Chris Leech, c0-founder of Craigavon Area Food Bank, and his team have opened a social supermarket for those struggling in the wider Craigavon area.
Freedom Foods Pantry has opened in Lurgan, at the Emmanual Church building in Castle Lane with plans set up similar social supermarkets in Craigavon and Portadown.
It is not a food bank which is there for emergency and crisis situations and gives food for free.
The social supermarket is similar to an ordinary supermarket with a selection of goods. Those who wish to avail of it can pay a small cover charge each week (around £4) but in return they can buy around £25 worth of groceries.
Chris said: “The introduction of the Universal Credit system has run in parallel to a significant rise in food bank usage across the UK.
“This has now been coupled with a perfect storm of factors which push people into poverty. Rises in the cost of living, some Brexit-related and some not, rises in fuel and food costs which were having a disproportionate effect on the most poor in society prior to the war in Ukraine, have only escalated.
“The untimely collapse of Stormont has prevented some much needed support from reaching our communities.
“We hear of average food prices rising by around 6% and inflation running at a similar level yet many people report a 20-30% rise in the cost of a weekly shop. Many of these sharp rises happen in the value range of products and some supermarkets have removed part of their value range forcing consumers to purchase more expensive alternatives,” said Chris.
“It is into this difficult environment that Freedom Foods is born. Not to be the only answer, but to be part of the solution.”
Freedom Foods is part of the UK-wide Your Local Pantry network, with over 60 locations and years of experience with trialled and tested systems and procedures.
Access to the Social Supermarket is given on the basis of a basic assessment of need.
An individual or family becomes a member of the Freedom Foods Pantry and each week they pay a membership fee (£4 or a single membership, £6 for a family). They will then be able to choose a number of items from the Supermarket environment, which will give them around £25 of food.
Chris said: “We are endeavouring to provide a good level of choice in basic ambient and fresh food items, along with fruit and vegetables. With healthy choices being encouraged. This service will not cover all the needs of a household, but will make a significant contribution!”
“This service is not free, because we want to promote the dignity of choice. Most people want to pay for their own food and provide for themselves. So a weekly membership fee provides access to food.
“Freedom to choose food items is then provided in Freedom Foods. We hope that this will be a more empowering envrionment.
“Clients and volunteers will get to know each other in the pantry and it is on the basis of this relationship that real change can take place.”
Chris pointed out that the welfare system seeks to support an individual, ‘often disempowering the community around them to be part of the solution’.
“Our goal is that Freedom Foods will meet very practical needs for food, but also create the opportunity to journey with people to address underlying needs in the context of community and relationship,” said Chris.
He added that the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon area is regarded as a ‘food heartland’ because of farming and food production. “And yet, we have people going hungry in our local community.
“During Covid, there was some amazing work done by local food businesses in supporting the community. We would love to build on that and provide strategic opportunities to get food to into the community sector. And in turn help them with their Corporate Social responsibility.”
Chris has been working with the council to set up ABC Community Food hub.
At the official opening Lord Mayor Glenn Barr commended the hard work of the compassion team in Emmanuel Church, Nicola McIlwaine, Mervyn Johnson, Gemma Mannah and Stephen Heasley, for getting this project setup.
“We are all aware of the unprecedented cost of living rise which has impacted our communities in the past few months. This situation has been compounded by the war in Ukraine and the rise in fuel costs.
“With inflation soon to be running at over 6%, and earnings and benefits not rising in line, many people are struggling to budget for the necessities in life. Housing, electric, heating and food.
“Unfortunately we have a low wage economy, which prevents people from being able to adjust their household budget as costs rise, as for many, household budgets have been under strain for some time.
“The difficult choice of heat or eat is a regular dilemma for many households.
“It is great to hear of an initiative like Freedom Foods Pantry, which seeks to provide a supermarket shopping experience, on a weekly basis for a small fee. It is so important that people are treated with dignity when they find themselves in need.
“I am pleased to hear that Emmanuel will be providing wrap-around support services, journeying with people to a place where they will no longer need to use this service.
“Our borough is promoted as the food heartland and it is my hope that local food business will get onboard to support this initiate and increase the access to healthy and nutritious food options that we have a reputation for producing.”
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