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‘To be able to get a freshly cooked meal was like Christmas to me’: Participants of Inverness drop-in cafe pay tribute as it is recognised by MSPs

The Highlands drop-in cafe and food bank has served up thousands of meals to those most vulnerable, helping hundreds survive throughout the pandemic.

Inverness Foodstuff, run by Ness Bank Church, has provided more than 10,000 meals to the homeless, vulnerable or financially disadvantaged during lockdown.

The drop-in cafe which is open three times a week, has adapted and evolved during the pandemic by providing food distribution to those in need six days a week, including a delivery option for individuals unable to leave their homes.

Its contribution to the local community was recently recognised by the Scottish Parliament as a much-needed lifeline to participants, with many relying on the service and advice they receive from volunteers to help them through this period.

Inverness Foodstuff at Ness Bank Church has provided 10,000 meals to those who are vulnerable.                    Pictured: some of the volunteers on duty.

Trevor, who is 61 years old, discovered the vital service eight weeks ago which resulted in him receiving freshly cooked meals when he was sleeping rough.

He said: “I never ever would have imagined that I would have ended up homeless but I did over a year ago. Eight weeks ago I discovered Inverness Foodstuff. To be able to get a freshly cooked meal when I was sleeping rough was like Christmas to me!

“The fact that they are there consistently week-in-week out is brilliant. But more than that if it had not been for Inverness Foodstuff I would have given up last week with trying to get accommodation, but with their support, help, and encouragement I was given temporary accommodation by Highland Council  last week and it was wonderful to have my first proper shower in five months.”

Ann Henderson, Paula Lloyd and Jilly Thomson are part of the kitchen team.

Launched in May 2014, the project is run by the church and the local community, and before lockdown, would usually welcome participants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays to the premises to receive a three-course vegetarian meal, and pick up any essentials they may need from the community table.

Jane has been a regular at Inverness Foodstuff for a couple of years because of a disability, health issues and a lack of confidence. She said the freshly prepared vegetarian meals are a lifeline to her each week and is grateful for the friendships she has forged at the cafe, too.

“The food could not be any better. It is cooked with love and comes from the heart. When I first started coming to Inverness Foodstuff I was very low but the people I met lifted my spirits and showed me that I was valued,” said Jane.

“During lockdown when I had to shield I could not believe it when one of the volunteers arrived at my door with food and an Easter egg! But it was seeing a friend from the cafe that meant the world to me and throughout the time I was shielding they brought me food every week.”

Reverend Fiona Smith of Ness Bank Church is the chair of Inverness Foodstuff.

Reverend Fiona Smith, the minister at Ness Bank Church and chair of Inverness Foodstuff, said the 80-strong volunteers provided meals six days a week for vulnerable participants during lockdown after being forced to close the cafe on March 12.

She said: “At the beginning of 2020 we were providing 50 meals at each session. Some of our participants have now even become volunteers which is helping them up-skill, too. There’s this real thriving community, and everyone is accepting of one another.

“We took decisions before lockdown to close the cafe and distribute food at the doorsteps of the church on our set days. They needed us before Covid-19 and they certainly needed us during it. When lockdown hit, we began delivering to those who were shielding and were delivering to all the ‘house in multiple occupations’ in the city. We went to operating five days a week in order to provide food for six days each week. It meant employing another person to look after all of the groundwork and we had employed our first member of staff, an operations manager, just last year.

They needed us before Covid-19 and they certainly needed us during it.” Rev Fiona Smith

“We were conscious a different type of person may need help with the economic impact Covid-19 has had. We’ve really had to up-skill with the demand and benefited from furloughed chefs who are now back at work. We’re now recruiting volunteers again. We’ve always had a community table where people can take the additional items and food which have come in. We were also delivering food for women in Women’s Aid who were shielding.

“The cafe uses surplus food from local retailers including Swansons Food Wholesalers, Harry Gow and Inverness Botanic Gardens. At the beginning when we first set up in 2014 the supermarkets weren’t that involved and we were totally reliant on local retailers. We now have all the major supermarkets involved.”

Some of the food stocks awaiting distribution.

While the cafe still remains closed, Inverness Foodstuff continues to work with local authorities including the NHS, Highland Council’s housing department and employability team, not to mention the NHS dental team, a local barber and the drug and alcohol unit plus more to get participants the care and help they need.

She added: “We’re still running it with the food being received at the door of the church and have partnered with Acts of Kindness in Inverness who provide care packages for people, too. We’re looking to create an area which is sheltered where people can meet one-to-one with professionals who can help them.

“We’re not ready to reopen inside yet as we have a duty of care to our volunteers as well as our participants. We have a hall filled with food and we have five freezers with prepped fresh veg in them. We’re now looking at how we get through the winter while being very aware of Covid-19, as well as focusing on the core ethos that this is a community which is about the interaction and relationships we have with people. The project has given professionals great access to some of the most vulnerable people in the town and they can now work with them more.

“The key part of all of this is building resilience, we don’t want to create this dependency culture, and that’s why partnering with these agencies is so important.”

Hot meals and food are handed out to participants by volunteers of the church.

But Fiona says it is the volunteers who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, and over the past five years the project has been running that have made Inverness Foodstuff the success it is today.

“We have quietly worked away for five years and there’s volunteers who have been there since the beginning. They are a phenomenal bunch of people with so much energy. When you get the food, you have no idea what you are going to get – it is like Ready Steady Cook. The meals they produce are incredible and the relationships they have built up with our participants, we couldn’t do it without them,” said Fiona.

“Being recognised by the Scottish Parliament raises our public profile which again works with trying to get funding. The service is a huge advantage of the city and Inverness Foodstuff is more than just a meal.

“We were over the moon that our MSP David Stewart proposed this motion. Without the commitment and dedication of our volunteers we could not have achieved the higher output of meals over the past few months. Going forward we sadly know that demand for our service will continue to be so needed and so we are thankful that the very real issue of food poverty in our city will be raised in the Scottish Parliament.”