All food charities are finding it harder to source good quality product these days, not least Wickham Pantry. So, when the Hampshire charity won the New Covent Garden Fruit & Vegetable Market’s Independent Retailer competition earlier this year, the promise of £500 of free fresh produce from Buyers Walk was excellent news for its members. After she received the first of two deliveries from CGTA Chairman Gary Marshall, we talked to Kat Short, Chair and driving force at Wickham Community Association
When some of the UK’s supermarkets removed best-before dates from their labelling, there was an immediate knock-on effect on food redistribution charities that relied on a steady supply of perfectly edible food that was unsalable because it had outstayed its welcome on the shelf.
“I totally understand why this was done and that it’s probably better for the environment,” says Kat, “but it cut off one of our established channels to waste food. Add in the fact that Fareshare sources a lot of food from cruise ships, restaurants and pubs – all sectors that have really suffered with higher energy and staffing costs and the fact that people are going out less – and we’ve also seen a big reduction in the amount of food coming through those channels.”
Wickham Pantry was established during Covid, when it became apparent that an increasing number of local people were finding it harder to make ends meet. Food labelling is far from the only challenge, of course – the cost of living, the pandemic and more have led to food charities being caught in a perfect storm, adds Kat. “Waste is harder to come by and charities therefore receive less donated product, while more people live below the poverty line and the demand for charitable services is higher than ever before,” she explains.
In effect, charities are finding themselves competing against each other for the dwindling amount of donations and increasingly having to pay retail prices for the food they offer. “We’re not centrally funded; we have to fundraise for every pound we spend,” says Kat. “Currently, we’re having to raise £50,000 a year to cover our costs, so we are really grateful for whatever support we are given.”
Five-hundred families are registered with The Wickham Pantry, the majority located in the area that stretches from Portsmouth to Winchester. They are all living in poverty and membership is free. For the £5 they pay when they visit each Tuesday, they are able to buy £20 of good quality food, which makes a huge difference to their lives. There is a Food Bank on site on the same day each week. While the two offers may appear to be ‘competitive’ to the untrained eye, Kat explains the objectives of the charitable initiatives complement each other.
“Both are very important,” she says. “The food bank is for people who are at rock bottom of the poverty spiral. The people who visit cannot afford to pay anything for their food and are given essentially a bag of tins and left to go away and make something of it. The Pantry is the next stepping stone on the journey to hopefully becoming financially independent again. When someone is able to find the £5 to visit us, they are hopefully beginning to find their way out of hardship. We don’t give them a bag of tins – we give them the dignity of a real shopping experience and the opportunity to buy fresh and frozen food and store-cupboard ingredients, from which they can create nutritious meals for all the family.”
The organisation receives a weekly donation of food that would have otherwise gone to waste from Fareshare and it also has a community fridge, where local residents are encouraged to donate product they are not going to use. “We just don’t receive enough donations to feed the number of families we see each week, so the rest of the food is subsidised; bought by us at full retail price," Kat says. Around 90 families a week visit the Pantry. It’s a high volume of food and that represents a big logistical challenge for Kat, our project manager, who needs to coordinate all the orders and deliveries, as well as the schedules for the 40 volunteers who are absolutely crucial to everything we do.”
The Community Centre is a true hub for the local community and offers several services for those in need of support, including a large cohort of Ukrainian refugees. “We have a community garden, which we encourage anyone to come and use and contribute to,” Kat says. “We also have a Warm Hub – a place for people to come so they don’t need to turn their heating on.
The Citizens Advice Bureau is also on site, which is another crucial service for many of the people who come here. The Pantry feeds a lot of local Ukrainian families; many times we have been looking at Google Translate 10 minutes before we opened to find out how to teach them to cook a chicken in Ukrainian!”
Fresh from the Market
The deliveries of fruit and vegetables from New Covent Garden Market were very well received. “Gary delivered a fantastic range and also much more fresh produce than we expected,” says Kat. “So we had more fruit and veg available than we normally would and also an amazing variety, which is what our members really need above everything.”
The food is priced by a colour-coded system – there are always a couple of higher value meat items and store cupboard essentials. The feminine hygiene products and the fresh fruit and vegetables are labelled as free though, to ensure that they make their way into each family’s basket. “Strategically, we have to label those products as free, otherwise plenty of parents would sacrifice them to buy more store cupboard items for their kids,” Kat explains. “For some of them it’s a case of not being confident that they know how to cook vegetables, while for others it might just come down to convenience. However, for many of the people who come to us, they have simply not been able to afford to buy a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and have come to see fresh produce as a luxury.
“If we have fresh pineapples, for example, it causes great excitement as they are seen as a real treat. For children, satsumas, oranges and apples are the real favourites and they are always extremely popular. So when we say that it’s free alongside their essential shopping, it works. We talk to people all the time about eating their 5 A DAY and how to incorporate a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables into their diets. We give them recipes and cooking tips and we always stress the need to have as balanced a diet as possible. But it’s easier said than done when you can’t afford it.”
Having learned about the ethos and values of Wickham Pantry when Kat and her sister Nikki visited the Market shortly after hearing they had won the prize, Gary and the tenants at the Market dug deep to ensure that the charity received value over and above what was promoted for their competition prize.
“Delivering the product and meeting all of the incredible volunteers was a moving and humbling experience,” Gary says. “We all know that food charities have become so important to communities around the country, but thankfully most of us have had no reason to use the services they offer and until you see the scale of the challenge they face, it’s hard to fully understand it. The selfless efforts of the community in Wickham to help those less fortunate than themselves really is inspirational and the centre’s joined-up approach to helping people find their way out of poverty can only be a positive.
“There could not have been a more worthy winner of the competition. We consider ourselves lucky to have been able to contribute in our own small way.”