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How YOUR church can build community & save people £21 a week

Your Local Pantry began in one neighbourhood but now brings communities together across the UK. How did it grow so far and fast?

A toddler in a pushchair holds a box of rice, at a Your Local Pantry

For Kirsty in the Midlands, it’s a fantastic place to meet people and save a little money.

For Sarah, who volunteers in Cardiff, it has become a second home, a place of friendship, fun and food.

For Tam in Edinburgh, it has brought friendship and freedom – membership has freed up money for him to buy his family presents on special occasions. 

Across the UK, more than 90,000 people have now enjoyed the wide-ranging benefits of Your Local Pantry membership. The first Pantry has just turned ten years old, and this week, in Kent, the 100th Pantry opened.

But how did the network grow so far and so fast? This blog looks at the story so far, and shares some learnings and lessons that could help your own work. 

Particularly, if you are active in your church, it aims to show how a Your Local Pantry could help your church to bring people together around food in a dignified and hope-filled way. 

A volunteer in a Your Local Pantry hoody chats to a member. They are sitting beside a coffee table, the volunteer with her back to the camera, the member facing it.
Pantries offer so much more than food - including community, friendship and support

As a starting point, here’s a quick overview of what Pantries are, with contributions from around the UK:

So Much More: The Pantry story

We have just launched So Much More, our new report looking at the impact Pantries are having across the UK. It made for positive reading. 

Pantry members now save £21 on groceries, each time they use the Pantry, meaning regular members can save more than £1,000 a year.

But as the title says, Pantries are doing so much more than helping members save money.

  • They are bringing people together around food.
  • They are strengthening community cohesion.
  • They are reducing isolation and improving physical and mental health.
  • They are creating opportunities and hope, and loosening the grip of poverty in people’s lives.

Here are just three of the many uplifting comments from Pantry members quoted in the report:

I was able to save up to buy a bike for my son so he can get to college. I am saving towards us having a short family holiday this year, which we've never had before.

————    ————

Thanks to the Pantry I have an advocate to help me manage my debts

————    ————

It has been great to see my autistic son’s mental health improve in coming here. He doesn’t usually want contact with anyone, but he has taken to some of the volunteers really well – even walking round holding their hands

————    ————

Pantries are a remarkable nationwide success story, but the idea began very modestly, in just one neighbourhood, in one town, in the north west of England. It began as a small seedling that has grown and blossomed and spread, carried all over the UK on the winds of kindness and community.

A posed line-up of 8 people in front of a gazebo and Your Local Pantry signs
Communities do so much more when they work together. This event in Stockport in May 2023 marked the 10th anniversary of the first Pantry.

Anna Jones remembers the early days well.

She was working for Stockport Homes, and many residents were in the midst of crisis. The controversial ‘bedroom tax’ was forcing people to move or be penalised, and there were not enough smaller homes available.

At the same time, the food redistribution charity FareShare was doing some deliveries to temporary housing nearby, leading to the spark of an idea.

“We noticed a real increase in food bank use at that time, and Stockport Homes was really worried how residents would make ends meet. We started looking into different food schemes.

“There were lots of different ideas – free food distribution, or a food hall serving meals for instance – but we decided the most impactful thing would be to do a volunteer-led community food store, where people contributed towards it.”

So Much More: a seed that has grown

That store opened in May 2013 as Penny Lane Pantry, the first Your Local Pantry in the country

Anna says: “The first challenge was to try to get the community behind it, in Lancashire Hill [a group of blocks of flats in north Stockport]. The community food store was a great idea. There was some initial wariness, but we asked residents to choose the name in a competition, and someone came up with the name Penny Lane Pantry.

“We really wanted to do something that had a big impact with residents and gave people ownership of the project, and the benefit of volunteering experience and opportunities.

“It had a real focus on bringing the community together. It’s quite a self-contained area of 900 flats, and we wanted it to be an inclusive environment.”

One of the first Pantries, in Stockport. The network has grown so much more than anyone expected.

After Penny Lane, Stockport Homes opened further Your Local Pantries around the town: in Brinnington, Bridgehall, Mottram Street, and Woodley. And then, in 2017, Pantries went national.

Dave Nicholson is now on the board of Skylight, the charity that sits under Stockport Homes, but back then was working for Church Action on Poverty, tasked with finding community initiatives that mitigated against the ‘poverty premium’ – the unjust pricing structures that makes life more expensive for people on low incomes.

He was looking at the “five Fs” (food, finance, fuel, furniture and white goods, and funerals), and was looking for initiatives that could be scaled up and developed more widely.

One evening, he was chatting to a friend in a pub, The Beer House in Chorlton in Manchester, when he hit a stroke of luck: that friend also happened to know Anna, and introduced them on the spot.

Dave went to visit the first Pantries, and was immediately impressed, and the national journey had begun.

A Pantry member in a pink top takes her groceries to the counter.

