Innovative approaches to food charity

Food in Community provides the healthy food that people actually need

Totnes, Devon, England

“We wanted to offer a more dignified approach to food aid. We feel confident that what we've got is sustainable and very useful.”

We visited David and Chantelle at Food in Community in Devon as part of our #LandUnlockedTour.

Food in Community started in 2012, taking surplus food (a lot of it from fields and orchards) to make food boxes. They now also manage community cafés, events, cooking workshops, lunch clubs and cater for all ages – from children to elderly members of the community. We met David and Chantelle, the Co-founder and Co-director, to learn more about this wonderful project.

David (Co-founder) and Chantelle (Co-director) of Food in Community

David explains, “We wanted to offer a more dignified approach to food aid. At the same time, we felt obliged to help the food banks by offering them fresh fruit and veg, which was what seemed to be missing from what they were supplying to clients. I think at that time, we were doing about 20 boxes and it was really for people that had health issues. We were supporting them through getting well and back to work or back to their normal situation. But now, in more recent times, it's been more around the economics of not having enough money to buy food. So, it's become a different emphasis.”

Chantelle talks about the “sense of reciprocity” that happens when clients become volunteers and when everyone, regardless of their situation, has something to give. This is a key part of the work that Food in Community does and part of the reason it works so well. Chantelle goes on to say, “There's a huge untapped resource of people that are on the fringe, on the edge of all abilities and skills… By involving them in a project, it can give them a sense of purpose.” It has also allowed Food in Community to tap into previously unseen talent because of the flexibility with which they operate – allowing people with learning difficulties, autism and physical disabilities to work in ways that suit them.

Over time, Chantelle and David have realised that strong relationships with partner organisations and members of the community is key. David describes it as a “jigsaw puzzle or web of connections”. They have seen food politics change dramatically since 2012, and are pleased that they have been able to be “slightly ahead of the game.” They think their success lies in doing multifaceted work – not just a food bank or a café – but something more rounded. Often, they see food being the first step in someone seeking help – David says, “If someone comes needing food, actually, maybe the underlying cause might be debt or other financial difficulties” for example.

“They don't feel like it's just a handout. There's dignity embedded in the whole model.”

They have also been successful at building relationships with neighbouring communities and finding ways to exchange skills (and produce). David says, “We’ve actually piloted in our neighbouring town, Newton Abbot... ways to exchange. So they might have some skills that we don't have, it might not be food related, but it might be office related or with technology or something. Or they might have apples, and we might have potatoes that week. But the more pieces that are joined, the more kind of small steps you can do to make things work.”

They reflect on the fact that food bank models have often been thought of in only urban terms and are keen that policy makers take into account how rural poverty works and what the needs are outside large cities. They notice that projects that tend to thrive, have several features in common. They tend to have strong roots in the community, more than one way to use surplus food (for example a food bank and a community café), and a sense of reciprocity – where clients can give back in some way. “So they don’t feel like it's just a handout. There’s dignity embedded in the whole model”, says Chantelle.

Chantelle and David are encouraged by the way that circular design thinking is becoming more mainstream and therefore it is easier to do the sort of work they are doing. “Are you reusing packaging? Are you minimising use of vehicles? It’s just part of the whole picture. I think part of the reason the way we work isn't rolled out across the UK is because it's been difficult to make policy makers understand how important it is to farm regeneratively and to produce food in a way that's not even just sustainable nowadays, we basically need to heal the damage that's been done to soils and biodiversity.” Especially as food projects like this are perfect ways to use vegetables and fruits that are perfectly good quality but might otherwise go to waste.

“We need to heal the damage that's been done to soils and biodiversity.”

They want to see policymakers be bolder in their support of regenerative agroecological models of farming and food production. They argue the “scientific case for following these models is becoming really strong” and that there is more that could be done. David talks about “the way that, for example, local councils in Catalonia give - for free - business premises to projects like ours. That sort of support would make a real material difference to rolling out this sort of initiative across the country. That unused warehouse space, that space in a deprived area that's not being utilised. There's probably people in every area of the country that have got the will to do something positive for their community.”

Their advice to others looking to do something similar to what they’ve done in Devon is to start with strong community connections. Start simply but find ways to use the food in more than one way and take advantage of synergies. “So, for example, if you have a community café, it's a perfect recruitment ground for volunteers that can come and help you with your food box distribution scheme. Then people donate to the café because they want to help with your food boxes. People that come in and have a meal very cheaply may then get to know of you and, if they hit hard times, they know to ask for a Food in Community food box.”

We worked with Food in Community to produce Hungry for Health, our latest report which reveals what citizens actually want from food.