THE Lancashire town of Wigan, which has some of the most deprived housing estates in the Greater Manchester area, plans to be foodbank free by 2030.
Instead, the town in Liverpool diocese is establishing a network of what it describes as Food Pantries based in Wigan’s churches. In place of food handouts, they offer once- or twice-weekly shopping baskets of 20 basic items for an annual fee of £5 and a payment of whatever the recipient can afford.
“Food Pantries are the big vision of the Church in Wigan and Wigan Council,” the Team Vicar of Wigan and project co-ordinator, the Revd Mark Wade, said this week. “The template gives people more choice than a foodbank. There is more freedom; they are open to everyone, not referral-based. They give people ownership and self-esteem.”
The plan is based on a successful scheme launched in 2014 in St Barnabas’s, Marsh Green, which aimed not just to give food support, but to teach people how to get the best out of what food was available. It used “intercepted” food — short-dated supermarket produce that would otherwise go to waste — supplied by the Real Junk Food Project and the Wigan community group Fur Clemt, which is local dialect for “very hungry”.
In 2019, a second project, Tom’s Pantry, opened in St James Centre, Poolstock, just as the Covid lockdown began. It remained open to offer bags from the door and make deliveries to people who were self-isolating. Last Christmas, its volunteers delivered 1000 food hampers. The community warmed to the concept, and now Wigan has four more pantries at Christ Church, St Nathaniel’s, St James’s, and St Stephen’s. About 300 families use them each week.
Church Urban FundSarah collects food supplies at Ashton Pantry, in St Thomas’s Church Hall, Wigan
In August, they added a Saturday “faith café” at the St James Centre, offering a pay-as-you-feel meal service.
“We are beginning to see them as a place of encountering discipleship,” Mr Wade said: “all of these young families coming into church buildings they would never have walked into before, staying for tea or coffee and toast — and beginning the journey, asking questions, and just being loved and cared for by the local church.”
One of them is Tracy Mathioudakis, a mother of two, who had been homeless for five years until she found a home in Wigan. “I was very, very broke. I was running on empty,” she said. Then she discovered Tom’s Pantry, and Alison Brown who helps to run it.
“She is an absolutely amazing lady. She was so nice to me; she told me not to worry about the £5 joining fee, and they dropped off a bag of food. At Christmas, she told me someone had donated £30 to the church to give to someone and she had thought of me. I thought it was just such a beautiful gesture. They gave me hope when there was really none. My blessings are immense because of the people they are in that church.”
Now she is studying on the Alpha course and cooks in the café kitchen. “I help out at the church nearly every day,” she said. “I clean, I do the cooking, and I love every minute of it. No one shoves religion down your throat: they just show the goodness of God. Going to the café has been wonderful for me. I feel fulfilled. I feel part of something which is amazing.”
The Revd Neil Cook, Rector of the Church Wigan Team, said: “The Church has always sought to feed the hungry as a sign of God’s love for all. In Wigan, there is a rich history of Christian churches of many denominations and traditions fulfilling this mandate.
“The outlets are not foodbanks, but a complement to them. They intentionally don’t provide a handout; rather, they promote dignity and empowerment by providing members with good-quality food, a support community, and an opportunity to manage money and exercise choice.
“We recognise that there will continue to be an important role for the food outlets beyond lockdown. They will remain an important part of Church Wigan’s mission as we live out God’s love by feeding the hungry.”