How local pantry shops have become beacon of hope – Niall Cooper

IN a few months, if all goes smoothly, I will be in Yorkshire as the county welcomes its first Your Local Pantry shop.

The Your Local Pantry in Peckham. Photo: Madeleine Penfold.

As the first members walk through the doors and start filling their baskets, they will be joining a national movement of thousands of like-minded people who are re-energising neighbourhoods, taking preventative action against the threat of hunger and loosening the grip of poverty and isolation.

Over the past nine months, the number of pantries that we and our partners operate has trebled from 14 to 42. Many more are in the planning stage, including in Yorkshire.

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Amid the darkness of the past year, this rapid growth has been a beacon of hope, demonstrating that local neighbourhoods can be at the forefront of developing practical and sustainable long-term responses to poverty and the pandemic.

Your Local Pantry in Peckham. Photo: Madeleine Penfold.

The pantry model is simple. Anyone who lives in a neighbourhood served by one can join. Members pay a small weekly subscription of around £5, and in return they can choose around £25 a week of groceries from the wide and varied stock on the shelves. It’s a shop in all but name, but members can save £780 or more a year compared to supermarket prices. The stock is supplied through the food redistribution charity FareShare and by local suppliers in each area.

Why do people choose to be pantry members? Financial savings may be the initial incentive, but our 2021 impact report found that the appeal and impact is far broader. Out of 490 members surveyed, 76 per cent said their mental health had improved; 69 per cent said their physical health had improved; 70 per cent said they felt more connected to their community; and 57 per cent had made new friends since joining the pantry.

Many members said that, during the lockdowns in particular, the pantries were vital, guaranteeing food access in tough times and also providing reassurance and moral support.

As well as the financial, health and social benefits, pantries also create volunteering and employment opportunities, and members value playing their part in reducing food waste. Members’ own words were also encouraging. One member told us: “It helps our food budget go further, which in turn leads to less stress.” Another said: “It brings the community together and it makes people feel part of something.”

This is where pantries differ profoundly from reactive projects like food banks. 
Pantries are not places to go as a last resort in times of acute crisis. They are dynamic, 
ever-present community food clubs, cherished, valued and enjoyed by people from Liverpool to Lowestoft, Preston to Peckham.

We all know the importance of localised, people-centred projects. Pantries fit that bill. They are sustainable, proactive, long-term responses to poverty, and they are can be a key component of community-led recovery from this time of 
crisis.

Let’s be clear, community response is not a substitute for wider reform. We still urgently need action by government and employers to ensure all household incomes are secure and adequate, so people are free from the grip and threat of poverty.

But people in low-income communities want immediate action as well as long-term campaigns. So, at the same time as pressing for better, fairer policies, our goal is to help develop a national network of local pantries building dignity, choice and hope for thousands more people.

For years, charities and community groups have tried to untangle the issue of how to safeguard food access without compromising on dignity. Pantries offer a practical and proven solution, and in the past year, more and more organisations have seen that and embraced the model.

We’ve been joined by organisations such as Liverpool City Council, Burgess Hill 
town council in Sussex, Oasis Academy Trust in the West Midlands, Peabody Housing Trust in London, a GP-surgery in Dorset, a local arts centre in north Edinburgh and a host of local neighbourhood organisations and faith 
groups.

Together, they, we, and the many new partners coming on board across the country can help drive the rebuilding of neighbourhoods, support dignity, choice and hope in all times, and ultimately strengthen the voice of communities who have too frequently been overlooked, neglected or stigmatised and blamed for society’s ills.

Niall Cooper is director of Church Action on Poverty, which co-ordinates the Your Local Pantry network.

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