The People’s Pantry – creating space for community through food

6 January 2021

The People’s Pantry in Leven, Scotland is not only feeding people, it’s helping to change to conversation on food insecurity. “Many of our volunteers have experience with food insecurity and their experience has really shaped the direction of the Pantry” explains Billy Bain, a Fife Council Community Learning and Development worker and Pantry co-founder. “We worked with them to craft a dignified response to food insecurity, and we’ve done that by connecting it to something larger. We’ve changed the conversation from food insecurity to food waste, which changes how people see the experience of coming to us. It makes it positive, many of our members tell us ‘we’re helping ourselves but we’re also helping the environment.”

The basic model of the People’s Pantry is simple – members pay a small weekly membership fee which entitles them to ten items from the Pantry’s selection, primarily provided by FareShare. “We wouldn’t be able to do this without FareShare. They’re our main source of food. There’s lots of fruit and veg, lots of chilled food. It’s so varied, which means you have to plan around it each week, but our members have really embraced that. We’re quite a deprived area so it gives people a chance to vary their diet and try things they wouldn’t normally get to try, and they’re sometimes quite luxurious items!”

The Pantry’s dignified and engaged approach has gone over well with its 135 members, who before the pandemic would show up to the Pantry’s café pick-up every week: “It’s become a community. At first people would just kind of sit on their own and wouldn’t really talk, but now there’s a real family atmosphere. People will tell us ‘I lived streets away from this person and never knew them, but now I do’. They’d arranging bus journeys together, swap recipes on Facebook – there’s even a team putting together a recipe book!”

When the pandemic arrived changed very quickly, as Billy remembers: “We were hit with this massive demand. People who’d been really laid out, no food, no money, no heating. We had to basically shut down everything we were doing and set it up again so we could do it safely. So we ran a socially distanced version of the Pantry on Fridays, but we realised that many of our members were vulnerable and wouldn’t be able to come so we started doing deliveries as well. For a lot of people they weren’t really seeing anyone else in the week so having that little bit of interaction was so important. We had to do things at a distance of course, but I’d clown around at bit and we’d have a laugh. It really helped people to relax and feel safe and connected.”

In the initial six weeks of lockdown, the amount of people served by the Pantry nearly tripled. “On average we were reaching about 350 families a week,” says Billy, “we froze our permanent member list but we’ve registered a lot of temporary members, and for the time being we’ve waived the fee for everyone. We just put a blanket around the community to try to shield them from this. And we couldn’t have done it without FareShare. They very quickly picked up that we were there now to support the whole of Leven, not just our members. Our FareShare Centre in Dundee were just amazing and we were really able to help each other in getting all this food out. We’ve probably delivered 8,000 to 9,000 food parcels over the past several months.”

The Pantry is looking to keep building as they look forward to the future. “I have to say I’m quite positive about the future,” affirms Billy “A lot of the people we work with are what we call hard to reach, they don’t tend to surface and ask for help until there’s really a dire need. So our has helped us create relationships with people that we’re going to build on. If someone is experiencing food insecurity, it doesn’t happen in isolation. Through food we’ve created a space where people can be respected and listened to, and where we can have these conversations about what else is going on with them.”