As a complete novice at providing a food support service, when we began this project, we had little idea of the level of need that we’d unearth in our corner of Renfrewshire. We simply set up in the first days of Covid lockdown to provide a ‘community support’ to people who would be forced to stay at home due to health or age criteria. We thought we’d be delivering a few prescriptions and picking up shopping akin to many similar organisations. We did however realise the value of joint working even at this early stage: and our task force was born.
Inviting our local housing association, every church partner, community group and posting an open invitation on social media appealing to community spirited individuals meant we approached the task with an openness of spirit and with an ethos if inclusivity from the beginning. This was a project to UNITE, not divide – all were welcome, none were excluded. Our strength is our unity. Alone we couldn’t hope to reach a community of around 20,000 people, never mind champion and serve their needs. As an extension to that ethos, we welcomed partnership working with individuals, organisations and charities from elsewhere in Renfrewshire in addition to other areas of Scotland. We approached these more established groups with a genuine awe at their achievements, and shared our hopes and dreams with them. In return, they welcomed us in; we worked together as genuine collaborators, setting up viable and sustainable sharing ‘networks’ and continue to tackle the task of supporting those who engage with our services.
Our aim is to ensure care givers don’t have to choose which other adult in the household gets a ‘smaller portion’ or indeed who ‘misses out on a meal’ a few days a week based on lack of access to food (genuine comments shared by our families). Here at Team EBI, we want everyone to enjoy healthy, nutritious food and consider it our role to create sustainable, reliable routes for families to access food. We’re keen for people to be able to choose food based on nutritional needs and taste, rather than based on what little income they can spare for food after bills and debts are covered.
This service is only made possible by the generosity of our supporters and our veritable army of volunteers: we have no paid staff. Volunteers give what time they can afford – and we try to be as flexible as possible with opportunities for those who wish to assist. Our tasks are many, and the burden is best shared. We can offer opportunities to volunteer to suit most ability and skill levels, everyone is valued and encouraged here: and indeed, many improvements we’ve made to our processes have been made following suggestions by recipients of our service who volunteer with us.
e.g. one volunteer who was tasked with marking the best before date on products with a sharpie in order to make it clearer for those picking the products (a process we adopted in line with many similar services) expressed his dismay over the practice. When we sat with a cuppa and had a chat about the reasons behind the concern, he explained that every time he opened his cupboards and lifted a product marked with a sharpie it was a blatant reminder that he could not afford to feed his family. Solution: we now utilise a storage system, overseen by a dedicated team who stack products in a specific order therefore no need for marking of products.
Whether your interaction with EBI Unites is one of volunteer, recipient or supporter – our first message to you is.. welcome to Team EBI. We all have a part to play in the recovery of our society post Covid and we want to encourage people to see that as a team effort – everyone is equal. The pandemic has exacerbated the struggle for many families who were ‘just managing’ before, working low paid, zero-hour contact roles which were impacted heavily during the crisis months of the past year. It’s been a lesson for many as to the struggles faced by those who have been experiencing long term food insecurity – and, like in areas up and down the country, here in Erskine, Bishopton and Inchinnan, has created a culture of wanting to help our neighbours, of being kinder, more supportive and of actually acknowledging the level of need here in our own backyard.
Are we proud of OUR service – you bet your bottom dollar we are! We’ve created a network of support for some of our most vulnerable members of society, we’ve presented an opportunity to help for those who were looking for one. Our service is mutually beneficial – our volunteers gain confidence, improvements to mental and physical health (those bags are sometimes heavy) whilst the people they’re visiting get a friendly face to have a chat with and know their community cares about them. We’ve brought together local groups and churches in a spirit of communion – a practical force for love and goodness. An example of love your neighbour in action!
Each family (you’ll have noticed we try really hard not to refer to ‘clients’ – a deliberate choice to reflect our ethos) receives a personalised level of support from our project. We’re keen not to build a level of reliance, to encourage independence by working with people to ensure they’re receiving the appropriate amount of benefit (if any) they are entitled to; to make sure they’re not paying over the odds for their amenities and generally ‘getting the best deal they can’ for their money. That’s why our food support is so flexible: some families receive a top up because their income just simply doesn’t cover the cost of food every day of the month.
We actively work to prevent food going to landfill and therefore we don’t want people to have to choose between paying their rent/mortgage or eating, when simply allowing them access to surplus food from local producers would bridge the gap. Similarly we recognise that for some families the last year has been the toughest of their lives: many haven’t received 100% of their income since March 2020 – ask yourself, can you afford to SAVE 20% of your income on a regular basis – if the answer is no, then imagine what you would have to give up to simply keep the roof above your head if you found yourself in this position. This financial pressure is happening to families who are having to also deal with the emotional and mental pressures of the pandemic. We take great delight in ‘staying in touch’ with our families even when our service is no longer required. We encourage our families to take advantage of our Zero Hero Market even when our support is no longer required – this food would be going to landfill, they ARE Heroes for ‘saving it’. This allows an easy avenue for engagement if their needs should change and they find themselves requiring further support.
Long-standing agencies may have concerns that, as ‘new kids on the block’, we may be treading unchartered territory – our lack of insistence of an ‘official referral voucher’ by a statutory agency/government department has been criticised in some quarters. In mitigation, we would point out that we are in the midst of an international pandemic, navigating unchartered waters in relation to the demographic of those using services such as ours (e.g. at a recent forum call, members of more established services stated they had never had so many clients who were working/driving in order to gain supplies). The outlook for the foreseeable future is uncertain: anxiety over what will happen when furlough ends in relation to retention of jobs is high.
We would also make an appeal for the ‘kindness’ movement demonstrated so visibly in the first weeks of the pandemic to be the norm of the future – let’s be less judgemental, and more open in our approach. The majority of the food we supply would have previously been sent to landfill – I’m sure this is not what anyone wants to see. Let’s see if we can come up with creative ways of ensuring no-one goes to bed hungry, or feels stigmatised for having to seek support to feed their families.
Giving people the dignity of volunteering to help those who would benefit from all types of support is one way of building a community – the very basis of community spirit!
Let it be the norm to see our communities coming together to enjoy community meals created utilising surplus food, or food grown by those very communities in shared gardens and growing spaces.
Let’s see the entertainment being provided for by youngsters, keen to have an audience to witness their blossoming talents.
Let’s enjoy the skills and recipes of by-gone days being passed on to a new audience – allowing everyone a place, space and value in our communities and busy lives.
Let that be the legacy of covid in Erskine, Bishopton and Inchinnan.
Author: Jacqui Reid, Community Pantry & Wellbeing Centre Lead