The Vale Pantry in Sturminster Newton is a new breed of community service, offering food and practical help to those who are struggling
Tucked away in a back street of Stur is the Vale Pantry. The vibrant little community supermarket currently supports 360 families and opens its doors six days a week to all those who find themselves struggling to manage. Forty willing volunteers work cheerfully, offering not just an affordable full shopping basket but a listening ear, empathy and practical support too.
Some ask how hard can it really be – it’s just a shop, after all. Deliveries in, stack the shelves and send people on their way with the means to make some meals.
Local councillor Carole Jones has been involved with the Pantry since its inception, and she’s keen to explain why ‘just a shop’ couldn’t be further from the truth. Says Carole:
As I try and bring you along for a pretty standard week at the Pantry, perhaps think about how many individual items we need* – excluding fruit and veg – to do what we do on a weekly basis.
Our van is off the road this week. We rather suspect it didn’t know what it had signed up for – and is formally protesting. But we had committed to collecting much-needed supplies (donated by a foodbank, if you can believe it), so the first job of the week is to persuade a merry band of cars to collect a haul of staples: beans, tomatoes and anything else that is offered. These are then distributed around the various businesses that kindly allow us storage space!
While chatting to one customer who is in desperate need of a Citizen’s Advice appointment, a call comes in from the shop – we haven’t any carrots left. We can’t be without, of course, so carrots are promptly purchased. As we finish storing the last of the foodbank donation, the phone goes again – this time it’s an elderly customer struggling to find (and afford) a much-needed chiropodist. We can help with that. While on the phone, we’re also asked to contact the church to try cutting the trees. I will admit we are many things, but oddly, tree surgeon is not on the list.
The evening team of collectors from the local supermarkets is out in force across the area throughout the week. I get a call at 9pm: ‘I’m at Tesco – they have offered us 400 punnets of in-date Strawberries. Do we want them?’
A big fat yes please, obviously – who knew you could be so excited about strawberries?
However, the volunteer there to collect them drives a tiny Smart car; possibly the least likely vehicle on the road to transport 400 punnets of strawberries.
The next morning The Pantry looks like Spitalfields fruit market. I wonder how on earth we are going to get rid of this many strawberries.
We have the busiest morning of the week, the sun is shining, we are rocking the strawberries … but the stack doesn’t appear to be diminishing.
We decide to head to Nazareth Lodge to share the strawberry love. The car is already loaded with food to deliver to those without transport, but we can’t simply drive past those who we know would appreciate a few strawberries – the bin man, the local lollipop lady and the little lady walking her dog all get a punnet.
Next stop is Sherborne, to the couple who collect from Waitrose for us. We talk about a homeless man – he gets well looked after by the locals with food, he has a phone, £500 in his pocket from selling The Big Issue (this is what modern day homelessness looks like) and he has a pleasant disposition. But no one will give him a roof over his head. Our volunteers put the call in to me, and within 48hrs we help change this chap’s life.
Next there’s a Pantry member who is expected to find a way to get to his mental health appointment some 15 miles away. He has no transport – how does he do this without help? We go back and pick him up – and on the way we pick up five trays of bread from Sainsburys and 40 dozen eggs from the farm that supplies us.
We pass through Henstridge, and know that visitors to the Honesty Jar would love some of the strawberries and bread, so we drop some in on the way through. Then it’s time to get the evening orders in for the shop tomorrow – and while we’re doing it, a local grandmother puts a shout out for some premature-sized nappies that she can’t find. We can do that too. Suddenly it’s 7pm – but Tom at the Marnhull Spar is always good for coffee …
Next day, a local school trip had perfect timing – more strawberries gone! It’s also the day our visitors with disabilities come and load our shelves. One of the young men with autism loves to bag the bread rolls outside, come rain or shine. He also loves the pizza he takes home for tea!
We mentor a young girl in the shop. She has been challenged by the care system, and she is a bag-full of mischief, but she had a wonderful breakthrough this week. For the first time in her life she cooked an entire meal!
The week doesn’t end there – in fact it’s a bit of a turkey. The Dorset Meat Company has a donation for us (we’ll not discuss the sat nav taking us to a coffin maker instead!).
We had presumed a car would be fine to collect 20 turkeys; but no. These are posh turkeys, all in boxes with thermometers. Jamie Oliver, no less.
Thankfully the van is now back on the road, so we can at least transport them. A call goes in to one of our volunteers (who thought she was safe starting to unwind for the weekend) – we have 20 turkeys with no homes!
We can do this. The almost 5kg turkeys are a family affair, so the calls begin. A few can collect, but for most, money for fuel is tight. How many meals can they get out of a turkey? And what a treat … So we go again, but instead of strawberries it’s Turkeys on Tour. Thankfully we leave the birds with some very happy families who are planning their first weekend roast in a while.
Of course, on top of the constant treadmill of food in and out, there is the invisible, out-of-hours work. Bids and grants need applying for, a seemingly never-ending job (it’s expensive to run the Pantry). But thanks to the team this week, two families are now getting some much-needed wrap-around care, eight members have had face to face appointments with a fabulous Citizen’s Advisor and a new freezer was purchased with the help of the Rotary Club.
We simply couldn’t do this without the help of the whole community.
Run entirely by volunteers, the Vale Pantry offers memberships to any family that is struggling financially. Members may visit once a week and pay £6 on each visit before choosing the food they would like for the week ahead. The foods available include fresh fruit and veg, chilled and frozen produce and store cupboard essentials. A typical weekly shop taken home is worth between £25 and £50.
For more details, email email@example.com or call 07968 348481
*The answer is 3,264. That’s the number of items we need weekly, not including fruit and veg.