By Rachel Brown

HOW do we safeguard food access without compromising on dignity?

Charities and community groups have wrestled with that question throughout the past decade of austerity, and then most recently and acutely during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Perhaps now, we have an answer.

In a compassionate society, it should be a given that everyone will have access to a choice of good food, free from anxiety and stigma, yet achieving that has often proved difficult.

We all know we need Government action across a raft of areas to ensure all household incomes are adequate to cover living costs. But while we press for that, we also need dignified responses on the ground, here and now, to loosen the grip of poverty.

One model now proving particularly effective is the Your Local Pantry approach. In the past year, the number of shops in the network has trebled from 14 to 42 across the UK. One of the areas of fastest growth has been Edinburgh, which began 2020 with no pantries but which now has four, serving more than 1,400 people, and with three more close to opening.

The pantry model is simple. Anyone who lives in a neighbourhood served by one can join. Members pay a small weekly subscription of a few pounds, and in return they can choose around £20 to £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 the best part of £1,000 a year compared to supermarket prices. Stock is supplied through the food redistribution charity FareShare and local suppliers in each area.

Most members initially join to save money, but the benefits thereafter are far broader. Our new impact report found that 76 per cent of members reported improved mental health, and 69% reported improved physical health. 70% felt more connected to their community and 57% had made new friends. Many said that, during the lockdowns in particular, pantries were vital in ensuring access to food and friendship.

One member at the Fresh Start Pantry in Edinburgh told us: “It brings it all back to the community and feels like we are shopping local. I prefer this to shopping at a supermarket.”

Another said: “Being a member has allowed my family to save money and buy more fresh meat that is halal, as they are Muslim and find it difficult to afford halal meat.”

Pantries have proliferated because organisations have seen and want to emulate the difference they make, but also because we’ve all been reminded in this pandemic of the importance of community and mutual support for one another. Local neighbourhoods can and should be at the forefront of developing practical and sustainable responses to the pandemic, and setting up a dynamic, inclusive, community-focused project like a pantry is the perfect way to start.

Councils, school trusts, churches, a GP surgery and numerous grassroots groups have embraced the approach, and over the next five to 10 years, our goal is to support the doubling of the network, building dignity, choice and hope for thousands more people. If we can do that, then we are well on the way to having a better, stronger society, where nobody is cut adrift or neglected.

Rachel Brown is Scottish Development Worker for Your Local Pantry