that thanks to the savings they’ve made on their food shopping they’ve been able to begin paying off debts and household bills – something they otherwise would still have been struggling with. And with a difficult few months ahead, the resources offered by community pantries have never been more vital.