It’s almost a year since the first rural food pantry in England opened in Sturminster Newton. Back then, a lot of people were surprised at the numbers of people needing support. That hasn’t gone away, but there are several stories to celebrate from Vale Pantry, demonstrating how it is making a big difference to people’s lives.
Carole Jones is passionate about Vale Pantry which she set up with the Blackmore Vale Partnership. “It’s the best thing I have ever done,” she says. Today, 190 families or individuals are being supported. They pay £4.50 a week and can collect a range of foods from the pantry in Sturminster Newton. Fruit and vegetables are free. Since starting last year, 149 individuals or families who were originally helped, no longer need the services of Vale Pantry as they have been successfully supported through a difficult patch in their lives for example, or found work.
Carole and her team have also been looking deeper into the underlying issues that cause food poverty and why it is happening in North Dorset. They found several common threads. Carole explained: “A number of our clients have autistic children or a child with special educational needs. Typically, these children are not diagnosed until five years old. Up to then there is no firm diagnosis so the mums are often isolated. They cannot work or join the usual play groups, are embarrassed and isolated because of the child’s behaviour. Things we take for granted such as a supermarket visit can become a major experience. They are very isolated and stressed and can get depression. We also see older mothers with an autistic child now in their 30’s or 40’s and they are completely on their own. What we have done is set up a support group for these people and their children so they can share experiences and learn coping strategies. The kids can make as much noise as they like and it won’t matter.”
The group will start in September. Another theme emerging from the project are the numbers of people using the Pantry who have fibromyalgia. The debilitating symptoms often prevent them from working, leading to food poverty. The team have linked to Stour Connect so that this group of people can access hydrotherapy to help relieve their symptoms and improve their health so they can hopefully get back into the workplace. It’s an excellent example of how social prescribing works.
Carole’s team have also encountered people who are unsure how to cook a family meal. They have started producing recipe bags with an instruction card and all the ingredients they need to produce the dish. This week it’s tuna pasta bake.
The pavement outside the Pantry has also turned into a makeshift classroom as two schools recently sent pupils to learn about food poverty and social enterprises.
The team are very appreciative of the donations of fresh food from farms and allotment growers. Gold Hill Organics are just one of the local businesses providing fresh vegetables. Carole explained the difference that can make to someone.
“We had a couple using the pantry. She was unwell and her husband was unable to leave her. They had a budget of £20 for food and had to bulk buy in Lidl so could afford very few fresh products. The Vale Pantry gave them access to fresh fruit and vegetables as well as other foods. As a result their physical and emotional health and well-being has improved.”
There are opportunities for two more volunteers to support the pantry. The team are also looking for any offers of money or food to keep the service running. They are also preparing to become a registered charity.
It’s quite remarkable how making nourishing food more accessible to vulnerable people can make a big difference to their health and well-being. And by getting under the skin of the causes of food poverty, people can be supported in a more sustainable way.
By: Rachael Rowe