THE mighty edifice of St George’s Church stands on top of a steep hill in Everton, on the north side of Liverpool. The world’s first iron church, it originally served the city’s wealthy merchant classes, and, later, when terraced housing replaced the grand houses, a vibrant working-class community that numbered about 200,000 at its height.
Some pockets of these remained after the enforced exodus that followed the wholesale demolition of the terraces in the 1960s. But now the church serves a parish of just 3500, with high levels of deprivation that make it the 15th poorest urban parish in the country and in the top ten of “food deserts” identified by the Social Market Foundation. These are areas poorly served by food stores, where people without cars or who aren’t fit and healthy may find it hard to gain access to a range of healthy, affordable food products.
The nearest supermarket, Sainsbury’s, is at the bottom of the hill. There is no single bus that runs to the more distant Asda and Aldi stores. “The geography of the place means that if you struggle to get around, or you can’t carry shopping, or you’ve got a lot of children, you’re having to spend money you don’t have on a taxi or you’re stuck,” the Vicar of St George’s, the Revd Adam Maynard, says. “There’s a bit of a shopping street, but there’s no high street here.”
FOODBANK use associated with the roll-out of Universal Credit has rocketed in this area of Liverpool. Those operated by the St Andrew’s Community Network, which grew out of the parish church in Clubmoor, served 11,236 people in the last financial year, a rise of 47 per cent on the previous year. Set up eight years ago in partnership with the Trussell Trust, it now has 13 distribution centres across north Liverpool, turns over 90 tonnes of food a year, and is staffed by 150 volunteers.
At the end of 2018, it reviewed its foodbank operation. “We didn’t want to and we couldn’t sustain the level of growth we were seeing — we were under-capacity staff-wise and struggling for more volunteers,” its operations manager, Simon Huthwaite, says. “We wanted to build resilience and drive down the need for emergency crisis support.”
The Liverpool pantry team, at the launch in December
There were other concerns, too, especially that the increased demand was limiting the opportunities to talk to those arriving at the foodbank. “A big part of the Trussell set-up is that alongside the offer of food is an offer of conversation and prayer, too, if appropriate,” he says. “We are finding more and more that, given the transactional nature of the crisis and the fact that we’re not seeing the same people, week in and week out, we just deal with the crisis and we don’t see them again. We can see perhaps 40 people in a two-hour session, a quick in-and-out that yields no opportunity to build relationships.”
While St Andrew’s was coming up with its three-year plan, St George’s was having similar conversations and reaching the same conclusions. Dr Naomi Maynard, Adam’s wife, is the lead project officer for Together Liverpool and evaluated a programme, Your Local Pantry, for Church Action on Poverty (CAP). She has also worked with the Feeding Liverpool Network, set up in 2015 after the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom (News, 10 December).
Your Local Pantry was taken up in 2014 by Stockport Homes, the housing association that manages stock owned by Stockport Council, to help social-housing tenants who struggled after the implementation of the Welfare Reform Act in 2012. The association had worked with foodbanks in the area (and continues to do so), but realised that these could not help everyone.
Now a national movement, the pantry model works more like a co-operative, removing stigma and giving dignity and choice to struggling families. Local people on low incomes become members (no referrals are needed) and pay £3.50 a week into the scheme. For that, they can visit the pantry — a shop set up in a community venue — and make their own choice of ten items from a colour-coded system, with a typical basket valued at £15. The pantries, run by volunteers, are stocked largely by food from FareShare, who redistributed enough surplus food last year for 46.5 million meals. They make budgets stretch further, and, in a café atmosphere, they also become a social hub, which helps to tackle social isolation.
CAP has been working in partnership with Stockport Homes for the past two years, promoting the development of pantries in Rochdale, Manchester, and Greater Manchester; it is now developing a network in low-income communities across the country. The 14 pantries have 1300 members and reach 3400 adults and children.
The backdrop is stark. Foodbank use in the Trussell Trust network has increased by 73 per cent in the past five years. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019, its network distributed 1.6 million three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, a 19-per-cent increase on the previous year (News, 26 April 2019). More than half a million of these went to children.
The Mottram Street Pantry, Stockport.
“When the poverty figures came out last summer, they woke the Government up to the fact that, to avoid poverty, you need two adults in the household working full-time,” Gillian Oliver of CAP says. “The nature of work is unpredictable and short-term. Working families need this kind of help, and more churches are now rolling up their sleeves and offering it.”
The first church to set up a pantry was St Luke’s, Peckham. Working in partnership with the St Andrew’s Community Network, St George’s was the first to do so in a historic church building. They converted a back corner of the building for the pantry and shop, and created a welcoming space with chairs and tables. The pantry has a freezer and a chilling cabinet, and fresh fruit and vegetables are part of the food offering. Coffee mornings were set up to tell parents, community associations, and social-housing providers about the scheme, and take-up was immediate when the pantry was launched in December. It now has 100 members.
“There’s no stigma in a pantry,” Mr Maynard says. “People join of their own volition: they haven’t had to reach a crisis point. They’re members; they have a say in what happens and they get to choose what they like to eat, obviously dependent on what stock we’ve got in that week.
“I think the biggest difference is that it’s localised. . . That means people aren’t coming from all over the city and can come every week if they want to. There’s a sense of community about it. People see it as their project, rather than something that’s being given to them. They’re contributing. It’s much more about the community working together than a charitable handout. And it’s not just about saving money: it’s about reducing food waste, reducing isolation, and making friendships.”
MR MAYNARD is full of praise for the way in which CAP has developed the model in such a way that it can be applied with confidence to any parish church or organisation: it has “learned the lessons and been really supportive of the church and of the church community at work”. The core of volunteers came initially from church members, but others have joined, several of whom are people who are not working. “They get a lot of confidence from this,” he says.
St George’s pantry in Liverpool
“We put a high value on the hospitality side of it, so half the volunteers run the logistics of the pantry, helping with the shopping and the stock, and the other half serve teas, talk to people, and help create the welcoming atmosphere we want. A lot of people in the neighbourhood, especially those harder-to-reach older and more isolated people are finding out about it by word of mouth, and we’re really encouraged by how many people are bringing along a friend — as much for the social side of it as the savings on their shopping.”
Savings are considerable: nationally, an estimated 1200 households benefited from pantry membership last year, each potentially saving £650 a year on food bills. There’s the option in some pantries to pay by standing order as a way of supporting members to prepare from the transition to Universal Credit, where household finances must be managed monthly: members opting for this receive a 25 per cent discount and save an extra £3.50 a month.
St George’s pantry in Liverpool
St Andrew’s Community Network has a waiting-list of local organisations that want to set up a pantry, and it is planning to set up another ten over the next two-and-a-half years. Funded from a variety of sources, money specifically for foodbank development comes from the Trussell Trust, who, in turn, have received a big investment in it from ASDA. A three-year grant is enabling the employment of a chief development worker for the pantries, Vicky Ponsonby, who has her own team of volunteers.
“We’ll be able to roll out a number of pantries that will sit alongside — and hopefully drive down the need for — crisis foodbank provision,” Mr Huthwaite concludes. “From the way the timing of everything has worked out, we’d very much say that it was a God-inspired thing. God is involved: we are certain of that.”