The UK cost of living crisis has meant more people relying on food banks and donated goods to get by. But how does this impact people’s sense of dignity? Two projects offer a novel take on what it means to give and receive

Before Carole Jones opened her ‘social supermarket’ in Dorset in November 2020, she had no idea it would grow to support hundreds of people. 

When the pandemic first struck, Jones (main picture, above) recruited more than 100 volunteers to offer others assistance: from collecting prescriptions and shopping, to dog walking and more. After receiving some funding through her local clinical commissioning group, they began offering food vouchers too, and the Vale Pantry was born. 

“The medical centre’s social prescribing arm discovered that 47 per cent of the surgery’s appointments were for people who didn’t really need to see a GP,” Jones says. “The reasons came down to isolation, anxiety and other factors, but also things like poor diet and food poverty. So, they were very keen to be involved in the setting up of the pantry.” 

Vale Pantry members pay £6 a week for the equivalent of up to £60 worth of shopping. Image: Gareth Iwan Jones

Food poverty is growing in the UK. In 2012-13, the food bank charity the Trussell Trust supplied food parcels to nearly 350,000 people, rising to 2.5 million people in 2020. 

At the Vale Pantry, based in the town of Sturminster Newton, members pay £6 a week for the equivalent of up to £60 worth of shopping. Crucially, they are able to choose their own fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, and everyday staples. Nappies, formula milk and sanitary wear are available for those who need them. Almost 650 people, including 271 children, are now supported by the service. As well as member contributions, funding comes from a patchwork of grants and other donations. 

Jones felt that choice was all-important. “With the food bank model, you’re given a box and it’s normally just tins and packets,” she says. “When members come to us, they can go around and choose exactly what they want.” 

When we first opened, it was almost as though people felt embarrassed. Now the pantry is a place full of fun and laughter

Jones and her team also help people to budget and put together recipe bags with instructions, to support members in cooking meals from scratch. “That’s been brilliant,” she enthuses. “People now are not afraid to take a butternut squash, a swede or a melon home.”

Preserving the dignity of those in financial uncertainty is also something that drives CJ Bowry, who lives in Surrey. She founded Sal’s Shoes in 2013 and has since distributed almost 3m pairs of shoes to children in 54 countries. The charity’s UK work has expanded significantly over the past two years, particularly through its school shoes fund Toe to Toe, which saw 41,000 pairs being donated in 2021 alone.

Cost of living crisis

CJ Bowry has helped distribute almost 3m pairs of shoes to children. Image: Paul Clifton Photography

“I had calls with headteachers from five primary schools yesterday,” Bowry says. “They had all spotted kids with the soles literally flapping off their shoes. Many people don’t realise that shoe poverty exists. But for lots of the families we work with, it comes down to: ‘Do we pay to have the heating on? Do we pay to feed our children? Or: Do they go to school with holes in their soles?’ We have an education system that’s free to access, but school uniform is mandatory. What do you do if you can’t afford it?” 

Research from the University of York confirms that the cost of school uniforms was unmanageable for some low-income families as children returned to school post-lockdown. 

Sal’s Shoes has recently been working with the Guinness Partnership, a housing association that manages more than 66,000 homes across England, to set up shoe banks in three communities. Their Crewe, Salford and Hackney shops are filled with preloved shoes organised by size and colour, and laid out like a normal shoe shop. There are school shoes, trainers, wellies and more. Children can have their feet measured and choose the shoes they like best, rather than simply being given a pair that fits. 

“It’s really trying to make it as close to a real-life shopping experience as possible: the only difference is families don’t have to pay,” Bowry says. 

Cost of living crisis

Children can choose the shoes they like best, rather than simply being given a pair. Image: Sal’s Shoes

The Guinness Partnership works with a range of charities, offering mentoring support, food pantry projects, clothing, bikes and more. 

“We look at projects where people have choice,” says senior community partnership manager Brian Hamlin. “Everything we do in terms of alleviating hardship is about empowerment and improvement. It would be easy to put shoes in a box and say: ‘Your shoes are over there, go and get them.’ But to be able to pick a pair that you like? It’s hard to quantify the effects of that, not just on the child but [also] on the family.” 

Sometimes people just need a stepping stone

Back in Dorset, Jones has just received an email from a member who suggests there should be a Vale Pantry in every UK town and village. She isn’t quite ready to take that on, but Jones is convinced that members now feel more dignified about accessing help to get back on their feet. 

She knows first-hand that kindness in society goes a long way. “When we first opened, it was almost as though people felt embarrassed. Now the pantry is a place full of fun and laughter. For many, it’s their social outing of the week. Last year, we helped more than 190 families back to full independence, where they don’t need us any more. Sometimes people just need a stepping stone.”

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