The Hitchin Pantry has celebrated its first anniversary – that’s one year of providing a lot more than simply affordable food to the people in Hitchin and the surrounding area.
During the Covid Pandemic, some people who are now members of the Pantry had been receiving hand-outs, literally, deliveries of groceries to their doors. Others had been to different food banks, for emergency food packages. And there’s another important group that the Pantry has begun to serve – Ukrainian refugees who have been arriving in the area since the Russian invasion.
Each member appreciates the Hitchin Pantry for much more than the wide range of fresh, refrigerated, frozen and ambient food that it provides for just £4 a week.
Jane and Vera have both been coming to the Pantry since it opened at the end of October 2021, having previously received food relief from other places. They explained why they prefer the set-up of the Hitchin Pantry.
Jane told me her nearest food bank is referral only, and you can only have four referrals a year “you’ve got to prove that you’re poor” she said “it’s not dignified”. Vera compared the Pantry to a food bank run by a local church near to where she lives. “they have good stuff, but you have to stand outside and point at what you want through a window” The Hitchin Pantry is more like a mini supermarket, where shoppers can choose freely from a vegetable department, fridges and freezers, shelves with sweet and savoury canned goods, cereals and bread, as well as toiletries, not to mention confectionery and cut flowers.
But the experience doesn’t start there. For up to an hour before the Pantry opens in the Scout Hut, the church hall is open. Volunteers make tea and coffee and serve cake to the shoppers, who are given a queue ticket allowing them to go into the Pantry in turn once it opens.
This is one big change that has happened over the year, as Vera remembers “We used to stand outside in the cold, but now we can go in to the hall for a cup of tea” It’s a chance to chat with each other and with the volunteers in a relaxed atmosphere, with music playing. In fact, there are plans to keep this church hall open all day for anyone to come into, as a warm space, allowing people to save a little on their heating bills.
The quality and choice on offer at the Hitchin Pantry is impressive. Whilst Vera loves the flowers and other luxury items, another member, Augostino, enjoys being able to choose good quality ingredients which he makes into impressive-sounding soups, pastas and paellas. He explains “you can’t come with a list and expect them to have everything, but there’s always a lot of variety and of good quality too” For a talented cook like Augostino, the Pantry provides the raw ingredients that he needs. A lot of food banks focus on ready meals which may of course be helpful to those who don’t have the time, means, or ability to cook.
The Hitchin Pantry boasts an excellent team of volunteers without whom the it would not be the success that it is.
Davina, Dave, Nicki, Liliya and many others help out on Fridays and Saturdays on the shop floor, while others collect the goods from supermarkets. Pantry members usually go around the shop with a volunteer, who can show them what’s in this week, and help people stick to the system inviting them to purchase, for their £4, three red-ticketed items (meat and more expensive produce), seven blue (ambient produce such as tins, packets of pasta), and as much veg and bread as they need. The system works – with everyone filling their trolley and going home with three or more meals worth of food, plus treats for the kids or a bunch of flowers for their mum.
But the interaction with volunteers is important for another reason, as Davina, who began volunteering after seeing a Facebook post, explained: “It’s a big thing for a lot of people, we don’t rush them through because it’s a chance to have a chat and check in on people. You get to know people, what they like, and their dietary requirements, and you can put something aside for a particular person. It’s a human thing, not just a sustenance thing”.
Dave, who had previously been part of the team delivering food to people during the lockdown, agrees – his particular role is chatting to the customers before they come into the shop “its developed into a social event” he says. This human contact can also provide a place where people can open up about underlying issues that they have. Liz Wills, Caritas Development Worker for North Herts and manager of the Pantry, can signpost people to other services where they can receive support.
Something that was not predicted when the Pantry opened in October 2021, was how essential it would be to a group of newcomers to Hitchin. These are refugees from Ukraine who are being hosted by families in the area.
Liliya, a Ukrainian who now volunteers at the Pantry, explained that for herself and her compatriots, the Pantry provides a lot more than food. It’s a place to meet and network, “a place for Ukrainians to communicate, for example, where might be a good place to find a job” Liliya continued: “Sometimes I feel bad, but it helps when I talk and listen to other Ukrainians”
Liliya’s role at the Pantry is vital, as an interpreter, since many of the Ukrainian refugees do not yet speak English, and as a listening ear and link between Ukrainian Pantry members and the management team.
Liliya is also passionate about reducing food waste – something the Hitchin Pantry helps achieve by receiving food “rescued” from supermarkets and other outlets by Fareshare and the Felix project.
The success of the Hitchin Pantry has inspired other projects in the diocese through the Caritas Westminster network.
In Stoke Newington, Hackney, a new kind of project was set up in May 2022, with a focus on providing choice and a greater diversity of foods for different ethnic communities, as well as supporting citizens over the age of 66. Shoppers contribute what they can afford up to £5 and a small community is developing with people also shopping for their neighbours who can’t travel to the shop. Minet Masho, our development worker for East London explains more:
“Stokey Community Food Shop started in May 2022 with a small grant from the GLA which I decided to use to offer culturally appropriate food to the diverse communities of Hackney. Since then, Hackney council offered us a large amount of funding to support Hackney pensioners over the age of 66 during this current financial crisis. Stokey is based in the north side of Hackney and in order to reach out pensioners in the south side, we recently started distributing cultural food from St Monica’s Hoxton parish, after Sunday Morning Mass. Most of the customers are from the Caribbean and West Africa communities, but we are also liaising with the Chinese and Jewish communities for intercultural collaboration in offering to use our service.
As always, I thank the customers for supporting the project, and when I said good bye and thank you to a regular customer, she replied: “I come from humble beginnings and I appreciate all these more than ever because now everything is expensive”.
There are a great range of food projects running across the diocese of Westminster, by schools, parishes and community groups. Each one is different. Each one has its own purpose and its own unique community. A food bank might be the best model for emergency provision of essential items, but projects which allow for more choice, can be a more dignified way of providing longer term support for people. Whatever model is followed, the most successful projects are those which also provide a sense of community with those using the service being treated as individuals and thought of as friends.
In Hitchin, Pantry days have a sense of occasion about them, and it is easy to see why a full year after she started the project, Liz still says it is the highlight of her week.
You may also be interested in