So Much More than a handout

“What I really liked was the potential and how things were developing and could further develop,” Dave recalls. “I started spending a lot of time with them and with similar initiatives. 

“I was impressed that it was a member-based approach, so there was a much greater degree of agency for the people involved. It’s not just charity and handouts, which is what food banks tend to be. Also, it had potential to be more sustainable in terms of food and easing the poverty premium.

“I thought, right from the beginning, it was like people reinventing the Coop, emulating what the mill workers in Rochdale had done in 1844 – coming together and setting up their own systems.

“Church Action on Poverty started looking at the model and got some people to help, and then in 2017 we launched the Your Local Pantry network as a franchise model.

“I always thought it might take off in Greater Manchester, but I did not give much thought to anything beyond that. It’s incredible how it has grown.”

A woman takes a bag of salad from a shelf, while chatting to a volunteer.
Pantries offer so much more variety than many people realise

So Much More to be proud of

Today, Anna too says she feels a real sense of achievement in the way the first Pantries fostered a community togetherness, and at the way it has grown further than anyone could have imagined. 

“Each of them has a very different personality and audience,” she says.

“The number of people who have joined, is quite astonishing – how it has grown! Initially, we thought it would help people save money, but it has done a lot more than that. 

“Pantries have always charged, because we knew we had to be self-sustaining, and we wanted it to be somewhere without stigma associated. People knew they were paying their way, and we made it clear that money was going back into the Pantry.

“It’s incredible how it has grown from that first Pantry. I still keep in touch with Fiona, who also worked on the Pantries, and we say when we’ve seen where the latest Pantry is.

“We are still very invested in it and feel overjoyed by it. It’s a nice legacy to look back on. From small, humble beginnings and a small impact with 100 members, it is still supporting people.”

That figure, the number of people who have enjoyed the fruits of Pantry membership has risen rapidly from that initial 100. 

Today, more than 33,000 people are benefiting, and over the past ten years the total is more than 90,000. More and more communities have seen what Pantries can do for their neighbourhoods – and what neighbourhoods can do for each other. 

A volunteer lifts a crate of bread out of a car boot.

So Much More: a call to the country

Communities have shown us that there is so much more they can do when they come together, and when they are entrusted with resources and support.

Yet, at the same time, we know they cannot do everything on their own. Pantries operate within a difficult wider context, and they are sometimes hindered rather than helped by systems beyond their control.

In our So Much More report, many members, volunteers and Pantry tell of the acute damage being wrought by soaring living costs. 

Many Pantries are also now having to spend significant sums on food, topping up their stocks, as the FareShare distribution network struggles to meet soaring need. 

This should be a wake-up call to the whole country, and one that rings loudly at Westminster above all. 

Community organisations have long warned that charity is not the long-term answer to food insecurity. It will take so much more than that. Government must now step up. Everyone should have access to good food, and that means all incomes need to keep pace with rising living costs, so people are not swept deeper into poverty.

A volunteer lifts potatoes from a sack. Only his hands are shown, his face is off-camera.
Pantry members say they cherish being able to access so much more fresh food

Today, there are Pantries in all four nations of the UK, from Edinburgh to Ebbw Vale, Portadown to Portsmouth. There are particular clusters in Merseyside, the West Midlands, Edinburgh and Greater London, and smaller clusters in South Wales and Portsmouth.

About half of Pantries are church-based, across several denominations. Others are hosted by community centres, charities, local councils or independent local organsiations.

And there is so much more growth still to come… We expect today’s 100 Pantries to be joined by another 125 by the end of 2025, thanks to a partnership with Coop across the UK.

The network has spread, the membership has grown rapidly, but the day to day good that Pantries do has remained a steady constant. 

And what do Pantries do?…

Pantries bring people together around food.

Pantries create the physical space for local people to meet, and forge new relationships, swapping recipes, ideas, stories and kindness.

Pantries soften the impact of high living costs, reducing shopping bills and giving people some much-needed financial wriggle room.

Pantries help communities and groups of friends to create breathing space together, to pause and chat and think, to lighten the load together and to share ideas that can start making change happen.

Pantries do all this and more. Because, while people can do wonderful things alone, when we come together, blend, complement and bring out each other’s strengths, the possibilities are even greater.

 

So Much More: over to you...

Could you start a Pantry in your church or community? Here we provide some information about how to get started.

Your Local Pantry is a network built on the values of dignity, choice and hope. Pantries bring people together around food, leading to people avoiding food poverty, making large savings on their grocery bills, and strengthening community. 

Setting up a Pantry is relatively low-cost if you have a venue, volunteers and a good supply of food. Pantries can cover most of their operating costs from weekly membership fees.

Our team have experience in helping to set up and support 100 Pantries around the UK. We have a tried and tested plan and a positive approach centred on dignity, choice and hope.

You can find out so much more about the benefits of Pantry membership, and enquire about setting one up, by clicking the logo below.

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